This entire Oscar season, Anne Hathaway and Jennifer Lawrence have been pitted against each other, as if they were facing off in a Hunger Games competition of popularity. This proves that life is still like high school. Rather than letting both of them be their beautiful selves, America has decided that only one of these women will be considered palatable, and the other will be put in the trash heap of public opinion that we toss women when we feel like we’re done with them, where they can hang out with Halle Berry, Renee Zellweger, Gwyneth Paltrow, Julia Roberts, Winona Ryder, Janeane Garofalo and Madonna.
Like Paltrow, everyone loved Anne Hathaway, until they just didn’t.
However, I’m one of those people who loathes Gwyneth Paltrow, not out of a place of misogyny but a burning desire to kick her unguarded privilege in the teeth. What bothers me has nothing to do with her gender but the way Paltrow incessantly name drops and shows no self-awareness about what a rich brat she is. Every once in a while, she gives an interview that reminds me what a charming and courageous actress she is — but then I read her cookbook, which might be the most unintentionally hilarious thing ever published.
I could let Paltrow off the hook for being a douche, because of the way our society always jumps to hate women while giving every guy who isn’t Chris Brown a million chances (see: Charlie Sheen), but that doesn’t do her any favors either. To paraphrase a great 30 Rock scene, can’t one person just genuinely despise another? When our society is truly post-gender, I’ll be able to hate Paltrow not for her vagina, but for everything she posts on GOOP. Why the hell would anyone need three-hundred dollar towels? Are they made out of Jon Hamm’s smile?
But like Julia Roberts, who I’m not a fan of personally, I enjoy their work at its best, and I understand why they are such highly regarded and respected actresses. Their acting merits it. Who cares what I think about Gwyneth Paltrow? Why do I have to like her? I don’t in order to enjoy her work, and we can’t all be Kristen Bell. I hate Sean Penn and I still adore him as an actor, but no one seems to give a shit about that. He’s allowed to be a jerk.
Much of the backlash against Anne Hathaway reminds me of Paltrow, a woman America grew to like less the more they saw of her in the spotlight. However, the difference, for me, is that I genuinely don’t understand why people hate Hathaway, and as somebody who strongly identifies with her, I feel personally taken aback by it. What’s not to like? Hathaway has been tirelessly working her way up through Hollywood for years, starting out in Disney films and slowly proving to us she could act and that we could take her seriously. When Hathaway appeared in The Devil Wears Prada, I remember being angry that Mia Thermopolis was allowed to share the screen with a goddess as radiant and all-consuming as Meryl Streep. Who does this Becky Sharp Pants think she is? Back away from the Streep, Anne.
However, when I saw Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married, I instantly took back everything I ever said about her, as she completely blew me away. Her brief appearance in Brokeback Mountain and starring role in Havoc were the kind of self-consciously serious roles that actresses take when they want to step away from their roots. They get bad highlights and show their boobs, because you can’t be taken seriously while keeping your clothes on. It’s the system. It’s how it works. Yay, institutional sexism! But her role in Rachel Getting Married was more than a transformation. I felt like I was seeing an entire other side of Hathaway and that there was a Kym lurking within her, one I’d just never taken the time to notice. Rather than becoming someone else, Hathaway became more herself. The performance felt not only raw but real — more so than anything else I’ve seen from her.
After that viewing, I’ve been continually surprised by Hathaway’s range, not just as an actress but a human being. Onscreen she has done everything from comedy to drama to musicals — proving she can convincingly do just about anything that isn’t hosting the Oscars with James Franco, which (of course) wasn’t her fault. However, it was that night that made me fall in love with her as a person. They say that you have to see an actor in a bad film to prove how great they are. It’s not Silkwood that proves Meryl Streep can act. It’s The Iron Lady, where Streep was given nothing to work with and somehow kills it anyway.
The same goes for Anne Hathaway at that Oscars, as she’ll never be burdened with a worse role in her life. What I was impressed by was Hathaway’s grace under pressure, her ability to dance and sing her way out of anything, including the worst Oscar show in history. Many felt her performance was too over the top or that she was putting lipstick on a pig. As a writer and a performer, I admire that spirit, and Hathaway’s insistence that she show must go on — with or without her co-host. She went out that and she made that pig sing — and then cooked it afterward and served America a hearty ham dinner. Just because you aren’t in the mood for ham doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give Hathaway credit for making it work. In show business, that’s all you can ask for.
At the time, I thought it was strange that Hathaway got so much of the attention for the Oscars being bad — and most everyone I know spent more time telling me how “annoying” she was instead of praising her for being game for anything. Remember America: This was a time that James Franco could show up stoned and text during his performance and America considered that preferable to someone trying too hard. A number of people have already mentioned the obvious parallels between Hathaway and Hillary Clinton, who lost the 2008 nomination for wanting it too much. It’s the presidency, not a Hyundai or tickets to 3 Doors Down. There’s no such thing as wanting it too much.
America has a long-standing beef with driven women and the “Tracy Flick type,” but more than that, I think we distrust women who violate our expectations of femininity by drawing attention to the performance. Part of the thing that bothers so many women about Clinton was her rigid attachment to the role of devoted wife, even though you sensed that Billary’s hearts weren’t in it. Hillary Clinton took him back not because she still loved him but to give his presidency good PR. They were staying together for the country and for her own political ambitions. Hillary was going to need his connections for her own run someday, and people could sense that. Hillary might be a great politician, but she’s not a great actress.
When it came around to run in 2008, the media lambasted her because her performance of gender was immediately apparent in a way that Sarah Palin’s was not. Like Jennifer Lawrence, Sarah Palin initially felt like a breath of media fresh air because she was everything Hillary was not — honest and unfiltered, rather than highly controlled and calculated. Both their images were highly calculated PR strategies, but one felt like a performance and the other did not. We felt like we knew Sarah Palin and could have a beer with her, and even if that authenticity was fake, it felt more honest than Clinton’s real fakeness.
Anderson Cooper recently joked that Jennifer Lawrence’s trip was a PR stunt, and even if Coop wasn’t being serious, I find that telling. Jennifer Lawrence performs her own femininity by tripping up and making mistakes, which we reward her for because we love her. However, does that make it any less of a performance? Lawrence knows that by being herself, she’ll get attention for it and that a thousand memes will spring up the next day of the wild thing she did. If her chosen femininity weren’t so in fashion right now — the performance of the real — would she still act that way? Or would she reign it in?
A lot of people feel that Sarah Palin’s image jumped the shark during that Katie Couric interview, when we realized there were little brains hiding behind that media brawn, but I think she went rogue on her own image when she revealed herself to be as ambitious as Clinton was. The media got a kick out of pitting the two against each other, when they had more in common than one might have supposed. Both of them were powerful, successful and (at the time for Palin) well-liked media superstars who wanted the same job.
Palin initially got in because she was an ideal trophy wife for the campaign, likeable, sassy and with a great smile. By taking the Vice President nomination, her ambitions didn’t violate the expectations of white male privilege or the male hierarchy — until they did. Over the course of the election, as Palin spent increasing amounts of fundraising dollars on maintaining her image and demanded greater control of the campaign, it became clear: she didn’t just want the Vice Presidency. She wanted to be president. By violating our expectations of her persona and drawing attention to its hyperreal constructedness, Palin jumped the shark on herself.
The same goes with Beyonce’s recent special. Beyonce has long guarded her own public image by letting America see only her business face, going so far as to have her publicist take down any image of her that would violate what we think about Beyonce. We all knew that Beyonce’s image was tightly controlled, but because we know so little about her, we have no sense of reality to judge her fakeness against. Who is Beyonce? I honestly have no clue. I only have her music. Thus, when her recent HBO special aired, giving us a glimpse into the mind behind the persona, it was unsatisfying, and many felt that Beyonce was still putting on a show. We weren’t seeing the real version of her, but just another persona. This wasn’t any more real than Sasha Fierce, who is by definition a character. This draws attention to the illusion and the idea that a reality of Beyonce might not exist at all.
The same goes with Zooey Deschanel and Lana Del Rey, who have gotten a great deal of publicity for playing heightened caricatures of baby-doll female sexuality, even though we get the sense that both of their personas are characters. What bothers people so much about Deschanel is that she’s playing into the expectation of her identity, the twee stereotype that everyone accused her of being. According to their critics, she and Del Rey send a message that women land a man by acting self-consciously cute and “adorkable,” privileging a peculiar form of arrested development as female sexuality. All Lana Del Rey needs is to a man to take care of her and provide for her. In “National Anthem,” she coos that “money is the anthem of success. Everyone knows. It’s a fact. Kiss kiss.”
I’m one of two people who are fascinated by them — because their characters draw such overt attention to her own unreality that it’s a little startling. When we watch Del Rey sing, we’re drawn to her larger-than-life lips, created by both plastic surgery and a studio incentive. Her aesthetic was configured by Interscope as a way to reinvent her, a persona that exists in a studio. On record, Del Rey evokes the trip-hop Nancy Sinatra she wants to be, like a little girl playing dress up, but in watching her live, we see there’s nothing there. Like Palin or Beyonce, her gendered design is merely a costume for her ambitions, and Del Rey is nothing if not ambitious. In the short time she’s been famous, she’s put out a record, a Deluxe Edition of that same album and an EP. She’s determined to make her mark, whether America likes her or not.
Although we know Del Rey is fake, what makes her fictiveness somewhat palatable is the passiveness of her female imagery, unlike Hathaway — who seems “on” all the time. People don’t like Anne Hathaway because they feel like her persona has been rehearsed and created in a laboratory to make everyone love her. She has an affected graciousness that reminds us of the driven theatre girl, as if Hathaway were a real-life Rachel Berry. From Hathaway’s acceptance speech stage whisper to her extended gratitude toward Sally Field, we still feel like Anne Hathaway is acting. We aren’t seeing the real her, and in an awards season dominated by Jennifer Lawrence, that bothers people.
Of course, we don’t know Anne Hathaway to comment on whether it’s real or not, but what’s fascinating is that we’re chastising Hathaway for doing many of the very same things we expect of her. The Oscar race in Hollywood is like a pageant, where you have to smile and wave, while proving to America that you’re more fuckable than the girl next to you. Look at most of our previous Best Actress winners. Jennifer Lawrence. Natalie Portman. Kate Winslet. Charlize Theron. Halle Berry. It’s not an acting competition. It’s a beauty pageant, where the younger, sexier actress almost always dominates the seasoned vet — except for Meryl Streep and Dame Helen Mirren, who transcend age. Mirren has a picture in her house that ages for her.
In the case of Streep, we know that she has to be performing as much of her humility as Hathaway. Meryl Streep is our greatest living actress (and my personal favorite person), and there’s no possible way that she doesn’t know it. Meryl Streep gets awards for waking up in the morning and brushing her teeth. When she got a rectal exam, they gave her an Oscar for it, and the doctor said that it was the most convincing anus he’s ever seen. If she brings tabouleh to a party, the other guests wonder how she did it. They figured her hummus was unbeatable, yet she’s managed to top herself again. When she sneezes in someone’s face on the subway, they thank her.
But no one wants to hear how great Meryl Streep thinks she is. When she won Best Actress last year, Streep was kind enough not just to call out her fellow nominees but to give thanks to those who weren’t nominated, like Tilda Swinton (who should be nominated for everything) and Adepero Oduye, who was barely in the conversation for her great performance in Pariah. Although we all knew that should have been Viola Davis’ Oscar, Streep was ballsy enough to suggest there might be a day we can recognize more than one black actress in the category. When Middle of Nowhere was shut out of nominations this year, we could have used more of that.
We expect Streep’s humility as part of the pageantry, because we believe it, but something about Hathaway’s over-the-top generosity feels wrong to people — who don’t even know why. It’s that people are aware she’s playing the game in a way we aren’t with Streep, and because of our distrust of female ambition for its own sake, we don’t accept it. (See: Marissa Mayer, who gets attacked for blinking too hard.) Jennifer Lawrence’s fall and her ubiquitous badassery shatter the expectations of how women should behave in the media, showing you can be exactly who you want and people will love you for it, so we learn to hate women who play the game and play it well.
With Hathaway, we are very aware of how hard she tries, particularly how much effort she puts into making everyone happy, from Sally Field to people who were upset about her Oscar dress. By issuing an apology for switching designers at the last minute, Hathaway shows that she knows how much people expect of her and that she’s allowing herself to be pulled by those strings, but that’s not her entire image. People neglect to mention what a dedicated feminist and gender activist she is or that she’s a spokeswoman for One Billion Rising.
No one mentions that she shot down Matt Lauer’s sexist questions about her dress, and that she’s just as much of a badass as Jennifer Lawrence. In the male-dominated extravaganza that was The Dark Knight Rises, Hathaway gave us the only memorable thing in it, a Catwoman that was both fun and fierce and more than held her own against Batman, who was supposed to be the star of the show. I wanted the movie to be called Catwoman and just do away with that Bane person entirely. In another life, maybe.
We have a bad habit of asking women to only be one thing — whether that’s the good girl or the bad girl, the life of the party or the bookworm — and we can’t deal with women who straddle those divides or ask us to think differently about what a woman should be. We find only certain types of femininity acceptable and marginalize identities that we feel are regressive, un-feminist or “fake.” It’s not enough that a woman is strong, beautiful or successful; she has to be the right kind of those things, or she’s dismissed. There is no one way to be female.
We’ve given so much credit to Jennifer Lawrence for pushing the boundaries of how we think about young women in the media that we’re becoming less tolerant of people who don’t follow that exact same path. Any actress who isn’t Jennifer Lawrence is by nature a fraud and a fake for not calling Jack Nicholson rude or playing intermittently nice with the media. However, both Lawrence and Hathaway are playing the game, while showing how silly that game is. They are just doing it in different ways.
If there’s any takeaway from this, it’s that we have to stop asking our actresses to be “real” or to be anything other than the image they’ve chosen to present — whether they are guarding themselves from a judgmental media or presenting a heightened version of who they really are (as I sense with Hathaway). Instead of shooting the messenger, we need to continue to critique the norms of gender and femininity that these women find themselves performing, the enormous expectations that they have to live up to. It’s hard enough in society being a woman and feeling the need to please everyone around you — that you can’t raise your voice or have too much of an opinion without being judged for it. Imagine if that were everyone on the planet.
One day, I hope to live in a world where we can just not like Madonna or Gwyneth Paltrow not because of internalized sexism or society’s tendency to dismiss female ambition. We can stop asking whether we like women and just try to respect them instead. That’s a world I want to live in.