Ashley Judd at the United Nations in March. (Dario Cantatore / Getty…)
It’s always amusing when celebrities are outraged over the media scrutiny (either from snoopy tabloids or snoopy mainstream publications) of their looks. And certainly women are judged more than men in this regard. Although that’s changing. Awhile back, tabloids went through a season of speculation over whether Michael Douglas had had a face lift. And who can forget the great fun that every outlet had with Nick Nolte’s wild-haired arrest mugshot? Some pundit even took the hallowed George Clooney to task for looking like he had been squeezed into his Armani tux at the Oscars. (Me, I didn’t notice.)
The latest outcry comes from Ashley Judd, whose recent puffy-faced appearance on a talk show set off a round of snarky ruminating over whether she had had too much "work" done. In the past, when stars got publicly pilloried with comments about their weight or photos of them looking porky on the beach, they generally responded with a brave "I like the way I look" or a defensive "Stop calling me fat!" -- as the headline in a People magazine story quoted Jennifer Love Hewitt saying in response to comments about unflattering shots of her.
But Judd took the debate further than just telling people to leave her alone -- her face was puffy because she was on steroids for an illness (although that is what she said, making it clear she had not had work done.) She wrote an online treatise about a misogynistic culture that degrades all women by objectifying and criticizing their bodies. She also made a good point that no reporter called her office to ask if she had had plastic surgery before speculating about that. I’m not sure how helpful her office would have been, but she’s right, someone should have made the call. She also, surprisingly, included other media comments she had seen that clucked about a weight gain. Her piece, though overwrought, seemed genuinely full of pain.
Having watched Judd in her new TV series “Missing,” I noticed that her face and her figure were a bit fuller than they had been and assumed that she had gained weight. She probably didn’t mean to. If you’re signing up for a TV or movie character that requires weight gain, you alert the media in advance so everyone knows this falling off of perfection was deliberate and for your craft. She didn’t do that.
In fact, her look -- and she’s still slender -- suits her role as a take-no-prisoners, butt-kicking former CIA agent searching for her kidnapped son. Sometimes, onscreen, she looks tired. Judd, who will be 44 next week, doesn’t look like the luminous sylph with jutting collarbones who swanned into a gala in an evening gown in the 1999 thriller “Double Jeopardy.” But who would after traipsing around the world, fighting evil people and still not getting your kid back?
No one would disagree with Judd that misogyny and sexism continue to exist around the globe -- women are burned with acid in Pakistan, Saudi women aren’t allowed to drive cars, and the Augusta National Golf Club appears to be holding firm to its Neanderthal policy of not inviting women to join the club. But gossip about whether an actress has tinkered with her face or gained some weight doesn’t rise to that level. Nor does it reflect some insidious evil in our society that we ogle, envy or scorn the faces and bodies of people plastered across our television and movie screens.
Judd is a successful, famous actress who has talent and beauty (yes, still) and has used both to her advantage. Her appearance was objectively on the table when she got leading roles in movies, scored cosmetics campaigns and appeared on the covers of fashion magazines. When Judd or any other actor -- male or female -- strolls down a red carpet in thousands of dollars of borrowed clothes and jewels, they’ve been objectified into a powerful advertisement for the designers who bedeck them. For Judd to be outraged that the same public that is awed by her looks -- a currency for her -- will chortle about cracks in the glossy facade seems to indicate she doesn’t understand how the game she signed up for, and has prospered from, is played. Interestingly, there is a bit of fairness in this brutal game: Only the beautiful are picked on. The stars who seem to be given a pass are the ones who start out with a deficit -- no homely or truly overweight actress is ever trashed on the red carpet. And if they do choose an outfit that manages to make them look decent, they are fervently applauded by fashion critics.
I don’t blame Ashley Judd for being hurt by the comments. But it comes with the business that both makes and breaks celebrities. Jennifer Love Hewitt seemed to best express this when she told the Los Angeles Times’ Amy Kaufman that “part of our job as actors is to be eye candy.”
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