I am not sure how I feel about Ashley Judd's essay on the objectification of women. I realize that some people see the line "I'm not sure how I feel about Ashley Judd's essay" and go leaping away from the screen. "Stop talking about frivolous things," they say. “They are as words writ in water! I'm going to go read Pascal's Pensees.” Or words to that effect.
But if we didn't talk seriously about frivolous things, we'd never talk seriously at all. And people are Talking about this one.
I didn't know that the relative puffiness of the face of Ashley Judd was a topic of national conversation. At least, I didn’t until I read the now-famous essay by Ashley Judd complaining that people were talking about the relative puffiness of her face.
As a genre, the Stop Talking About This Thing I'm Talking About Essay rubs me the wrong way.
There's a disturbing trend towards people saying, ”You are talking about X. The fact that you are talking about X is a Terrible, Awful, Dreadful Patriarchical Thing that Must Not Pass. That you would click on an essay about X is a horrifying sign of the times. Here is my essay about X.”
First it was Laurie Penny, complaining to Gawker that Ryan Gosling had rescued her from traffic and people wouldn't stop talking about it. Ashley Judd's essay is a more sophisticated variant of the genre, if that’s the word I want. It uses the phrase “inter alia.” At one point, it says that “Of course, it’s wonderful to be held in esteem and fond regard by family, friends, and community, but a central part of my spiritual practice is letting go of otheration.”
So, ah, there, I guess, it is.
But it’s clearly struck a chord. All kinds of people whose opinions I respect shared it eagerly, using phrases like “Ashley Judd schools haters” and “TELL ‘EM ASHLEY.”
I read it. I read it again. I wanted so badly to like it that I popped a small vein in my forehead.
I feel bad for celebrities. They periodically are called upon to squat over the Internet and deposit essays on topics like Understanding Malaria or The True Emotional Impact Of Cambodia or Hey There I Once Flew Over Louisiana And Thought Something. Like celebrity testimony before Congress, these efforts are uniformly painful to read. The words always sound slightly the wrong size for the utterers’ mouths.
You can’t just write in and say, “Hey, I’m Ashton Kutcher, and I think this foundation prevents juvenile diabetes, so, you know, give them some money or something.” Then everyone would call you an intellectual lightweight and tell you to go back to 2.5 Men, where you came from. You can’t have that. So instead you say something that sounds like what happens after a thesaurus has a drunk and miserable encounter with a first-year Women’s Studies textbook. For example.
“The Conversation about women’s bodies exists largely outside of us, while it is also directed at (and marketed to) us, and used to define and control us. The Conversation about women happens everywhere, publicly and privately. We are described and detailed, our faces and bodies analyzed and picked apart, our worth ascertained and ascribed based on the reduction of personhood to simple physical objectification. Our voices, our personhood, our potential, and our accomplishments are regularly minimized and muted.”
I like alliteration and assonance, repetitiveness and redundancy, saying something you just said and then saying the same thing again using a slightly longer word, as much as the next personhood, but — well, argh.
Still, under the mist of words, there’s a good point. And I don’t want to diminish the forest by complaining about the gosh-awful trees.
I do know what she means. I've been on the receiving end of this. I wish I could say I hadn’t. After all, it is not the thing that matters. If I wanted to, I could spend my days running around in a high dudgeon, squawking. But other things interest me more. I come from the Backwards In Heels school of feminism, where you accept that to do everything men do, you occasionally have to do it backwards in heels. This is unfortunate, but it is part of the job. And maybe once enough of us do this, our granddaughters will have the option of doing things forwards in flats.
Still, just once I want to have someone criticize my writing without reference to my physical appearance. To be called “tripe” fills me with comparative rapture. When I complain about Henry James, I don't premise my entire argument on my unwillingness to sleep with the author. But somehow, on the Internet, a good number of people seem to think that’s all argument demands.
“Let’s talk about politeness--” I say.
“You’re ugly and I would never sleep with you!” they retort.
I wish this were how it worked in debate club. Things would be so much simpler. Instead of marshalling facts, everyone would just come up with ways to say they were unwilling to sleep with you and thought you resembled a gourd, but not one of the sexier gourds.
I need not go into this. Almost every woman who writes on the Internet can make this case blindfolded in her sleep with one hand tied behind her back.
Objectification of women is a problem. Judging a woman’s argument by her looks is a problem. Judging her by her looks is a problem.
But this is the point in the essay when my brain starts screaming, “ASHLEY JUDD IS A SCREEN ACTRESS! How else are we supposed to judge her?”
I am, for all intents and purposes, a faceless voice who posts things on the Internet. If you know me at all, it is in the comfortable confines of my sentences. I am not on your television pretending to be someone else, unless something has gone horribly wrong.
Ashley Judd is. This is her job.
Some jobs force you to disappear. Celebrity, for all the constant appearances it requires, is a sort of disappearing act. “He became his admirers,”Auden wrote on the death of Yeats. Celebrity admirers demand this before death. They pore over your every pore, lurk outside your home, dedicate blogs to your memory. And you start to complain about it. Seen from the outside, the crystal prison of celebrity is a bunch of whiners who can’t handle it. “Stop paying attention to me!” they shout.
I’m reminded of something I once heard about Faust. “It’s not that he is wrong to make a bargain with the devil. It is that he asks for the wrong thing.” Celebrities can’t handle their end of the bargain, we think. But we could handle it. We would understand that this is the price you pay for the dubious pottage of Being Looked At wherever you go. People look at you wherever you go.
Of course it is more complicated than that.
“Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate. It privileges, inter alia, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women. It is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it.”
Which, again, is not quite how I would put it.
I think I'm a feminist. I vote. I roar. Men hold doors for me and I smite them with a flaming sword. When the patriarchy comes to my door asking me to participate, I pelt it with volumes of Betty Friedan.
But I worry that if I say, “Well, look, I don’t want to be patriarchy-reinforcing, but given that you’re a film actress and you are required to use your face for your job, I’m not sure what we’re achieving with all this, really,” I’ll be pilloried and forced to read that essay again.
Sometimes the only way to live in a world where people can complain about your writing, regardless of your gender, is to complain about people’s writing, regardless of their gender, and hope it catches on.
I think the larger problem is that we’re paying enough attention to Puffygate (can I say that? is that patriarchal?) in the first place to give this essay enough powder to blow itself up. But I’m glad she started a Conversation. It can’t hurt. The objectification won’t go away unless we acknowledge it’s there. Even if we only got there because of Ashley Judd.