COMMENT: Reviewers need a debate amongst themselves of whether to mention attractiveness in reviews. The film and TV industries, however, are the last people to be taking lessons from.
This topic reared its head back in April, and my immediate reaction was “Oh no, not this again”. Ever since I naively offered my 2p’s worth on Quentin Letts’s notorious “jolly fit” remark (and realising later I’d played straight into his attention-seeking hands), I’ve tried to stay out of this argument. I partially relented just over a year later when I begged everyone to stop feeding his attention-seeking habits (and failed miserably). But the latest version of this row was over Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman. As a publication seemingly made a scapegoat out of an individual review, and the film critics’ guild subsequently weighed in, it became a censorship issue. And as with all censorship issues, I must have my say.
If you managed to miss this, well done. But for your benefit, this blew up when Carey Mulligan publicly railed against against a review that contained an ill-advised phrase that her character “wears her pickup-bait gear like bad drag”. Now, without seeing the film I can’t comment on the validity of this phrase. (I have heard a lot of good things about Promising Young Woman, but I’ve heard good things about lots of other films and never got round to watching them, so don’t hold your breath.) What he was possibly trying to say was that Carey Mulligan doesn’t suit looking like Harley Quinn, whom director Margot Robbie played so successfully, but I’m not really interested in one sentence of one review. This is an issue we need to take seriously, and every incident like this should spur reviewers on debate this.
However, the problem I have is hypocrisy. Whilst there are a important ethical questions to be discussed, at the moment the answers seem to be mostly coming from the film and TV industries. For reasons I will go into, they have absolutely no business lecturing the rest of us on valuing women based on looks. Even Carey Mulligan herself is not immune from being part of the problem. But before going into this, I may as well be open about how I handle this.
My own views on talking about attractiveness in reviews.
Short answer: I don’t. Long answer: read on.
The practice of judging people based on attractiveness is endemic. It goes way beyond the performing arts, and I can’t stand it. Unless you are considering dating someone, it should have no bearing on how you treat them. And yet it seems perfectly acceptable in political discourse to support or undermine someone’s views, male or female, based on how presentable they are. Sorry, why is that relevant? There are far more important things to consider when whether Boris Johnson or Keir Starmer or Nicola Sturgeon or Joe Biden or Kamala Harris looks like the sort of person who’d make you horny. I also hate the practice of highlighting minor flaws in celebrity magazines, I find the obsession over what women are wearing at the Oscars creepy, and I despise shows like The X Factor that routinely muddies ability and looks.
Acting is a bit less straightforward. Sometimes looking conventionally attractive is an essential part of the story. That said, in the nine years I have done this theatre blog, I haven’t commented on attractiveness or appearance once. This is partly because I mostly review at fringes where I run into the actors I’ve reviewed all the time. I have no intention on publicly commenting on their hotness, unless I want to return from the Edinburgh Fringe in several boxes. Self-preservation aside, attractiveness is completely subjective and so rarely has a place in a review, which should at least attempt to have some sort of objectivity to it. There has been the odd occasion where I’ve felt an actor didn’t look right for the part, but it was never an important enough issue to be worth mentioning. I’m not saying I never would – if, say, a play about Marilyn Monroe has a titular lead who looked nothing like her, I may regrettably have to say something – but I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. But if another reviewer who’s seen The Importance of Being Earnest questions whether Cecily passes off as either excessively pretty or only just turned eighteen (especially if it’s a star casting in a big-budget production), I wouldn’t be getting outraged on not-Cecily’s behalf.
That said, I so think we reviewers need to collectively have a discussion on what is and isn’t acceptable. I’ve heard of reviewers allegedly turning to plays with nude scenes specifically to comment on naked bodies – that is despicable. But even ignoring these extremes, a debate is an act of common courtesy. There are valid concerns and the least we can do is listen. There are plenty of unwritten rules we have learned to adopt (or at least some of us have), and the same can apply here. It is also in our interests to know where the line is. The better an idea we have of what is and isn’t considered accepted practice, the less we need to walk on eggshells and worry about invoking the wrath of someone with a big following on Twitter.
However, there is another reason I want reviewers to have this conversation: if we don’t have it, eventually the arts industry will have it for us. Believe me, we do not want them to start dictating what we can and can’t say in reviews. It’s a short step from giving them the veto on what can be said about appearance to giving them the veto on saying whether their productions are any good. There’s far too much improper leaning on arts journalism as it is, and far too many arts journalists willing to go along with what major organisations want them to say. When the balance of power shifts too much to the big producers, the arts media functions little more than their PR wing. Give me a bunch of off-message reviewers over that any day. We can live with the occasional crass remark.
Above all else, however, the main reason we should not let the arts industry decide this for us is that they have absolutely no grounds to preach morals here. They – in particular film and TV – seemingly have a free pass to do much much worse.
Why the real problem isn’t with reviewers
Whenever anything causes outrage, the “bad drag” remark included, it is only fair to consider “What harm has this done?” In the case of this review, I’m struggling to see the impact other than offending the sensibilities of a multi-millionaire. A harsher judgement would be that words like this normalise a society where women are valued on looks. And maybe they do. But if we’re going to judge it on those terms, that’s nothing compared to what film and TV producers have been doing throughout their existence.
Take classic 90s sitcom Friends. In case you haven’t noticed, the main cast are six pin-ups. Now, I see nothing wrong with casting six pin-ups if it’s realistic to the premise, but – New Yorkers correct me if it’s different in the Big Apple – I’m pretty sure that is not a typical group of six friends in their twenties. At least some of them are going to be average- or below average-looking on a conventional scale of beauty. Are we supposed to believe the casting for Ross, Chandler, Joey, Monica, Rachel and Phoebe had absolutely nothing to do with looks and was entirely down to who acted best at the audition? Errm, I don’t think so.
I picked Friends as my starting example because I like Friends. If you would instead like me to consider something I hate: take Hollyoaks. No explanation needed, it’s so blatant it’s notorious. (I’ve heard it alleged that Hollyoaks uses modelling agencies for casting instead of normal channels, but I can’t verify this – nevertheless, given their meat-market level of casting, I can easily believe they’d do that.) This wouldn’t be such an issue if the arts industry looked on it as a bad apple, or even just a guilty pleasure, but they don’t. They inexplicably look on it with reverence. A few years ago New Writing North excitedly announced they were teaming up with Channel 4 for a lucky aspiring screenwriter would be mentored by the Hollyoaks writing team. There a few things I would be more embarrassed to be associated with, and yet the great and the good seem to think it’s a great honour.
Even programmes like Hollyoaks aren’t the worst offenders. For all its faults, the casting directors never did anything so obvious as saying “You’re ugly, next – you’re hot, hired”. Nope, for that level of shamelessness, you’re going to turn to shows like The X Factor which openly judge pop hopefuls of looks and deliberately equate lack of fashion sense with absence of musical talent. Susan Boyle is no defence here – the feel-good story was 100% manufactured against a stereotype of ugly=talentless which they created in the first place. The excuse I keep hearing is that this is how pop music works, and we’ve always associated a presentable face with good music. But all that would prove is that valuing people by looks is the fault of the wider music industry rather than just Cowell and Co (who, let’s face it, go along with it). Anyone who objects to judging people on looks should be railing against one or both of these. So far, we’ve had neither.
I could go on. I could talk once again about the culture of advertising, whose sole tactic now seems to be to show cool and sassy and good-looking people using their product (because if you use their product, you too will be cool and sassy and good-looking). I could talk why actors have to spend hundreds of pounds on headshots for a trade where looks are not supposed to be that important. I could talk about the inaction over the creepy red carpet culture; this one is a little better because there is some proper opposition to this, but the film industry could easily put a stop to that if they wanted to. And the irony to top it off is that even Carey Mulligan isn’t immune from this criticism. As Kate Matlby from Index on Censorship pointed out (£), she has been cast in a film as a real-life archaeologist in her fifties instead of Nicole Kidman who was the same age, to considerable annoyance of many older women who felt the practice of “prettifying” history erases their presence. That’s not meant as a jibe against Mulligan – it’s just showing how widespread this behaviour is.
I will make one point in Carey Mulligan’s defence. For all I know, maybe she agrees with everything I’ve just said. Maybe the only reason she’s complicit in prettification of history is because that’s the way she has to play the game. But of course she isn’t going to rail against a Hollywood culture that values women this way. Not if she intends to still be be making films next year. It could be that she wants everyone to stop making judgements on appearance, be they casting agents, director, producers, TV show hosts, critics – but critics are the only one she can berate without fear of consequences. If so, that’s forgivable. But fits into the pattern I’ve seen in the post-Weinstein world: 99% of the time, the Hollywood A-list choose the path of least resistance. They go after easy targets but rarely stand up to the culprits with the power. Okay, it’s their job to be actors, not activists, but these are the people who get listened to. If they don’t take a stand, who will?
Let’s go back to the original test: what harm has this done? It depends how influential you think these programmes and films are. But at best, it means that actors who don’t look conventionally attractive don’t stand a fair chance against those who are. At worst, it provides legitimacy to some pretty nasty attitudes where you judge people’s competence based on looks. It may even be contributing to the culture where some women are made think they can only have career if they get their tits out. Film and TV reaches and influences far more people than film or TV critics ever will. Compared to this, even the infamous “jolly fit” remark from Quentin Letts is nothing.
There’s a double-standard going on here. There are many valid reasons to be angry over stupid judgements made over attractiveness in film and TV and theatre, but the blame for this lies squarely with deep-rooted cultures in film and TV and theatre. The “bad drag” remark is, at the very worst, a by-product of these cultures, and yet the furore surrounding this seems to laying the blame squarely at reviewers, with the real culprits getting off scot-free. At best, this is a misguided knee-jerk reaction that ignores the underlying problem. At worst, it a cynical attempt by the most powerful film studios to gain more control over the arts media, masquerading as equality.
Now, I’m prepared to accept that maybe I’m being over-sanctimonious. After all, the film and TV industries have glamorised their stars to unrealistic beauty standards as long as they have existed, and a lot of people like that. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with only casting hot people in successful sitcoms and going to modelling agencies instead of casting agents and passing off attractiveness as talent on talent shows. Maybe I’m the only person who’s got a problem with this and I’m spoiling other people’s fun. That’s fine.
Carey Mulligan may have to pick her battles carefully, but most of us do not. You have two choices. Either take a stand against the shallow culture endemic in the performing arts that routinely values people on attractiveness and appearance at the expense of valuing their talent, and feel free to have a go at complicit critics whilst you’re at it. Or tell me I’m wrong and everything fine and valuing people on their looks is how the performing arts works – but don’t complain when the occasional critic makes the occasional comment about looks that probably got the actor the role in the first place.
This does not mean reviewers don’t need to change – just because film and TV are run by shallow hypocrites doesn’t mean we should live down to their standards. However, the current stance of singling out reviewers as sole culprits is a classic case of having your cake and eating it. If you want to tell yourself that the long-standing practice of glamourising TV and film stars to impossibly high standards is harmless, that’s fine. But to rail against critics every time one of the comments on what film and TV does all the time and say we’re the problem? Come on.