On The New Yorker, Scarlett Johansson, and Photo Choices …
In this week’s New Yorker, there’s a lengthy profile by Anthony Lane on Scarlet Johannson, the actress who you probably remember as Black Widow from The Avengers (or perhaps the voice of Mindy from The Spongebob Squarepants Movie … whatever’s your thing). Full disclosure: I have no strong opinion on Johannson herself. I haven’t seen most of her work, and don’t really care one way or the other about her career. It’s currently available online if you want to take a look. It details a focused, driven, intelligent, talented woman — though many are pointing out that it contains a lot of flaws (see the update at the end of this piece).
Regardless of the text itself, I found something else to be pretty notable: naturally the article is accompanied by not one, but two pictures of her staring at the camera, eyes half-lidded, face blank, mouth slightly apart, looking for all the world like a person for whom the simple act of breathing requires most of their brain cycles at any given time.
Note: the online edition only features the black and white photo so I had to take a pic of the other one with my cell phone.
This happens all the time with profiles of female celebrities. Invariably articles praising their brilliance, their dedication, and their work ethic are accompanied by “glamour” shots where the woman is posed (and sometimes dressed) to look vapid and dull, a sex object whose value is in her appearance rather than her mind. The slightly open mouth is key, and you see it again and again in glamour shots. It simultaneously broadcasts “I’m not very bright” and “I might be willing to perform fellatio.”
I don’t think this is entirely intentional, which is why it’s so insidious. If this post ever gets read by a bunch of people, many of them, including many women, will respond in the following way: “Oh, come on. She’s gorgeous. There’s nothing wrong with her acknowledging and even celebrating her own beauty.”
True. There’s nothing wrong with that, and pretty much every single one of us prefers pictures of ourselves that make us look physically attractive. That doesn’t diminish or change the fact that these particular pictures were chosen over presumably hundreds of others that didn’t feature the vacant expression, the heavy-lidded and almost-drugged eyes, and the parted lips.
Again, I’m not claiming intent here. Almost assuredly the choice was made because “hey, these photos are hot” … but that’s the point. This isn’t an intentional malicious act, it’s just something ingrained into our media. No one gives an evil cackle and twirls their mustache while choosing these pictures, it just happens. Over and over again. In many ways, that’s worse.
This kind of thing serves to undermine claims about a woman’s brains or talent, while making the focus instead on her physical beauty. It’s a problem, and it’s the sort of thing that needs to be noticed, and called out, if we’re ever going to change it.
Johannson is bad-ass as Black Window because she is strong, confident, talented, intelligent, and in charge. These are things worth celebrating, especially given the dearth of female characters in our media to whom those adjectives can be applied. The woman behind the character is equally worthy of our consideration and esteem. We don’t need pictures of her as a sex object to remind us of her value.
Update: Esther Breger does a pretty damn good job of explaining why the article itself is terrible, too, over at New Republic. Thanks to my friend Caryn for the link!