Are Female Executives to Blame for Hollywood’s Unrealistic Beauty Standards?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Feb. 13 2014 2:17 PM

Industry Standard 

Are female executives to blame for Hollywood’s unrealistic beauty norms?

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That dynamic contributes to an industry in which female comments about women’s bodies can appear pointed and obvious, while persistent male influence remains unstated. “Men soften the blow a little bit, but women aren’t ashamed at all of being vicious to one another,” the actress Megan Duffy says. “I think it comes from an insecurity of our own bodies.” But it also stems from their insecurity about their role in an industry that continues to devalue them: “To survive as a woman in the entertainment industry,” she says, “you have to be a bulldog.” And men, too, take out their insecurities on actresses’ bodies. When Garlin talks about “male assholes” who focus too intently on the female form, he says “they’re all men who, in real life, would never be secure enough to have a relationship with a real woman.” These men are working out perceived professional slights, too. The increased representation of women in Hollywood, the female producer told me, “annoys some older male writers.” Men can attempt to reclaim some of their masculine power in Hollywood by shaming women’s bodies, but they can also do it by deflecting responsibility for sexism in Hollywood—shaming women for shaming women. This is “just another way of blaming women,” Soloway says. “It divides us, and keeps us fighting with each other. It’s a way of distracting us from the giant misogyny we have to deal with every day.”

The reality is that physical expectations for women are often written right into the script, and TV and film writers remain overwhelmingly male. In a series of analyses of TV comedies, Dr. Gregory Fouts, a psychology professor at the University of Calgary, has found that 76 percent of female sitcom characters are underweight. The thinner the character, the more positive comments she receives from male characters about her body; the fatter she is, the more derogatory comments she gets. And that ridicule is often reinforced by an audience laugh track. But the industry’s emphasis on female appearance also works the other way, forcing TV writers to write women as eye candy instead of real people in order to please executives. One woman who works on a long-running sitcom, and asked to remain anonymous for fear of compromising her job, says that a male executive producer turned up at casting sessions with specific physical requirements for every actress who made it on set. “When they were casting for a woman's role—usually a small supporting role in the episode—he made it very, very clear that they were not to hire an actress who wasn't ‘a perfect 10,’ regardless of how talented she was,” she says. He’d single out body parts—“her arms were too long,” “her eyes were too far apart,” “her teeth were too big,” or “her shoulders were too broad.” And the writing staff had to scramble when “that hot actress he hired for a funny role was terrible and ruined the comedy of the episode because she couldn't act.” Writers on the show were forced to “dumb down the female roles and avoid writing comedy scenes for them, because they knew it was likely our male exec wouldn't hire anyone who was actually talented or funny.” Not that a very attractive woman can’t also be funny, but when you are casting only for looks, you really narrow the talent pool. In this instance, one “male asshole” had the power to dictate the representation of women in the entire series.

In order to land roles in that landscape, actresses are incentivized to put pressure on themselves to compete on a physical level. And we’re not just talking about bankable movie stars, who are selling their glamorous looks as much as they are their characters—the standard applies even to the small-time actors tapped to play the “everyday” people who populate barstools and bookstores on network television every night of the week. Duffy, a 5-foot-tall, 92-pound actress with a dancer’s body who has appeared in small parts on Gilmore Girls, Mad Men, How I Met Your Mother, and Criminal Minds, says that on one of her first shoots as a model, the photographer asked her to “twist the angle of my body to hide my love handles,” then pinched the skin on her lower back to emphasize the point. “I think about it all the time,” Duffy says, “and it’s been eight years.” Recently, when she was cast in a role in the horror film Maniac that required her to appear nude, she says she took the initiative to put herself on a restrictive 1,200-calorie-a-day diet and up her daily exercise routine to an intense two-hour work-out—even after she’d already won the part. “The description of the character was, like, a hot girl,” she says. “The script referenced really big boobs, which I don’t have. It seemed they wanted someone who was built like a Maxim model. Because I looked a little bit different than what they originally imagined, I put pressure on myself to look as good as possible, so they knew they had hired the right person.”

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Duffy may be “taking the initiative” to put pressure on her own body, but she isn’t necessarily overcompensating. Women who do play into the industry’s appetite for younger, hotter, thinner women are often rewarded with roles. Garlin says he sat in on casting on one show where an actress came in to read in a short skirt and no underwear. “I felt like I was in Basic Instinct,” Garlin says. “It disgusted me—not that I’m disgusted by a vagina, but I don’t need to sneak looks at someone’s vagina at work,” Garlin says. But when he looked around at the other men in the room, “their faces were red, their cheeks were rosy,” and when she left, they advocated for her to get the part. “I tried to fight it,” Garlin says. “But when you have four men who are adamant, what are you supposed to do?”  

 “Unless it’s absolutely checked, people in the industry will tend toward presenting the prettiest version of everything,” Soloway says. While shooting Transparent, her new comedy pilot for Amazon starring Jeffrey Tambor and Gaby Hoffman, Soloway says she “had to get incredibly specific with my hair and makeup people. I wanted audiences to watch the show and believe that I didn’t have anyone doing makeup at all. But it wasn’t enough to say I wanted the makeup ‘natural.’ I had to be so specific. When we did Gaby’s makeup test, we went through 10 different iterations of ‘natural.’ Eventually, I had to make a point and say: ‘Pretend you’re doing makeup for a guy.’ ”

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