Ashley Judd, You’re Not Helping

Last week, actress Ashley Judd wrote an op-ed for The Daily Beast in response to recent media speculation about her puffy face and why it looks like it was on the receiving end of a botched, discount, back alley Dr. 90210 situation. In summary: the media has been pretty nasty about it (hide your shock), Judd got her feelings hurt, and she decided the best way to exercise her swollen emotions was by writing a few hundred words about her face, the big bad media who won’t shut up about it, and the super evil patriarchal powers-that-be that cause women to turn bitchy on each other. Since then, everyone has been tripping over themselves to put gold stars on her potentially-post-surgical forehead. But hold up. Let’s slow down for a minute and think about Ms. Judd and her words a little more carefully… because it’s possible that a rant like this is not doing as much to help the world as you might think.

(Let’s ignore for a second that if this was 1998 and Us Weekly was talking about how pretty she was — and back then, they totally were — Ms. Judd would likely not be spending time penning diatribes against modern standards of beauty and the media’s unrelenting dissection of them. Let’s disregard the fact that when she was on the sweeter side of the mainstream validation of superficial, youth-worshipping measures of a woman’s worth, she didn’t seem to have such a big issue with it. Let’s suppose that the problem with Judd’s knocking of the tradition of criticizing women’s physical appearances, and the societal underpinnings that fuel it, is not just an overblown excuse for her defending her recent “puffy face” because she was feeling defensive. We can ignore all of that for the purposes of our discussion, because her rant and people’s reaction to it raise much more pressing issues.

Oh. Furthermore, let’s move past the fact that celebrities know the kind of ceaseless media scrutiny they’re signing up for when they strive to become famous. This isn’t a new situation, friends. The dynamic between famous folks and the media is no different today than it was when Ashley Judd got into acting, and long before that. The rules haven’t changed, nor has their power on the rest of society. Her op-ed piece stinks of obvious truths about things that have always been true, that she has willingly played her part in. Every profession has its upside and downside. Downside to being a celebrity: public scrutiny during your less-than-charming moments. Upside: EVERYTHING ELSE. Now onto the important stuff.)

The fault here is not that Ashley Judd is wrong. Rather, the frustrating part is that, despite the fact that her arguments are definitively true, they promote a mindset that the rest of us have been working to move past. I’m not talking about the internalization of patriarchal ideals and the subsequent manifestations in our unkind treatment of each other that she is rebuking in her article — I’m talking about the mindset of continuing to complain about it from a victimized position.

The intrusive, unapologetic, destructive nature of the media is a story long since told; unflattering moments, when captured, will be taken advantage of to the fullest extent, judgment will be harsh, consistent, and taken to absurd and unnecessary degrees, and all of this will be done without any regard for the specific circumstances of your personal life. How dare the gossip media take pictures of you and raise questions about plastic surgery? Where do they get off hiding in bushes, catching you at your least-good-looking, not even caring that you’ve just been sick, and then warping this most minimal information into a fully-formed “news” story, chock full of theories and speculation? It’s not like you gave them permission to invade your life like that! Except that you did. When you decided to become a Hollywood actress. I’m not saying it’s right, and I’m not saying that it’s helpful, or healthy, or even interesting, or that every single thing in Ms. Judd’s op-ed piece isn’t accurate, but none of this is new information.

The fact that everyone is patting her on the head like she just cracked the goddamn DaVinci Code is ridiculous. Beyond that, the eager applause of her words supports the implication that she is somehow enlightening women about these issues — and it’s insulting. Women are not perfect, and we act like total assholes sometimes, to ourselves and each other. But to say that it is not our fault, to blame some subconscious influence over how we see and talk about ourselves, is more sexist and depreciating of women’s intelligence and awareness than the most scathing critique of our physical form. I’m not discrediting that those influences exist, and have for a long time, but I am saying that the days of portraying ourselves as unwilling subjects of their power are over. We are so much stronger than that!

At this point in our evolution as a society, women know the score — and if we continue to choose to conduct ourselves in less-than-savory ways, or continue to uphold unhealthy ideals of beauty, that is our choice. It’s not being forced on us anymore, and it is blatantly sexist, counterproductive, disempowering, and infuriating to suggest otherwise. Moving past patriarchal control over mind and media used to be about calling out the injustices. And now it’s about valuing ourselves and our minds enough to take ownership of how we behave, instead of making ourselves victims in order to shirk blame for acting lame. That is self-inflicted sexism and articles like Ashley Judd’s do nothing but perpetuate it.

The one service you could claim her op-ed serves is that — while, yes, many people already recognized the media and societal conditions she’s disparaging — her prominent position as a celebrity helps bring these issues to the masses. Which is a good point! It’s one thing to discuss the media’s effect on perpetuating dysfunctional, male-driven, destructive standards of female beauty and the woman-hating, “eating our own” ways in which we ruthlessly dissect each other, but hey, if you can use your power as a famous person to bring that message to millions of people, then you’ve done a real service to the overall state of womankind! Three cheers for Ashley Judd!

Except Tina Fey already did that with Mean Girls 8 years ago.

Oh, and Tina Fey chose to convey the message in a way that didn’t mirror Judd’s position of women as put-upon victims of a mean, nasty, unfair, male-controlled firestorm of physical criticism — she instead taught the upcoming generation of women how to stop portraying themselves as defenseless, brainwashed women in order to deflect blame, to take responsibility of their bitchy behavior, see the damaging aspects of this kind of conduct, how to empower and love themselves and each other, and how allowing ourselves to sink into catty nonsense has wide-reaching implications far beyond just calling someone a “fat slut.” In other words, the message wasn’t just complaining and preaching, it was effectively teaching women how and why they need to conduct themselves above all that old-school, sexist thinking.

Blaming the patriarchy is for weak little babies; the rest of us are already living beyond that. Blame, guilt, and frustration no longer have the front seat in the thinking woman’s social advocacy repertoire. Getting bogged down by those feelings does not equate to moving past the patriarchy’s stagnation of the advancement of women — it’s a continuation of it. Sometimes you have to declare that you are already beyond a problem in order to empower yourself to truly be past it. Projecting the reality you desire is infinitely more powerful and progressive than angrily bemoaning a less desirable status quo. In other words, talking about how sh-tty things are is not constructive toward solving anything, especially when you aren’t even illuminating any brand new truths.

The failure of Judd’s piece is that it takes us back a step. These problems were identified years ago (which is – duh – why people are accepting and supporting her views so readily and strongly. We already knew we agreed. No one’s mind is being opened by her words.) The light has been seen. Let’s move on, armed with knowledge about where we need improving as a society, and take some personal responsibility for being the living embodiment of that improvement. TC mark

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