Very often when I read a profile of a woman who is also a celebrity, I snag on a sentence that seems to suspiciously belittle or even objectify the woman in question. I’ll stop and check the byline — and more often than not, the offending sentence was written by a man.
At this point, I usually sigh and trudge on to the end of the story, to see if the attitude my sixth sense has detected is present throughout the rest of the piece.
It almost always is.
Writing profiles is hard, much harder than I gave it credit for as a wide-eyed teen flipping through YM to read about Britney Spears’s so-called "secret struggles." The aim is to capture someone’s essence, but it’s an unfortunate truth that the time an interviewer gets to spend with a celebrity is often limited to an awkward lunch, drink, or "spontaneous" activity that doesn’t reveal much at all.
Meanwhile, if the person being interviewed is a woman, and the interviewer is a man who finds her attractive, there is apparently a whole other set of obstacles lying in the way of objectivity. For decades, female subjects of celebrity profiles have been reduced to their physical appearance for no other reason than that the (frequently male) author thinks she’s hot and believes you might, too.
As Carly Lewis once pointed out at the Walrus, you can trace this pattern to at least to 1960, when Thomas B. Morgan wrote a profile of Brigitte Bardot and spent multiple paragraphs talking about her "girl-woman earthiness" and calling her a "sassy kitten" before ever mentioning her name. And two recent stories have yielded different variations on this theme.
On June 30, Variety’s chief film critic, Owen Gleiberman (formerly of Entertainment Weekly), wrote about the trailer for the third Bridget Jones movie — which is coming out a full 15 years after the first film — under the headline "Renee Zellweger: If She No Longer Looks Like Herself, Has She Become a Different Actress?" Though Gleiberman tried to put the blame for undue scrutiny of Zellweger’s appearance on Society at Large, he nonetheless characterized her as "less vivid, less distinctive, less there," and expressed hope that Bridget Jones and Baby will be "a movie that stars Renée Zellweger rather than a victim of ‘Invasion of the Face Snatchers.’"
Then on July 6, Vanity Fair published a profile of Legend of Tarzan and Suicide Squad star Margot Robbie, written by Rich Cohen (co-creator of HBO’s recently canceled Vinyl). Though the piece professed to be celebratory, the word salad of its opening sentences (rightfully) earned widespread mockery:
Robbie herself has now addressed the profile, telling Australia's The Project on July 25 that she knew the interview was "odd" even while it was happening. "When I read it, I was like, 'yeah, the tone of this is really weird.' I don't really know what he's trying to get at."
Sadly, these examples are just the two latest entries in a long, unfortunate history of them. Here are some of the worst.
Alicia Silverstone (1995, Rolling Stone)
When the impossible-to-overrate comedy Clueless made Silverstone a star, the rush to commodify her was swift and fiercely stupid. In Rolling Stone, Rich Cohen — yes, the same Rich Cohen cited above — opened a profile of Silverstone like so:
Alicia Silverstone is a kittenish 18-year-old movie star whom lots of men want to sleep with.
A keen insight, but it could not match what was to come. First, a passage suggesting that a photograph of Silverstone as a 6-year-old was akin to child pornography:
"I look at it sometimes," Alicia Silverstone says, crossing the room and pulling up a black-and-white poster-size photo: a 6-year-old bikini-clad Alicia on all fours on a white shag rug. "I look just the same as I do today," she says, gazing at a photo that brings to mind underground rings and police sting operations.
And then came a lengthy run about her supposedly nonthreatening "girl next door" looks, with special attention paid to her lips:
Silverstone has straight blond hair that falls around her shoulders, wide eyes and a mouth that people describe in ways that she finds inappropriate. They liken it to a slice of tangerine or call it wedge shaped or say she has bee-stung lips. Well, if your lips were stung by a bee, do you have any idea how much that would hurt? "Like hell," she says. Silverstone's lips have not been stung by a bee. Nor does she have the vague, abstract, off-putting beauty of a supermodel like Linda Evangelista or Stephanie Seymour. Silverstone is a girl you could conceivably date, a girl you did date, even, raised to the highest power. She has the brand-new look of a still-wet painting – touch her and she'll smudge.
It’s one thing to try to describe someone’s appeal. It’s another thing entirely to dwell on it incessantly. And as anyone who has a friend who’s into Paleo or CrossFit or The Wire knows, there’s possibly nothing more irritating than their desperation to explain exactly why they’re so obsessed with it.
Jewel (1998, Rolling Stone)
Neil Strauss’s exhaustive Jewel profile is thorough, well-researched, and careful to paint an empathetic portrait of a 24-year-old folk singer many thought they already had figured out. This aim is all well and good, but the trouble comes as — according to Strauss — he and his subject grow closer, to the point where Strauss describes getting dinner with Jewel’s mother as being "like meeting a girlfriend's parents."
Throughout the profile, Strauss drops skin-crawling descriptions that will make you wonder how much is him reporting on Jewel as a Woman in the Music Industry versus luxuriating in the attention of a pretty girl. Ahem:
She is so perfect that I need to start looking for faults: the bridge of her nose has a little crook; there are blackheads in the indentation between her lower lip and chin. But those imperfections — and the fact that, like the tooth, she has done nothing to remedy them — just make her more perfect.
Eventually, Strauss and Jewel end up in bed together — but not like that, Strauss hastens to add:
At the house, I strip the guest bed of its myriad pillows and leave Jewel alone to talk with her mother in the kitchen. As I lie under the covers flipping, through a glossy color picture book of Alaska, Jewel walks in wearing a green zipper sweatshirt and either sweat pants or cotton pants, I can't remember which, and gets under the covers with me. She lies on her left side, I on my right. Between our heads is a large pillow, which blocks part of her face. We keep pushing the pillow down as we talk so we can see each other completely and feel more intimate. But we know the pillow can never be removed completely: That would be too intimate.
Of course, it’s hard to trust Strauss’s definition of "too intimate," seeing as he still seemed to think it was appropriate to write this profile.
Britney Spears (1999, Rolling Stone)
In 1999, 17-year-old Britney Spears was one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. In this Rolling Stone cover story — which was accompanied by a coquettish photo of the teen with a stuffed Teletubby tucked under her arm — here’s how writer Steven Daly set the scene:
Britney Spears extends a honeyed thigh across the length of the sofa, keeping one foot on the floor as she does so. Her blond-streaked hair is piled high, exposing two little diamond earrings on each ear lobe; her face is fully made-up, down to carefully applied lip liner. The BABY PHAT logo of Spears' pink T-shirt is distended by her ample chest, and her silky white shorts — with dark blue piping — cling snugly to her hips. She cocks her head and smiles receptively.
But hold on. It's not like that.
Come on, Steven. Even if Spears weren’t a minor when you wrote this, the only context in which it’s acceptable to write the phrase "honeyed thigh" is when you’re talking about barbecue, and even then, it’s a B- at best.
Megan Fox (2013, Esquire)
Fox is a dry performer with especially keen timing, but you wouldn’t know it from this Esquire profile, in which Stephen Marche served up salivating descriptions like the following between acknowledgments that Fox was sick of being reduced to a pretty face:
She's a screen saver on a teenage boy's laptop, a middle-aged lawyer's shower fantasy, a sexual prop used to sell movies and jeans.
... creativity is, was, and always will be sexual. Some of the very first works of art were figures of hugely fecund women dropped all over Europe tens of thousands of years ago. American movies expressed that great fusion of sex and art, too. They are magnificent pagan dreams, utterly profane and glorious. Such movies need bombshells. They need to consume beautiful flesh in their sacrifices. They need women like Megan Fox.
(It took me a long time to decide which quotes to include here, because there were so many tangents about Fox’s face to choose from. Such an embarrassment of misogynist riches!)
Scarlett Johansson (the New Yorker, 2014)
This profile clocks in at over 5,000 words(!), so I’ll keep this entry on Anthony Lane’s bewildering profile brief:
"Would it be construed as trespass, therefore, to state that Johansson looks tellingly radiant in the flesh? Mind you, she rarely looks unradiant, so it’s hard to say whether her condition [pregnancy] has made a difference."
When you put it like that, yes, it would and verily should be construed as trespass, sir. Thanks for asking!
Cara Delevingne (Vogue, 2015)
The 23-year-old Delevingne, an expressive actress and former catwalk model, has been openly fluid in her sexuality for a few years now. Still, even as Vogue writer Rob Haskell quoted her saying that much of her current happiness was due to her relationship with a woman, he got hung up on the fact that she’s also — scandal! — attracted to men:
Those who have been gathering the crumbs on Cara’s romantic trail may be confused about whether it’s men or women who excite her. She conveys a Millennial’s ennui at the expectation that she ought to settle upon a sexual orientation, and her interests—video games, yes; manicures, no—might register as gender-defiant in the realm of dresses and heels.
Later, he suggested that her attraction to women is more of an attraction to trouble, and assumed that her non-reaction signaled acceptance that he must be right:
When I suggest to Cara that to trust a man, she might have to revise an old and stubborn idea of hers—that women are perennially troubled and therefore only women will accept her—her smile says she concedes the point.
Or maybe her smile meant she had already explained herself and was just trying to get through the interview without incident. Either way, this probably wasn’t Haskell’s time to pat himself on the back.
Serena Williams and "Tennis’s Top Women" (The New York Times, 2015)
And now we take a brief detour away from the acting and singing arenas to venture into the world of sports, where women are consistently undermined despite proving over and over again that they are capable athletes whose achievements and skill are worth celebrating.
This has held especially true for Serena Williams, one of the greatest tennis players of all time who’s nonetheless endured racist and sexist commentary since she was a teenager. In recent years, the outcry against the way media and tennis fans alike have painted both Williams and her sister Venus, who is also a tennis star, has become stronger — but that doesn’t mean the layers of bias have been eradicated for good.
To pick just one example, let’s go with a recent piece by New York Times freelancer Ben Rothenberg, who wanted to write about the pressures women in tennis face to be physically fit without "bulking up":
[Serena] Williams, who will be vying for the Wimbledon title against Garbiñe Muguruza on Saturday, has large biceps and a mold-breaking muscular frame, which packs the power and athleticism that have dominated women’s tennis for years. Her rivals could try to emulate her physique, but most of them choose not to.
This is a real issue within the sport, but one that Rothenberg didn’t particularly challenge in his reporting — as he later said he wished he had, in the NYT’s response to anger about the piece.
Instead, he emphasized this common description of Williams as an undesirable outlier with quotes from other — usually thin, blond, and white — players and their coaches about why her body is so powerful and/or too "bulked up," making it seem like the entire article was about Williams’s body as an inexplicable anomaly without actually trying to delve into why she’s been the subject of so much scrutiny.
To top it all off, he included the following quotes from Maria Sharapova, a one-time tennis champion who always struggled when facing Serena Williams on the other side of the net:
Maria Sharapova, a slender, blond Russian who has been the highest-paid female athlete for more than a decade because of her lucrative endorsements, said she still wished she could be thinner. "I always want to be skinnier with less cellulite; I think that’s every girl’s wish," she said, laughing.
Sharapova said she avoided weights in her training, instead focusing on stretching and preventive exercises, which she believes are more beneficial for tennis than adding muscle. "I can’t handle lifting more than five pounds," Sharapova said. "It’s just annoying, and it’s just too much hard work. And for my sport, I just feel like it’s unnecessary."
What Rothenberg didn’t include was that the thin and blond Sharapova — who’s since been suspended from tennis for doping, which seems like far more work than lifting 5 pounds — has always had more endorsement deals than Serena Williams because companies are more comfortable with attaching their branding to thin blondes than to muscular black women.
Doing so would’ve meant providing context, which didn’t seem to be Rothenberg’s priority when writing about women's bodies.
Sky Ferreira (LA Weekly, 2016)
It’s hard to know where to start with this profile, a particularly appalling and archetypical example of the "Isn’t it crazy that hot chicks can be interesting?" genre written by Art Tavana, LA Weekly’s self-described "angriest (and nerdiest) music critic." So how about LA Weekly’s initial tweet of the article, which stated that "what Slash is to guitar, Sky Ferreira is to looking hot":
Or better yet, we can go into the depths of the article itself, which offers a practical buffet of vomit-inducing options, including this gem:
Ferreira looks like a dirtier Madonna: square jaw, strong eyebrows, lulled green eyes, crucifix, bleached blond hair, translucently pale skin and killer tits.
...Even in the candid photo of her nude in the shower, [the cover of Ferreira’s latest album, Night Time, My Time] soaking wet, she looks natural, like she's shooting a home video, rather than being photographed by a creeper. She looks like a more cherubic Sharon Stone, icy but also sweet, like a freshly licked lollipop.
Ferreira was furious, as could be expected given Tavana’s jaw-droppingly inane contents. LA Weekly eventually issued an apology, but at that point the article had already gone through so many steps on the way to publication that it felt more like a frantic response to getting caught in the act.
Maybe next time, though, writers and editors could just do more to avoid publishing such sexist snark in the first place.