Monday, January 17, 2011

Snark-Infested Waters

Last night the Golden Globe Awards were handed out in Hollywood, and with them came the usual red carpet spectacle of actors passing the fans and the cameras like floats in a conspicuous consumption parade.

Each award show is followed online by fashionistas grading the appearances of the celebrities who run the gantlet of cameras and fans.  What puzzles me about this process is the apparent randomness of those assessments.

At Yahoo's OMG! site, Angelina Jolie was rated an A- for her glittering gown.  Scarlett Johansson was given a D and was accused of channeling the Bride of Frankenstein with her hair and derided for her embroidered dress.  Anne Hathaway received an A- for her dress that was "embellished with paillettes and Swarovski crystals."  And Vanessa Williams was given a B- with pretty much no commentary at all.

My problem?  I cannot see much quality difference among the dresses.  Of course, they are different.  I see that.  But why is Angelina Jolie's glittery dress worth praising and Scarlett Johansson's not?  Why is Anne Hathaway's dress "embellished" when to me it looks like it could have been made from a thousand Chiclets?  And why is Vanessa "Still Hot at 47" Williams given a begrudging B-?

I know taste is subjective, but it shouldn't be RANDOM.

And then there is Helena Bonham Carter.  The fashion police give her an F for her wild hair, her sunglasses, her mismatched shoes.  Don't they realize she is purposefully refusing to play their game?  Don't they realize she is giving them an F U?

I think I agree with Carter, who may be channeling Laura Mulvey.  In 1975 Mulvey published a famous and influential essay called "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema."  In it, she speculated that the camera in classic Hollywood films could be thought of as a heterosexual male.  That is, the camera looked at men and women differently.  It looked at women more as objects of sexual desire -- even though at least half of the people in the audience were women and probably 90 percent of those women were heterosexual.  Why not sexualize the men in the film, too?

Mulvey wrote,  "The cinema satisfies a primordial wish for pleasurable looking...."  But the pleasure it provides tends to be one kind: heterosexual male pleasure.  This teaches the women in the audience to look at other women from that perspective, Mulvey wrote.  That is, women begin to rate themselves and other women by how they can be pleasurable to view from a heterosexual male perspective.  When the women begin rating themselves according to the measure of that male gaze, they internalize its criteria and work to make themselves conform to it.  According to Mulvey, "In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact.... she holds the look, plays to and signifies male desire."

Can you say anorexia?  Can you say bulimia?  Can you say breast implants?

Mulvey called this habituated concern about physical appearance "to-be-looked-at-ness."  I realize that is not the most poetic turn of phrase, but I think it describes the process and I think it is true.  Hollywood encourages "to-be-looked-at-ness" in women.

Evidence that this has been interanlized by women in general and not just those in Hollywood is that the televised red carpet event tends to be most watched by women.  Women are watching and rating and admiring or deriding.

Meanwhile, men are not subjected to the same external and internal pressures.  The men in Hollywood cinema are not sexualized in the same way or to the same degree as the women.  And so the men in the audience are not conditioned to internalize a constant state of self-discipline and self-judgment.  They find it possible to think of themselves as attractive regardless of how they may actually appear.  (I think this has begun to change recently, as the male body is getting more sexualized in recent films, but that would be the subject of another essay.)

Evidence of the different criteria for judging men and women also can be found on Yahoo.  All of the photographs of women on the red carpet can be found under the title "Red Carpet Report Card."  The men?  They are found in a slideshow called "Dapper Dudes."  No grades.  No snark.  No distinguishing one man's appearance from another.  They pretty much all look like Brad Pitt.

The women are on display.  The men less so.  The women work to distinguish themselves from each other, the men seem to work toward homogeneity.  How many jokes have been made about the disaster of two women wearing the same dress to a party?  But how many men have run crying to the restroom because some other guy wore the same tuxedo?

These differing criteria help explain the common sight in Hollywood movies of the attractive woman with the average-looking man -- or even the below average looking man.  Think Kevin James married to Winona Rider in The Dilemma.  Or Kevin James married to Maria Bello in Grown Ups.  Think Homer and Marge Simpson.  Think Peter and Lois Griffin. 

Now try to think of an opposite example.  Hot husband, average wife.  You can get back to me when you think of one.


  1. I'm not even sure it's about appealing to the male gaze on these "rating the stars' outfits" sites (like I think it's just sheer girl-on-girl meanness and a man's gaze doesn't factor into the equation in these moments (although there are many places in one's everyday life where the male gaze is a dominant presence).

    Case in point: I read these evaluative blogs and delight in them. I also value the comments of the female "judges" and tend to skip over the male commentators--something I wasn't conscious of till you posted this, and I then looked back on my viewing habits on these sites and in the "Fashion Police" sections of US Weekly. Ahem.

    Not sure what it's about, I just wanted to comment and join in on the convo.

    And for the record: I thought ScarJo looked amazing! :)


  2. Thanks for reading, Tricia! Is it possible that some of that girl-on-girl meanness is a conditioned response to competition for that male gaze? The girls have internalized that gaze and deploy it on each other. I don't want to be deterministic in this. Not everything can be pinned on the dynamics Mulvey writes about. But surely some of it can be.

    I didn't have room to talk about the January Jones dress the Yahoo "critics" loved. I thought it look like a cast-off costume from a gladiator movie.

  3. JanJones as Gladiator chick...HOT!

  4. My mate and my daughter both say, "Girl-on-girl meanness isn't about men or being appeal-able to them." My daughter (she's 13) says, "why do guys make things into being all about them? We're pretty much mean or nice to ourselves without you [men] even under consideration." My wife says, "There's a difference between girl-on-girl meanness that is from a place of our position with men, and the girl-on-girl meanness that's just feminine. The latter is way meaner and more sadistic."

    IMHO, as a dude, I'm just listening (and waiting for the hair pulling--but you didn't hear that from me).

  5. I think it's all the above, Scott (Mulvey and beyond Mulvey), but I think Christopher's wife is dead on: the latter IS meaner! Ha ha.