January 29, 2021

Hollywood is late to Feminism. Its myths are filled with broken women, women made insane and women denied their own names. Marilyn Monroe was Norma Jean Baker but, as Marilyn, studio executives would expose her breasts in their offices. Judy Garland was Frances Gumm but as Judy she was eased into the drug addiction that would kill her; and, though the greatest actor in film musicals, she never felt equal to Lana Turner (“the sweater girl”). She knew the screen must glow with beauty. Hollywood took beautiful women, broke them and expelled them by 40, with exceptions so rare and pointed they seemed paranormal.

Female actors — “actress” has become a slur, a nicety so meaningless it amounts to denial — are trying to change cinema, or at least their own relationship with it, which is not the same thing. The actor Keira Knightley says she will no longer appear in sex scenes directed by men because she can no longer tolerate “the male gaze”. The actor Carey Mulligan has complained about a Variety review of her new film Promising Young Woman. “Cassie [Mulligan] wears her pickup-bait gear like bad drag,” is the wrongful passage, “even her long blonde hair seems a put-on.” That is kindly, compared to Pauline Kael’s late reviews in the New Yorker but Mulligan was angered.

I don’t know what she heard in that line – I heard a rebuke of a costume – but she wished the critic was, rather, “looking at the art” and “looking at the performance. It didn’t wound my ego,” she said, “but it made me concerned that in such a big publication an actress’s appearance could be criticised and it could be accepted as completely reasonable criticism”. She told the New York Times that the review, “was basically saying that I wasn’t hot enough to pull off this kind of ruse”.

Variety apologised for its “insensitive language and insinuation” — for cruelty to drag? — and this is troubling. Cinema is a visual medium. What critic will not use its eyes? Was it a bad wig? I don’t know yet, but no one would describe Mulligan as anything but beautiful except perhaps, I suspect, Mulligan herself.

If this felt like something else – self-hatred, opportunism, a too small gaze? – the complaint to Variety is part of the legacy of Harvey Weinstein’s exposure. Hollywood was shown to be, quite often, a factory of abuse. Female actors complied and survived; or they refused and were exiled from the screen. Weinstein was exposed by the courage of a small number of women: chiefly Rose McGowan and Ashley Judd.

Now others – Mulligan, Knightley – refuse to be broken by institutional sexism, and that is excellent, but they have yet to admit that to even be made worthy of being broken by Hollywood they must first have beauty. It is not enough to say that one refuses to be objectified nowadays. That would only make sense if merit was all that mattered, and that is absurd. Hollywood imposes very narrow parameters on its leading female actors: they must be beautiful. If I have to tell Mulligan and Knightley they cannot really act — or rather they can act, but they are drawn from a tiny pool and many outside it can act much better — I will. Too much sexism depends on the politeness of women. We must be truthful.

The truth is: verisimilitude has its limits among even the righteous. In 2015, for instance, Mulligan starred as a laundress in Suffragette. The film had Feminist credentials: a doughty Feminist subject-matter; a female writer in Abi Morgan; a female director in Sarah Gavron; a female producer in Alison Owen. It also had, in Mulligan, a laundress of near ludicrous beauty. No laundress at any time looked like that; if she did, she would not be a laundress. I thought: why Mulligan, who was more suited to Daisy in The Great Gatsby? Have female film makers internalised sexism to such a degree that their laundress must be an Aphrodite with artful smudges? Did they fear that, if they cast a woman with an ordinary face — if we could see ourselves in the generic suffragette, which is surely the hope of the experience? — we would not believe it?

I lament the sexism of Hollywood. It harms women within, and it tells women without they cannot matter because they do not have a perfect face. It also creates a monoculture in which the female, a tedious archetype, progresses from maiden to mother to crone like a menstruating clock. But it cannot call sexism even partially resolved when Carey Mulligan amends a bad review in Variety for describing her appearance in a costume. It is an awkward truth, but Mulligan and Knightley have profited from sexism because they are beautiful. They have suffered for it too, but not everyone has that potential.

You may think I place the emphasis on the female to change the culture; that I punish her for her gifts and the wrongs of men. I don’t; and I don’t suggest they go into exile carrying their beauty like Dick Whittington’s bag on a stick towards a place where they can be pure again. Nor do I suggest they maim themselves or get spuriously fat.

But storytellers should be capable of honesty at least, or what are they for? It is possible, we know after Weinstein, after #MeToo and #TimesUp, to tell the truth and these women have told a very partial and intimate truth. Can they tell a more universal truth – that the gifted and unlovely are, for now, unwelcome in Hollywood and cinema is, for now, neither a kind nor useful mirror?  Or will they practise only the most fashionable and smallest kind of Feminism, the one which comes with such ease and no cost — the Feminism of oneself?

Sign up to UnHerd's new weekly email, in which Will Lloyd selects the best (and occasionally worst) writing from around the web.

Free, every Friday morning.