Emma Stone was right to call out sexism in the media. Will other actors join her?

Time to end "rabbit food questions".

Something strange happened during an interview in American Teen Vogue last week. Exhausted from interminable questions about her hair and her ‘style icons’, Emma Stone called bullshit in the best way possible, to much applause. Listing the types of inane questions that she, and not her male co-stars, usually face, she concluded simply: ‘It is sexism.’

Of course, Stone is not the first actor to kick back against the overwhelming stream of questions women face in interviews over their diet regimes, their make-up routines and their exercise schedules (and let’s not forget how they could possibly manage to be successful while also having children).

Helen Mirren was famously furious back in 1975 when Michael Parkinson asked her whether she found that her ‘equipment’ hindered her in her aspirations to become a serious actress. She was so pissed off that she still mentions it in interviews. (Or rather, it is still asked about in interviews, and referenced in columns such as this. And thus the media feeds itself.) 

Stone and Mirren’s travails with interviewers lead us to question whether anything has really changed since 1975. Successful women are still being asked about their bodies above all else, sending the message that our appearance is what defines us; that it is our most crucial asset. Interviews by Cosmopolitan and its ugly sisters often follow an established pattern: a structure so predictable and formulaic in nature, and therefore so familiar, that Mhairi McFarlane’s pisstaking Ultimate Celebrity Interview quickly went viral earlier this year. In such interviews, cutesy little fillers such as ‘umm’, ‘er’, ‘you know?’ are interspersed with endless commentary on what the subject is eating and wearing, both at the time and on a daily basis. Invariably, the body shapes paraded on the covers of these magazines owe as much to Photoshop as they do to a personal trainer.

These women are often described as ‘impossibly thin and beautiful’, but then a piece of token advice is always offered up to remind us that we should feel bad for not achieving these heights of graphically enhanced impossibility. ‘I just eat a spinach leaf once in a while and sometimes jog from my front door to the taxi.’ Most of the time, the celeb is ‘just like you, honest’ - and allegedly dines out regularly on bacon and cheese-stuffed pizzaburgers. The subtle implication is that your failure to reach a similar state of physical and mental uniformity is an inadequacy on your part.

That can be enough to trap you into an insecurity so deep that you find yourself buying the same magazine every single month,  hoping that a ‘beauty secret’ will be revealed, as if Oracle-like knowledge of looking like Natalie Portman after you roll out of bed in the morning has just been waiting to be revealed inside the glossy pages of Grazia.

Even magazines that usually offer enlightened commentary fall short at this final hurdle: Stylist’s weekly interview with a ‘career woman’ differs notably to the interviews in its male counterpart Short List by unnecessarily mentioning the food eaten during the day for each woman they report back on, dangerously correlating calorific control with financial success.

Saying that, it’s hard to tell whether or not Stylist even asked for dietary information from their interview subjects. Perhaps women have been so indoctrinated by celeb food diaries and diet articles that a monotonous recital of every substance that has passed our lips is becoming second nature. It’s hard to know what came first: the corn fed, free-range organic chicken or the Duchy Originals egg. Either way, it’s clear that this obsession with women’s bodies is not just something celebs have to worry about.

Those reputable social scientists at Littlewoods recently conducted a study in which 2,000 women were asked to envisage their perfect bikini body, the result of which was an alarming composite image of a vacant automaton in sunglasses (they had evidently neglected to ask Tanya in Wigan for her favourite set of celebrity irises.) The tedious predictability of such shallow, familiar lines of enquiry leads us to conclude that no Western Woman is now safe from being asked about her arse as she goes about her daily business. It’s a sad state of affairs when squatting goes from signifying living rent-free in a bohemian utopia to something you do to make your posterior look like J-Lo’s. Will we be asked about our cankles next time we fill in a census? And next time a woman dares to say something insightful in a public role, will she forever carry the caveat ‘not just a pretty face’?

Which is why it’s so wonderful to see women biting back. When Anne Hathaway was recently asked how she lost ‘so much weight’, she drily asked her interviewer if he was scouting for personal advice, and assured him that he looked great as he was. Scarlett Johansson, meanwhile, highlighted how a journalist had asked her male co-interviewee ‘an interesting, existential question’ while subjecting her to ‘a rabbit food question'. Seeing these women react with  wit to the inane probing of celebrity hacks is nothing short of joyous.

If things continue in this vein, the celebrity diet/fitness/hair formula will come to be replaced by the requisite ‘sexism in the media’ question, and soon we’ll be reading confused responses to halfway-house questions such as ‘how does your hair feel about the glass ceiling?’ and ‘do your abs have anything to say about the unfair division of domestic labour?’.

So next time someone in a white coat approaches you on your local high street, clipboard in hand, to ask how you feel about your bum, you are perfectly entitled to turn around, drop your keks, and yell ‘WHY DON’T YOU ASK IT YOURSELF?’ Feminism is nothing if not an accumulation of small victories.

Emma Stone faces the media. Photo: Getty

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The “lunatic” incident showed us the real Owen Smith: and it ain't pretty

Forget the slur - what really matters is what it says about his empty promises, says David Wearing. 

Owen Smith has embarrassed himself again. Having previously called for Labour to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”, advocated negotiations with ISIS, and described himself as “normal” with “a wife and three children” while competing with a gay woman to stand for the Labour leadership, you might expect him to have learnt the value of expressing himself more carefully. But no. Not a bit of it.

At a rally on Tuesday evening, Smith described Jeremy Corbyn as a “lunatic” with no “coherent narrative about what’s wrong with Britain”. It’s an interesting choice of words from someone who needs to win over tens of thousands of Corbyn’s supporters if he is to avoid a crushing defeat in this summer’s Labour leadership election. Indeed, we may look back on this as the final nail in the coffin of Smith’s campaign.

Let’s be honest. Most of us at some stage have used casual language like this (“lunatic”, “insane”), to describe those whose rationality we don’t share or understand. I’ll admit to having done so myself. But it is wrong. It perpetuates a stigma around mental illness and damages peoples’ chances of getting the care and support they need from society. We should all cut it out, especially those of us who aspire to high public office.

Beyond this, however, Smith has driven a coach and horses through the central premise of his own campaign. Throughout the summer he has presented himself as substantively agreeing with Corbyn on almost all domestic and economic issues, and only seeking to pursue that agenda more effectively and professionally. He has set out a range of policies - including a £200bn “British New Deal”, workplace rights and more redistributive taxation - that constitute an overt appeal to the social democratic, progressive values of the hundreds of thousands who joined the party to support Corbyn and secure a clean break with the neoliberalism of New Labour.

But it is simply not credible to simultaneously say “I agree with Jeremy” and that Jeremy is a “lunatic”. No one uses the word "lunatic" to describe someone whose politics they basically share. No one says “your diagnosis of the country’s ills is incoherent, and that’s the substantive agenda I want to take forward”. Smith’s remarks indicate that, deep down, he shares the incredulity expressed by so many of his colleagues that anyone would want to abandon the Thatcher-Blair-Cameron “centre ground” of deregulation, privatisation, corporate-empowerment and widening inequality. After all, Corbyn’s narrative only appears incoherent to those who regard the post-1979 status quo as self-evidently the best of all possible worlds - give or take a few policy tweaks - rather than the very essence of “what’s wrong with Britain”.

This incident will confirm the suspicion of many Labour members that, if he did win the leadership, Smith would dilute or ditch most of the policies he has used to try and win their votes. Those fears are well founded. Take as one illustrative example the issue of immigration, where Smith has shown one face to the party while suggesting that he would show quite another to the country, as party leader.

At leadership hustings, Smith presents an enlightened, pro-immigration, anti-xenophobic stance, but in a Newsnight interview last month we saw something rather different.  When asked if there were “too many immigrants” in the UK, he replied that “it depends where you are”, giving official comfort to the post-Brexit “pack your bags” brigade. He asserted that EU migration “definitely caused downward pressure on wages” despite academic studies having repeatedly shown that this is false, and that EU migration is of clear overall benefit to the economy.

Then, calling for an “honest” discussion on immigration, Smith noted that his wife is a school teacher and that schools in their local area are under pressure from “significant numbers into South Wales of people fleeing the Middle East”. In fact, a grand total of 78 people have been resettled in the whole of Wales under the Syrian Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme. In the local authority encompassing Smith’s constituency of Pontypridd, the total number is zero.

This suggests, not someone who shares members’ values, but one who probably regards the leader’s pro-immigration stance as “lunatic”, and would prefer a return to the days when Labour erected the notorious Yarl’s Wood detention camp, rejected the vast majority of asylum applications from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and when Tom Watson put out an election leaflet reading “Labour is on your side, the Lib Dems are on the side of failed asylum seekers”.

Smith’s problem is that his mask keeps slipping. And every time it does, the choice before Labour members comes into sharper focus. On the one hand, they have a man who lacks many of the managerial and communication skills for party leadership, but who shares their values and who they can trust to fight for their agenda until a credible successor can be found. Against him stands a man they may not be able to trust, who may not share their values, and whose claims of professional competence grow more threadbare by the day. It’s a poor choice to be faced with, but Smith is at least making it easier for them.