‘Girls’ just want to change the needle on a tired media record

Posted by · 4:37 pm · April 17th, 2012

I am increasingly disheartened and disturbed by what appears to be an unstoppable uptick in open misogyny. I”ve touched on this previously in a piece on Women and Oscar, but the subtle and not so subtle flames of gender bias are currently increasing rather than abating.

The female sex seems to be taking two steps back in Congress, in the workplace (where, for many, equal pay is still a longed-for dream rather than a well-established reality) and of course, in the media, where appearance is both target and weapon of choice. We are circling the same drain ad nauseum and ad infinitum in this arena where even women endowed with close to physical perfection are repeatedly subjected to our scathing societal eye.

Just this past week the release of “Titanic 3D” has reignited criticism of Kate Winslet’s perfectly natural and gorgeous body in that film. Though many have been supportive, the Twitterverse, as ever, was at the ready with scathing remarks. Perhaps in an effort to preemptively defend against the onslaught she faced at 22 when she made the film, the actress castigated herself upon viewing the 3D version. “The second it came up I literally went, ‘Make it stop, make it stop, turn it off. I’m blocking it off,'” the actress said to ABC News.”Do I really sound like that? Did I really look like that?'”

She even went so far as to quip that her co-star Leonardo DiCaprio has fattened up while she has slimmed down. And there is of course the ever present discussion of her breasts in 3D, or the censorship of said breasts in China. Ultimately, a large portion of the “Titanic” discussion has been centered around the physical bearing of its female lead.

BuzzFeed recently release a list of actresses who are continually referred to as heavy, which includes the notably tiny Ashley Judd (who took to The Daily Beast to retaliate against media obsession over her “puffy” face), Hillary Duff and a pregnant Jessica Simpson. Though I will confess that I believe a discussion of Jennifer Lawrence’s healthy appearance in “The Hunger Games” versus the starved Katniss Everdeen described in the book has more to do with the stakes for the character than a critique of Lawrence’s appearance. Meanwhile, much of the coverage of the HBO comedy “Girls” has centered on the allure of its cast, particularly the show’s star and creator Lena Dunham.

This is, again, sadly nothing new. For years young girls have been doused with images of Kate Moss (the face that launched a thousand bulimics) and her fellow representatives of “heroin chick” (and how sick is that?), Twiggy before her and countless others after her. Each exalted representations of truly dangerous health habits and impossible standards for any of us mere mortals to meet, not if we intend to eat.

And yet if actresses acquiesce to the trend and become the waifs or wraiths that their careers demand they be, they are equally maligned. Angelina Jolie is, without question, alarmingly slender. But the vitriol she faces is more than a little bit telling. Rather than compassion, we give her censure. We create the standard and then lambast those who stumble in their attempt to meet it.

I sat in an interview the other day with an actress who, without question, is one of the most stunningly beautiful humans I have ever beheld (and is in fact a very well-known current sexual “icon”). In the course of four minutes she referred to herself as fat three separate times. I was saddened and disheartened listening to her talk about herself in those terms.

On a human level, I simply cannot fathom the ungodly pressure she must be under to be, at all times, “perfect” (whatever that may mean). Indeed, it”s fairly common for females to criticize themselves openly and often. It is a toxic habit that most of us develop and then must work to shed — for inevitably, we will be reviled for it. Do a quick search for jokes about women asking the question, “Do I look fat?” Then search for the number of times a female celebrity is mocked for weight gain or censured for having cellulite, stretch marks or some other bodily imperfection.

Women are lambasted for falling into the habit of speaking of their physical attributes with a self-critical eye and yet, they are exposed to the incessant beat of the “self-improvement” drum from early childhood. More than that, if we are to look at some of the current “role models” for young women (“Twilight”‘s Bella Swan, for example), a tendency toward self-deprecation is lauded. The character consistently refers to herself as “plain,” “boring” and otherwise “not good enough” for her (literally) inhumanly hot vampire boyfriend, a trait which is meant to endear the reader/viewer to her. And so the maddening cycle continues. We are to be demure and self-effacing and yet when we are, we are considered insecure and thought to be fishing for compliments.

Though I am sympathetic to the quagmire she must find herself in, it is more than a little bit of a shame that the unnamed actress mentioned above has been so significantly blessed by the Midas touch of genetics and yet is incapable of enjoying it. I wish that more female celebrities would take their cue from “Mad Men”‘s Christina Hendricks and embrace their bodies, their beauty and their unique nature. Though they may have not signed on for it, these ladies have a responsibility to those who, rightly or wrongly, will take their behavioral cues from them. And the media must endeavor to willfully alter the conversation.

For both women and men influence the gender dialogue and contribute to the focus on superficial and undermining assessments of feminine value, worth and appeal. We must endeavor, as much as we can, to shift the focus and refrain from incessant self-critique (as much as many of us, myself included, have mastered the skill) and ever abstain from a toxic attack on other women, particularly public attacks that focus the lens on their looks rather than the issues at hand (don’t get me started on the media response to female politicians).

This is not to say that men are immune from the tide of anonymous cruelty that is currently present in our culture. They do, however, seem to face this particular blade with less frequency. Nor is it to indicate that this is the most crucial issue facing women in today’s world, but it is symptomatic of a larger trend.

As mentioned, HBO”s “Girls” premiered Sunday night and Dunham”s appearance is mentioned (often in cruel terms) at least once as a salient factor in a large majority of the reviews. She is described alternately as “plain, unshapely and unpleasant” and in possession of “a short-waisted, pear-shaped body that makes her desperately unhappy even as she dares us to notice that she isn’t as tall and slim as her best friends” by two widely read (female, by the way) reviewers.

Does the text of the show in some way offer a green light for this discourse? Perhaps. But inherent in that, the reason that the text of the show is what it is is that’s the reality of our culture. What we need to examine is why that is so. When Ray Romano, Bill Cosby, George Lopez or Larry David were given their own shows, were the relevant levels of their sexual attraction the principal topic at hand? No. Nor were they meant to stand in for the entire male sex.

To be fair, dubbing a show “Girls” does somewhat beg the question, “Is this really what girls are like?,” particularly when there is such a decided lack of female-centric programming. But it is said lack of representation that is the real issue, not the size of Miss Dunham”s waist.

Is “Girls” an accurate representation of a generation? It”s an exaggerated, comedic representation of a small portion of the population, just as “Seinfeld” and countless other programs were (and are). Is “Girls” any more a comment on the female gender than “Entourage” is on the male? Should one half-hour comedy bear that kind of burden? Perhaps, perhaps not.

Nevertheless, it is the acrid and petty nature of a certain archaic dialogue rearing its head — not merely in entertainment but, way more importantly, in our culture (as revealed in not just entertainment but politics and social concerns) — that feels most significant to me.

For year-round entertainment news and commentary follow @JRothC on Twitter.

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