Ladies in the News

Guillermo Landetta/Dbdpix.Com, Jason Merritt/Getty Images for ELLE, Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images, Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

Welcome to the month of nonsense.

Surely everyone thought they were being super clever. Don't we all, every time we think we've reinvented the wheel of narrative, criticism or feature writing? Whether it's a 140-character tweet or a 5,000-word profile in a major magazine, the question always is, how do you get your bit of verbiage to stick out from the crowd's?

We often resort to wild headlines. Clickbait, it's called. 

More often than not, nothing in the actual story lives up to the promise of the headline. Sometimes, however, what's inside the story entirely lives up to the headline, or goes above and beyond the call of duty enlisted by an unassuming handful of words. And still other times, you have to double check that you're still reading the same article as when you started, the story having gone so entirely off the rails.

Margot Robbie, Vanity Fair

Patrick Demarchelier

That last option is the case with Vanity Fair's much-shat-upon profile of Margot Robbie, the magazine's bikini-clad August cover subject, titled, "Welcome to the Summer of Margot Robbie." The unsettling combination of fawning descriptions and the writer's at times insipid, somewhat stunted use of language—so deployed in order to make some sort of point about small-town Australia meets big, bad Hollywood—has the Internet doin' its thing with think pieces, top-notch parodies and other examples of the heights the Twitterverse can achieve when faced with a common enemy.

Maybe you read the VF story first and then delved into the criticism, but if it's the other way around—and it's probably been mostly outrage first, actual story second—it's pretty much impossible to judge just how egregious the Robbie story is if you're coming to it with tweets like

seared into your brain. Just how much more offensive or obtuse it is than a lot of other writing out there is hard to determine. But this profile arrived on a much more visible platform than your average bit of lechery, and the online wolves pounced on obvious prey.

I don't think for a second that men are unable to write creditably about women when faced with non-hard news and left to their own devices in a review or feature. Most professionals do a perfectly serviceable job, with some members of the opposite sex being particularly insightful. Same goes for women writing about men. But it's hard enough to get members of the same sex to understand each other—and communicate such accordingly—and it remains a real chore for men to probe the character of a woman.

So some, like Rich Cohen, don't try and he instead wrote about Robbie entirely through his awestruck eyes. At least that's how it came off and that's what Vanity Fair chose to publish. 

Nor are writers alone responsible for the final product, particularly when it's in print and not just online. The decision to have Robbie do a bathing-beauty photo spread wasn't left up to the writer. She's a respected actress but she's also been hailed as the second coming of Grace Kelly in the looks department. People enjoy looking at pictures of her.

But we've been reminded this week—by estimable publications and by the Internet in general—that there can be a huge disconnect when it comes to what a writer finds clever and what the subject of his piece deserves. And in this case, we've got some textbook examples of male writers having their way with female subjects.

Kate Hudson, Blake Lively

Columbia Pictures/ Warner Bros

Which brings us to "How I Learned to Tolerate Blake Lively," The New York Times' first-person follow-up piece to the paper's review of Blake Lively's latest movie, The Shallows.

What does that even mean, and what is it doing in The New York Times, sounding like it's the title of something on a lifestyle site that should be a woman's tongue-in-cheek account of learning to not envy-hate just because Lively's life seems so grand.

Instead, the piece not only doesn't result in Pulitzer Prize winner Wesley Morris (a revered pop-culture critic) convincingly making a case for his reluctant change of heart, but it's also a twisted insult-cloaked-in-love letter to Kate Hudson as well.

Which, yes, with the Margot Robbie piece dancing in our heads, now sounds much more offensive than it might have a few days ago.

"I can't tell you how much I enjoyed the movie about Kate Hudson and the shark because, less than four minutes into The Shallows, I realized that Kate Hudson wasn't in it. Really, it's worse than that. It's a Kate Hudson movie that actually stars Blake Lively," Morris wrote.

Basically, he misses Hudson and her "embarrassment-proof way of carrying her share of witless romantic comedies" (plus other bon mots) and has a bone to pick with Lively for... being in a movie that theoretically could've starred Hudson?

To be fair, Morris handily dismissed Channing Tatum and Brendan Fraserin the piece too, and he wrote a scathing assessment of bro culture called "Bro-liferation" for The New York Times Magazine just a few short months ago. So he's hardly the misogynist that society needs to worry about. But he also effectively belittled two actresses—one whom he apparently adores for, he made clear, no good reason—and, though he wrote that he doesn't think they're "interchangeable," treated them as so much flotsam for his cleverness just the same.

Oh don't worry, plenty of people thought this was brilliant and hilarious, presumably thinking that two celebrities who aren't particularly known for being master thespians but who are huge stars just the same were just begging to be knocked down a peg. But there was a small but perky faction happy to knock the critic down a peg too.

"I can't express how much I hate the writing & the absurd POV of this 'review'. No I don't know Blake Lively @nytimes," comedian Jim Gaffigan, for instance, tweeted in response to the piece (because it should be pointed out that not every man wants to buy Morris a drink).

And while Blake and Kate were fair targets because of their unfair beauty (like, "how much can I really insult them, they're so hot"), so turned another critic's discerning eye toward Renée Zellwegerbecause...?

"Renée Zellweger: If She No Longer Looks Like Herself, Has She Become a Different Actress?"

That was the headline on a column by Variety's Owen Gleiberman, also a veteran journalist and critic who you can tell when you read the whole piece probably didn't mean any harm—in fact, surely he thought he was doing good!—and yet still came off sounding like a jackass. Somewhere inside there he was trying to say that Zellweger, if she got work done, didn't need to because she was so lovely and it was a damn shame if our current culture made her feel pressured to drink from that particular fountain of youth. And moreover, he noted, we're not allowed to talk about it because there's still a stigma associated with plastic surgery, and that's a shame too.

Unfortunately what we got was a guy's concern about whether the third Bridget Jones movie will be watchable because the titular heroine looks different to him. He wonders whether Zellweger's face will be able to do everything it used to be able to do. Thank you for your concern, sir. If it's a hit, maybe they'll keep going and cast Blake Lively and/or Kate Hudson as her daughter.

Renee Zellweger, Bridget Joness Baby First Pic

Working Title Films

Reese Witherspoon called the scrutiny of Zellweger's appearance "cruel and rude and disrespectful" all the way back in 2014, because that's how long this has been a thing. Rose McGowanwent to bat for her fellow actress this week, charging in an op-ed for The Hollywood Reporter published yesterday, "Who are you to approve of anything? What you are doing is vile, damaging, stupid and cruel. It also reeks of status quo white-male privilege...You are an active endorser of what is tantamount to harassment and abuse of actresses and women."

I'm going to guess his intention was not to abuse or harass. But by equating her appearance—which really isn't as different as the aliens will think when they land here in a thousand years and start brushing up on their pop culture history—with her skill as an actress, he relegated Zellweger to being merely the sum of her physical parts.

Gleiberman wrote, "I hope it turns out to be a movie about a gloriously ordinary person rather than someone who looks like she no longer wants to be who she is."

Judge Judy GIF

The objectification isn't imagined. Apparently an actress is fair game if her breakout role included a memorable sex scene, she's in a new movie, she's got a sequel coming out, or—like Kate Hudson—she was just sitting around minding her own business.

Meanwhile, the amount of applause for the Lively-Hudson take-down was also another reminder that everyone fancies him or herself a critic. Not to mention judge and jury.

Kim Kardashian, Emily Ratajkowski, Nude, Naked, Topless

Instagram

Piers Morgan, who refuses to comprehend that taking naked selfies and considering yourself a feminist are not mutually exclusive, wrote a whole column earlier this year objecting toKim Kardashian's notion that she's empowering herself by sharing such pics.

Seriously, why in the news-of-the-world is he weighing in on that subject? Moreover, he took it upon himself to call out Emily Ratajkowski (who recreated the selfie with Kim as a show of solidarity) yesterday for her new scantily clad Harper's Bazaar photo shoot.

"My only issue is Ms Ratajowski's claim that her stripping's in the name of feminism. It's in the name of money," the veteran journalist and tabloid editor tweeted after he took a little heat for the comment, "Emily Ratajowski posing FULLY-CLOTHED would be a bigger news story."

So Morgan, too, is inside a woman's head and thinks he gets it. Rather like how Owen Gleiberman worried that Bridget Jones would, like Renée Zellweger, "look like she no longer wants to be who she is."

The Daily Beast's Jen Yamoto eloquently chalked up the archaic treatments of Lively, Zellweger and Robbie to the pernicious male gaze, the term coined in the 1970s for the way in which a man depicts a woman as he sees her and not as how she is, particularly when it comes to film and literature. The Robbie profile got way more backlash than the Lively slight did, so hats off to Yamoto for being first to point out an overarching issue at play here.

I'd like to also fault general tone-deafness, which can happen to anyone on any given day if you're writing (or tweeting) about something that, at best, you can try to understand, even if true empathy is out of reach. And men whose well thought-out opinions have won prizes should remember that, while they themselves know they're not sexist at heart, some readers might just be in it for the hot-girl jokes. 

Which isn't to say we should only stick to what we already know intimately, because then half of us wouldn't even have ourselves to write about. Women write about actors, and we ogle them too. A lot. Sometimes at the same time. And we'd probably get annoyed if men stopped ogling us altogether.

But this particular crop of stories that popped up over the past week, in what are supposed to be illustrious publications, is a reminder that a lot of men still take great pride in giving women a good, clever going-over. May all that scrutiny result in some helpful revelation down the road.

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