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.