Itu Chaudhuri Design/Catch News
Everyone knows Hollywood has a gender problem. It's no secret, it's not new. The proportion of women to men in the industry is dismal. The representations of women on screen leave much to be desired. The treatment of female celebrities by entertainment media is 50 shades of crappy.
What's great is that top-tier actresses are no longer having it. Over the past couple of years especially, women in Hollywood have begun taking on this problem in a variety of ways, casually upending all kinds of tacit gender norms. It's like watching the progress of a wonderful autoimmune disease: parts of a body attacking it from the inside.
First, we've got women taking charge of the way they're represented on screen. Lena Dunham is putting a dent in body positivity by continuing to get naked on GIRLS, the HBO TV show she created, staring down legions of internet trolls calling her fat and ugly. Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer are setting a new gold standard for the Bechdel Test with Broad City, a hilarious half-hour show built around a strong female friendship. And Mindy Kaling is writing and starring in her own network sitcom, The Mindy Project, as a woman of colour who just generally thinks highly of herself.
Second, we've got women calling out sexism in the industry. Last year, Cate Blanchett got on stage to accept her Oscar for Best Actress and called out the notion that women-centred films can't make money. (Need evidence? Google the box-office draw of The Hunger Games movies.) This year, hosting the Golden Globes for the third time, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler continued to punch up at the beauty standards and age ceiling for women in Hollywood. They also chose to acknowledge the elephant in the room by taking on the sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby.
And third, we've got a ton of top-tier actresses refusing to participate in the vapidity of entertainment media. During The Avengers' press tour a couple of years ago, Scarlett Johansson pushed back at an interviewer for fixating on her skin-tight costume and whether she wore underwear. (She played a superhero, by the way.)
When the same guy took a similarly creepy interest in Anne Hathaway's 'fitness regimen' to prepare for the Catwoman bodysuit in The Dark Knight Rises, she took him beautifully apart, asking if he was trying to lose weight.
And when Keira Knightley was asked, at an award ceremony earlier this year, about how she balances her work and personal life, she made a point to check whether they'd be asking her male co-stars that question too.
The 2014 awards season saw a campaign to ask better questions of female celebrities: #AskHerMore. (Cate Blanchett still had to duck into the frame of a camera panning down her body on the red carpet, but Rome wasn't built in a day.) In the run up to this year's awards season, Reese Witherspoon, much talked about for her performance in Wild, brought back the hashtag, calling on interviewers to #AskHerMore. So did Globes co-host Amy Poehler.
More and more women are expressing exasperation with being treated as beautiful nothings. Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston and Julianne Moore all refused to promenade their fingers before the E! channel's infamous 'mani cam'. And when Emma Stone walked up to the mic at the Oscar nominees' luncheon and was greeted with "You look beautiful", she batted back a tart yet genial "Thank you. That's all that matters."
Such random acts of feminism are suddenly everywhere, and it's great. It's great to watch the most-watched women in the world visibly resist the expectations levelled at them. It calls attention to the absurdity of those expectations and encourages similar nose-thumbing in those watching. However elementary or imperfect their interventions, these women are normalising a kind of casual feminism and that's great.
But sometimes, they mess it up. And it's important we call them out when they do.
At the Oscars this year, while accepting the award for Best Supporting Actress, Patricia Arquette made an urgent call for equal pay for women in America. This is no longer unusual: many awardees now use their moment behind the microphone to highlight political or social causes, sometimes less than elegantly (I'm looking at you, Jared Leto).
But the terms in which Arquette elaborated on this demand in a backstage interview were deeply problematic. Her suggestion that it was time "all the gay people and all the people of colour we've all fought for should fight for us now" held within it a tangle of cringeworthy assumptions:
1. Gay people are not women
2. People of colour are not women
3. 'Us' are people other than gay people and people of colour, i.e. straight white women
4. Gay people and people of colour have been too busy with their own 'fights' to support (straight white) women's equality
5. (Straight white) women have put aside their own 'fight' to fight for gay people and people of colour
6. The 'fights' of gay people and people of colour are different from the fight of women
Every one of those assumptions is patently false, and together, they represent a range of blindness - from the whiteness of the feminist movement to the notion of 'oppression Olympics'.
Arquette's statement reveals the absence of even a passing familiarity with the concept of intersectionality - necessary due diligence for anyone seriously interested in social justice or identity politics. One could argue that many people are prey to these blindnesses and that celebrities routinely take passionate stands on causes they scarcely understand.
Why should Arquette be singled out? Because she's smarter than this. And because it's time we held celebrities to a higher standard. Especially since they are asking that we do.
That women celebrities are resisting the idea that they are just pretty, poised creampuffs with perfect nails, that they want to be asked more than what designer they're wearing, that they want to do more than smile and wave, is an unambiguously positive development. They ought to be taken seriously.
But then, they ought also to take seriously the platform they're requesting. It's not going to be enough to have said anything at all about gender inequality; they'll need to say something substantial, something that reflects the complexity of the cause, something that takes cognisance of their own position.
This is not an elaborate trick. I'm not suggesting celebrities be asked about theoretical physics and be set up to fail. I'm suggesting that, by offering them the opportunity to use their platforms for more than brand endorsements, we honour the influence celebrities have.
And I'm suggesting that, by ensuring they know whereof they speak, they do the same.