“How do you keep so trim?”
“Are you dating anyone at the moment?”
“Do you plan to have kids any time soon?”
These three questions have become the holy trinity for any journalist interviewing a Hollywood actress. Regardless of whether they’re brilliant or dim, answering fluffy, inane questions while their male co-stars are taken more seriously appears to be an essential duty for any actress who’s seeking media coverage. Understandably, most stars and wannabes just grin and bear it – but for how much longer?
If a spate of recent interviews and a flurry of online commentary is anything to go by, some in the film industry have clearly had enough. Among both Hollywood stars and the journalists and bloggers who follow their careers, there’s growing evidence of a quiet determination to prevent actresses being treated like babies and put in the corner. A prime example is an interview last month with Anne Hathaway, an actress whose beauty and slenderness have often been rather more elaborately discussed than her performances. When asked about her pre-filming diet by a male interviewer, she turned the tables by asking: “What’s the deal man? You look great ... are you trying to fit into a catsuit or something?”
Scarlett Johansson also found herself similarly exasperated during a cast promotional interview for The Avengers last July. While her co-star Robert Downey Jr got a complex question about his character's narrative arc, Johansson was asked about her diet. This prompted her to ask Downey: "How come you get the really interesting, existential question, and I get the 'rabbit food' question?" She then limited her comments on her pre-filming regime to a dry, terse: "You eat a lot of green things." Other actresses have been challenging interview double standards elsewhere, albeit in a slightly quieter fashion. This month, the Spider-Man actress Emma Stone fielded a question from American Teen Vogue about turning from redhead to blonde like this: "People do always ask that. They ask who is my style icon, what's the one thing that I can't leave my house without. I'm always like: 'My clothes!' I can pretty much leave without anything. It's fine as long as I'm not naked."
These mild but persistent rebellions against being treated like an idiot have not gone unnoticed. Indeed, the internet has been buzzing with supportive, sympathetically exasperated writers who point out that it's about time this sexist nonsense stopped. In the wake of the Emma Stone interview, Rhiannon and Holly, surname-less bloggers for Britain's New Statesman, complained that: "Successful women are still being asked about their bodies above all else, sending the message that our appearance is what defines us; that it is our most crucial asset."
Natalie Zutter, a writer for the entertainment site Crushable, also criticised the laziness of the policy of lightweight questions only for actresses: "I'm always grateful to get A-listers and strive to ask probing questions as opposed to the same old ... about accessories or style icons because that's not what these movies are about. You have the chance to talk with someone who put in months of her life on this movie, so why wouldn't you want to delve into the really thought-provoking plot and theme stuff?"
The frustration here is clear, but does such an emphasis really do harm in publications in which content is pretty lightweight across the board? Despite its length, The Avengers was no profound philosophical treatise. Megan Kearns, a writer for the website The Opinioness of the World who helped bring the topic to public attention, pointed out that these double standards have a ripple effect that impacts female readers' own self-perception.
“When women are constantly asked about their appearance, when women are continuously sexualised and objectified in advertisements, film and TV and with the proliferation of misogynistic and sexualised images of women – it reinforces the message that we don’t value women and girls for their intellect or talent but only for their beauty. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we’re teaching women and young girls to wage war against their bodies.”
Of course, Hollywood stars – both male and female – collude with the message of valuing beauty above all to some extent, and their (and women’s) war against their own bodies does not begin and end with the media. Still, there’s definitely a sense that female performers and readers won’t put up with being treated like talking dolls much longer.
As Kearns puts it: “While magazines are slow to change, we’re seeing a rising resistance. More and more young activists, feminist writers and female celebrities denounce sexism in the media. It’s a huge step but we still have so far to go.”
We shouldn’t be surprised by today’s patronising press attitude to Hollywood actresses – it’s always been that way. But while looks, love and diets have always been the staples of female celebrity interviews, just like their male counterparts, famous actresses have often boasted remarkable intelligence. The Austrian-American actress Hedy Lamarr was perhaps most impressive of all, actually co-creating a patented device that ultimately proved essential to the development of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technology. Both Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield also reportedly had very high IQs – Mansfield’s reaching the near genius level of 163 – despite the brainless bombshell roles they were often landed with. Other more contemporary actresses have also shone in the brains department. Natalie Portman speaks five languages fluently, for example, while Lisa Kudrow worked for eight years as a high-level medical researcher before breaking through as an actress. Even child stars can go on to shine – Jodie Foster graduated top of her class in high school before earning a degree at Yale, while Shirley Temple ended up as a US ambassador. Given Hollywood’s tendency to treat actresses foremost as eye candy, these women must have also had an innate talent for gritting their teeth and smiling.