Hollywood whinge-fests undermine contemporary feminism
Hollywood is often a slimy, cynical business, but weaponizing feminism against a critic you don’t like is a new low
Stars can be divas. Lindsay Lohan once demanded a Russian visa and a private meeting with Vladimir Putin. Tom Cruise tried to clear out a five-star hotel in Montenegro for an evening meal. One Hollywood star once rang my Granny’s house in the middle of the night looking for my auntie who was organising a press junket the next morning.
So it comes as no surprise that Carey Mulligan is not immune to throwing her toys out of the pram after a critical review. Film critic Dennis Harvey gave Mulligan’s new film Promising Young Woman a very positive review for Variety magazine, describing her performance as “skilful, entertaining and challenging”. In the film, Mulligan plays a Killing Eve-style femme fatale who, in order to avenge her wronged best friend, tricks men into thinking she’s too drunk to know that they’re taking advantage of her before exacting her revenge.
Plenty of film stars are happy to have their appearances praised on the red carpet if it gets them in the papers
But Harvey is now being labelled a misogynist and has had his review described as “alarmingly sexist” for criticising Mulligan’s appearance in the film. In a clapback interview with The New York Times, Mulligan complained that the review “was basically saying that I wasn’t hot enough to pull off this kind of ruse”. What Harvey had said was that Mulligan seemed an “odd choice”, that Margot Robbie would have been more convincing and that Mulligan “wears her pickup-bait gear like bad drag”. One might disagree with Harvey – although a quick look at the trailer does indicate that Mulligan isn’t suited to long tresses – but to suggest that he has a problem with women because he wasn’t convinced of Mulligan’s sex appeal is bizarre.
If an actor or actress plays a role that involves sex appeal, it’s quite obvious that being able to play a convincingly sexy character is relevant. Mulligan must be aware that she is often typecast – she even admits to The New York Times that she is “just constantly in period costume”. It can sting – Julie Andrews tried to shed the Sound of Music sweetness in S.O.B, and Father Ted’s Pauline McLynn spent half her time on screen in Shameless in her knickers (presumably in an attempt to prove that she wasn’t really Mrs Doyle).
There is a well-known difference between the way male and female actors are aesthetically assessed – especially as the years go on. The fact that we were supposed to believe that Helen Hunt would fall for Jack Nicholson (26 years her senior) in As Good As It Gets was a stretch. But then again, no one has ever claimed that Jack Nicholson was “hot”; and yet he has enough sex appeal to pull it off. Asking whether the film industry is hung up on appearances (especially when it comes to women) is one thing, attacking a critic as sexist for doing his job is quite another. Plenty of film stars are happy to have their appearances praised on the red carpet if it gets them in the papers. You can’t have it both ways.
What Mulligan is doing is attempting to weaponize feminism to squash a review she didn’t like
In fact, Harvey’s point is that despite Mulligan not immediately seeming believable as a temptress, the quirkiness of the film makes it all work. In response to Mulligan’s diva strop, Variety have stamped an apology at the top of Harvey’s review for “insensitive language and insinuation … that minimised her daring performance”. Some have even suggested he should be sacked. Harvey himself has told The Guardian that no issues were raised by Variety until Mulligan got upset (US distributors liked it so much they wanted to used pull quotes from it), and that as a “60-year-old gay man … I don’t actually go around dwelling on the comparative hotness of young actresses, let alone writing about that”.
Unlike demanding Evian water in dressing rooms or throwing tantrums about the buffet table, this particular instance of starlet angst is telling. What Mulligan is doing is attempting to weaponize feminism to squash a review she didn’t like. “It drove me so crazy. I was like, ‘Really? For this film, you’re going to write something that is so transparent? Now? In 2020?’ I just couldn’t believe it”, she told The New York Times. Linking a rather mild criticism of an actresses’ believability with a broader discussion about sexism (and hints towards the #MeToo movement) is crass.
Feminism has been degraded: it’s a crutch upset starlets use to try to gain the moral high ground
What is “so transparent” is how perfectly this spat between diva and critic reveals the shallow nature of contemporary feminism. No one likes being criticised – and Mulligan should be free to call Harvey every name under the sun for slating her sex appeal. But to suggest that he be reprimanded, apologised for or removed for daring to criticise a woman’s appearance says a lot about the fragile and frivolous state of feminism. Thanks to the indulgence of bourgeois (and celebrity) whinge-fests about how women feel, how we are represented and what we look like, feminism has been degraded – it’s a crutch upset starlets use to try to gain the moral high ground.
Feminism – or women’s liberation – used to (and should) mean something very serious. It’s about women’s freedom to act and be treated as autonomous agents – citizens who are rough, tough and strong enough to handle the trials and tribulations of public life as well as any man. It’s supposed to be about arguing for a better life for working-class women – childcare, abortion rights, better jobs, freer sex lives – not a means for starlets, middle-class commentators or grifting celebrities to get column inches. Hollywood is often a slimy, cynical business, but weaponizing feminism against a critic you don’t like is a new low.
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