Ashley Judd Takes On The Patriarchy

A year ago, I was asked to write a treatment for a TV show based around my blog project, 100 Interviews. The network, who shall remain nameless, was interested because they said I seemed like “a socially conscious girl who would be a good role model for their viewers.”

I pitched them an interview show, based on the blog, where I would host a panel of diverse, intelligent people centered around a theme; sort of a TV version of This American Life.

A week later, I heard the network wanted to see my head shots. In my head shot, which is from 2009, I have a short, Velma-from-‘Scooby Doo’ haircut and black-rimmed glasses. I thought I looked like the female Gideon Yago. (I wish.)

A few days went by. A woman from the network called. “They don’t know if you’re pretty enough,” she said.

The problem was my Jewish nose. It isn’t large so much as it’s a little bit crooked with a small, distinctive bump. From the front, no problem. From the side, ‘Hava Negila!’ Over the years, a few blunt individuals have mentioned it to me with weird compliments like, “Your nose is so distinctive” and “Is it weird that you kind of remind me of Anne Frank?”

After an in-person “audition,” the same woman called to tell me the network people had found me cuter in person. They thought I was pretty enough to host my own show, but they were wondering if I’d make a few changes — not to the script. That had apparently become secondary to my looks. So: would I fix my nose?

I didn’t end up getting plastic surgery, and unrelated, the TV show didn’t work out. But as someone who was just concerned with making the show interesting and good, it was crazy that everyone else was so focused on my face.

I was reminded of this story yesterday, when reading an article by actress Ashley Judd. In the Daily Beast, Judd wrote a spot-on, direct and surprisingly cutting piece responding to media pressure about her looks with intelligent clarity and an attack on a patriarchal culture that “assaults… our body image.” The press had been tearing apart Judd’s “puffy” face — speculating about her aging, plastic surgery and even saying she looked ugly during scenes for her new show Missing where her character is supposed to be exhausted and distraught. (Cry pretty, little petal!)

But instead of just writing a defensive, narrow op-ed, Judd did something awesome: she addressed the entire system that allows these nasty comments to fly. She rightfully called the focus on women’s looks “gendered” and “misogynistic” and allowed her personal experience to extend to the objectification, hypersexualization and degradation of all women.

When I have gained weight, going from my usual size two/four to a six/eight after a lazy six months of not exercising, and that weight gain shows in my face and arms, I am a “cow” and a “pig” and I “better watch out” because my husband “is looking for his second wife.” Did you catch how this one engenders competition and fear between women? How it also suggests that my husband values me based only on my physical appearance? Classic sexism.

The fault, Judd said, lies with an accepted patriarchal system in society, where both genders are degraded.

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. This abnormal obsession with women’s faces and bodies has become so normal that we (I include myself at times — I absolutely fall for it still) have internalized patriarchy almost seamlessly. We are unable at times to identify ourselves as our own denigrating abusers, or as abusing other girls and women.

I don’t mean to get all Mean Girls but how many of us (men and women) have attacked another woman for her looks? All of us have. But the problem is especially egregious among women. Usually, feeling insecure ourselves, we lash out at another woman in the hopes of feeling better. It never, never works. Judd suggests the best way to confront this is to instead form strong female alliances. “The dialogue is constructed so that our bodies are a source of speculation, ridicule, and invalidation, as if they belong to others,” she wrote. As I read, I pictured the myriad tabloid covers with photos “exposing” cellulite or back fat or love handles on a celebrity’s beach body, or how “gross” female celebrities supposedly look “caught” without make up. Gasp!

Whether or not you’re in US Weekly, every woman has dealt with scrutiny over her appearance. Judd’s words reminded me of when I pitched the 100 Interviews TV show because, as obvious as it sounds in retrospect, I hadn’t considered my looks when deciding to become a writer and interviewer. It seems I should have. A few months later, when Business Insider ran an article about my project, the comments section wasn’t about my writing, it was about how I was “decent looking.” Oh. Thanks? How’d you like my writing though?

“The insanity has to stop,” Judd wrote, “because as focused on me as it appears to have been, it is about all girls and women. In fact, it’s about boys and men, too, who are equally objectified and ridiculed, according to heteronormative definitions of masculinity that deny the full and dynamic range of their personhood. It affects each and every one of us, in multiple and nefarious ways: our self-image, how we show up in our relationships and at work, our sense of our worth, value, and potential as human beings.”

Because I’m a masochist, I read the comments on Judd’s Daily Beast article. Many of them were enthusiastic and proud. Many called her piece “BS” saying it’s best to accept the realities of our culture — that women will always be judged for their appearances over other qualities — rather than to live in a fairy tale world trying to fix these problems. (So by pretending they don’t exist, they’ll go away? Cool.) Some commenters missed the point entirely and continued to bash her “puffy” face. Some argued that it comes with the territory of being an actress, as though Judd doesn’t make a wider, over-arching point about women in general, as though “real” women don’t experience this every day in tons of different, frustrating, demoralizing ways.

I didn’t take the article as Judd “defending her face” like the headline suggests. I took it as a heart-fluttery victory that a mainstream actress in a mainstream publication spoke intelligently about the patriarchy and about feminism. Sometimes I forget, because I spend so much time on the Internet and because I frequent feminist blogs and corners of the web where these phrases and thoughts are widely-accepted, that feminism and problems within the patriarchy aren’t commonly discussed, and that there is still a massive majority who are either willfully or sadly ignorant.

Some blogs have called Judd’s article “a conversation starter” for those who might not have had a way to articulate their frustrations before and for people who don’t spend time in the online feminist world. And from the way the article has gone viral, it’s a conversation that needed starting. TC mark


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  • Paul S

    I’ve always liked Ashely Judd, now I like her even more. She does make some shitty movies though…

    • Sarah N. Knutson

       You shut your mouth. ‘Kiss the Girls’ and ‘High Crimes’ were cinematic gold. Or maybe that’s just because Morgan Freeman’s a version of God…

  • Selenacoppock

    Great piece, Gaby!  Ashley Judd’s piece is so refreshing because she isn’t shying away from the label of “feminist,” like so many women (especially celebrity women) tend to.  If more women self-identified as feminists, maybe the GOP would have to stop labeling us as batshit man-haters and accept that we’re everywhere, we have brains, and we simply want to be treated better than doormat baby machines.  Bravo, Gaby! :)

  • Your Friend

    This was really well written. I didn’t know about Judd’s article until now and I think she brought up some tremendous points. Thank you for sharing!

  • Nishant

    Wonderful Ashley Judd and great article, Gaby Dunn! :D

  • rose georgia

    You are absolutely 100% one of my favourite writers on here. Thanks for bringing the Judd article to my attention. 
    I was lucky enough to to go a school founded on strong feminist principles (founded, in fact, by a suffragette and a pioneer of women’s education! yahoo!), but most schools just don’t address gender issues extensively enough if at all. And i think that’s where it needs to start. In the UK the women’s suffrage movement is on the national curriculum (at least it was when i was 14), but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. From sex education to history to literature, boys AND girls need to be taught properly about all the points both you and Judd raised. It’s hardly irrelevant, this is fundamental stuff!

    • Anonymous

      Thanks, buddy! That’s so nice to hear.

  • JEReich

    Gaby Dunn, you are a rock star.  This is a wonderful piece that everyone should read.  (Same goes for Judd’s op-ed — a fantastic dissection of gender, body, media, and culture.)

  • Paul S

    Also wanted to point out how when we lash out at someone, it’s usually due to something we don’t like about ourselves. So being that 2/3 of all American women are overweight (half to those being obese), it becomes easier to understand where this is coming from; people hating themselves just lashing out at others. It’s a cliche, really.

  • beatrice

    Thanks loads for bringing the Judd article to my attention, I knew I liked her for a reason. Gang, you’re such a brilliant writer. I love how you managed to spin such an aggressive topic like feminism into a non assertive yet firm article. Well done!

    • beatrice

      Gaby* Fuck autocorrect

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