You get paid to be looked at. You get paid for looking away. The now infamous profile by Steve Marche, “Megan Fox Saves Herself”, embodies both ideas. It is an essay centered around looking, her moon pale skin, her divine symmetries; where another piece might note the sweater or unruly hair of the subject, here, the physical essence is its heart. This looking is not simply lexical, there are accompanying photos. The actress may not have been paid, or paid only a token fee, for this attention, but she gets the publicity of a magazine cover. There is also a looking away: the writer’s focus is only pm the extraordinary beauty of this person, the fame of these looks, and the evocation of mystic ritual to somehow capture the power of this woman’s symmetries. Though this entire transaction is financial (Fox gets her cover publicity, Esquire gets sales and clicks with their cover), the more direct, finance-based, question is never asked: is it possible that this beautiful woman, famous for her beauty, isn’t bankable at all?
The profile, almost always of female celebrities, where you get proximity and don’t get anything like proximity, did not begin and end with this piece, but is part of a long, painful tradition. The perspective of the essay reproduces the perspective of the accompanying photos: a beautiful woman, a more beautiful woman than we will ever know, is briefly made known to us, in her underwear or intimates, her being known to us, briefly, a moment of great significance to the humble man, because her looks are touched by the divine. For a small interval, a goddess walks among us. Such a profile enforces a relationship between an attractive woman and a writer, of object and adulator, and both parties hate it. It opens up both for mockery for playing these roles. “Esquire’s Interview with Megan Fox Is the Worst Thing Ever Written” wrote Jamie Lee Curtis Taete; five years prior, Ron Rosenbaum had asked1, of an essay on Angelina Jolie which accompanied a photo of her nude with a sheet, is this “The worst celebrity profile ever written?”. That the process is openly disliked by both is there in the profile itself, by Tom Chiarella of Halle Berry, “Halle Berry’s Date with a Perfect Stranger”: “I never like meeting celebrities. Worst part of the job, really. Invading someone’s life, if only for a moment — lousy. Everything you do is built upon a trust that is illusory at best, an utter lie at worst.” Chiarella describes throwing up all morning before these interviews, and of how one writer feels sickest right before the car arrives to take him to the meet: the sort of physical reaction one expects before a sitdown with a mafia chief or the head of a country’s secret police. They asked me, Chiarella has to repeat to himself, over and over again. They asked me.
That the writing is bad is not due to the writer, but the Procrustean bed in which he has been fitted: the woman will be photographed and positioned as an object of divine beauty, not simply as an attractive, charming, or incredibly eye-catching woman, but the most beautiful woman in the (United States/World/Universe) / of (the decade/century/history of earth) (Beyoncé, for example, has just been granted by GQ one such title). Tom Junod, the writer of the Jolie profile is a man of excellent skills with an enviable track record (there are many to choose from, but my favorite piece of his would be “Why Does Roger Ailes Hate America?”). The problem is the constraint of writing an ode to a building that is not a building, a garden that is not a garden, a statue that is not a statue.
The beauty is presented as something mystic, something without limit, something outside man, infinity. This is not a new idea, and is simply a modern extension of what can be found in Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex:
To be certain, each of the sexes embodies the Other in the eyes of the complementary sex; but to his man’s eyes it is, in spite of everything, the woman who is often regarded as an absolute other. There is a mystical surpassing insofar as “we know that in and of ourselves we are insufficient, hence the power of woman over us, like the power of Grace.” The “we” here represents only males and not the human species, and faced with their imperfection, woman is the appeal of infinity.
That the woman does not simply have gorgeous skin or hair, but must be written of to embody this infinity is what provokes the risible metaphors. This infinity calls to mind the mystic and the overwhelming, so images associated with these are cited, and the association is ridiculous. Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day, asked one scribbler; that he was writing of a boy doesn’t matter. Simple modest lust has found more than enough in a newfound day to convey the pleasure in seeing the woman who carries the nimbus of all our hopes and appetites. Infinity, however, demands something greater; the Jolie profile asks, shall I compare thee to 9/11? The Fox piece: shall I compare thee to an Aztec sacrifice? What about the search for bigfoot? Leprechauns?
Like nuclear war, which Angelina Jolie’s gorgeous looks may or may not have been compared to, the only way to win this game is not to play it. Even, however, when the game is exposed as a game in the first paragraph of such a profile, the game continues to be forced on others. Here is Bill Zehme, a biographer of Andy Kaufman, laying it all out in the opening of his feature, “The Heather Graham Story”:
Here in the new world of magazine making, it is a distinct pleasure to give you precisely what you want. It is a pleasure most distinct. For instance, the various persons who nowadays frequently appear on our covers without wearing very many clothes appear there for you and for people just like you. They know that you want them to appear there as much as we want them to, especially because you want them to. Often, these cover persons are photographed weeks before a writer is dispatched to divine their inner truths and tender secrets–that which becomes the nutmeat of the text (this) that accompanies photographs like the ones you may be noticing at present (those).
What follows is less a profile of Graham than an examination of the celebrity profile process itself:
Here in the new world of celebrity appraisal, this is how things have been working: A writer is first permitted to meet a famous subject someplace other than the subject’s home (intrusive, presumptuous), and then they Go Do Things together (or Create Events) so that the writer can observe the subject attempt to Approximate Reality, whereupon the writer can then write about these experiences as though they were, in fact, actual unchoreographed happenstance, so that the reader will gain visceral glimpses of revelatory behavioral traits, or candor, thus rich insight. If this sounds like fun, it is. Publicists and editors generally broker the details of such staged assignations between client and writer, so that the initial meeting will often feel like a blind date–albeit one set up by other people whose judgment (both parties pray) will be trustworthy. If this sounds exciting, it is.
This was one way to evade the usual indignities; the other is “Halle Berry’s Date with a Perfect Stranger”, where the profile is actually an interview of Tom Chiarella by Berry, with the writer, Tom Chiarella, appearing in the footnotes. It’s more entertaining than Zehme’s piece, and probably the best I’ve read in this cringeworthy genre: the hilarious buddy movie that the actress hasn’t made yet. Berry laughs at the fact that Chiarella is trying to lose weight and avoids the bread, but eats the pastrami. “Hey, genius, ever heard of the Atkins diet?”, quips a footnote. The essay does not feel like an escape to a gossamer world of breath-taking unearthly objects, but very much our own. Chiarella writes of an ex-wife delivering premature babies from crack addicts who quote scripture instead of taking birth sedatives. When Berry enters the restaurant, her name is sounded through the crowd of diners like a drum signal, and the sensation does not feel welcome or comforting, a sensation far more acute than the banality celebrity is hard stuff, guys!, but Berry takes no notice: “The woman could walk a steel wire through an ice storm”, Chiarella writes, admiringly. That the work of Zehme and Chiarella has not ended the genre is because movies still need advertising, celebrity profiles are free (or close to it) advertising, and what Zehme and Chiarella do is not safe. The Graham profile shifts the focus to the profile itself; in the Berry profile, Chiarella comes off better than Berry, simply because one is an experienced writer, and one isn’t: even a goddess has her limits.
The sole purpose of this exercise, after all, is to sell a movie and to sell mags. This is a profile designed around the photos of the woman, and its primary function is to pose this woman’s physique as something close to divine, and to present an intimacy that is not intimacy. The movies are a business, the magazines are a business, the woman is a business. This is made clear in the ways the article is made search engine friendly2. Zehme’s “The Heather Graham Story” gets the title “Heather Graham Hot Pics – Sexy Photos of Actress Heather Graham”; Chiarella’s “Halle Berry’s Date With A Perfect Stranger” has “Halle Berry Photos – Hot Pictures of Halle Berry in Lingerie”; Carla Gugino, an actress I’m greatly sympathetic to and whose talents are substantial, receives the aboveboard “Carla Gugino: A Woman We Love” and the belowboard “Carla Gugino Nude Pics – Carla Gugino Naked Pictures and Video”; Naomi Watts and Rosario Dawson are given nunly discretion with, Watts’ “Naomi Watts: The Storm Took Its Sweet Time Building” carrying “Naomi Watts Pictures – Naomi Watts Photos and Interview” while Dawson has the dignity of an article where the web page title matches that of the profile, “Breaking Commandments with Rosario Dawson”; Angelina Jolie “Dies For Our Sins”, and since she’s anyway dying, sin away with “Angelina Jolie Photos – Sexy Gallery and Profile of Angelina Jolie”; Megan Fox is offering herself up for sacrifice, as the article title implies, “Megan Fox is Saving Herself” but she’s offering herself up as well, as the web page title implies: “Megan Fox Cover Interview – Megan Fox Sexy Photos”. Fox may be a beauty that connects her to a long mystic tradition, but the essay’s accompanying photos carry the tags of the material world: “Megan Fox Lingerie”, “Megan Fox Sexy”, “Megan Fox Dress”, “Megan Fox Breasts”. It seems we campaign in poetry, govern in biology.
So, the potential reader, or more likely, potential viewer, is expected to be an impatiently sex hungry lowbrow, an inferior creature in supplicatory adoration of this greater object. Though I don’t think I’m a big fan of A.J. Jacobs’ work, his “Breaking Commandments with Rosario Dawson”, assumes the aptest pose for all this: because of a book he was writing that I don’t think I want to read, he must live biblically, spending some time with the gorgeous actress without besmirching himself with sinful thoughts. That he must be so close to this woman who will be presented as an erotic object, without any erotic possibility, where the very evasion of the erotic only emphasizes the erotic quality of the object, all these are the common traits of the writer’s role in these profiles, acting as the reader’s proxy; the dutiful schoolboy composing laudatory odes of this distant goddess, all while trying so very hard not to masturbate.
That this approach is not inevitable given its subject, even a female performer who defines herself by her sex, can be found in other profiles. There is the possibility that “Jenna Jameson’s Forbidden Desires”, about the porn star, and “The Dirtiest Girl In The World”, about Sasha Grey have a different tone because the writer is female than male, and certainly the talents of Vanessa Grigoriadis, the author of both, are formidable3, but a large part of the distinction is the simple choice to write of these women, not as objects of divine beauty briefly granted to humanity, but as one writes of any man or woman, the closely observed details forming a portrait, which, though not unsympathetic, does not create the amorphous pliant image of, to employ the Esquire style, hot sexy Sasha Grey acting hot and sexy! Jameson comes across as savvy, tough, with a growing disenthusiasm for porn, and a low simmering hostility towards the rest of the world. Do you remember me from that night in New York, asks a fan, I spent twenty thou on you. If you spent twenty thou on me, Jameson replies, I would have remembered you, before she turns away4. There’s a mention of how awful it is to get your period in Vegas, and only one mention, in the story’s middle of her looks: “Her body is really beautiful. Everything except for her breasts is utterly in proportion, her skin creamy, thighs and ass taut, no evident blemishes or cellulite.”
Grey comes across as a horny boy’s genie wish, the typical such wish gone awry, though it’s exactly what’s been wished for: a beautiful smart girl, who’s also into girls, with the sexual hunger and attitude of a man. Sometimes women are referred to by their genitalia, and some might refer to female genitalia as an abyss: Grey is an abyss that stares back. The overwhelming sense of her is someone smart, cold, dedicated, and intimidating, able to switch an erotic hunger on and off like a switch. She lives a carnal life on-screen, but an aesthete’s one off: she has only slept with six men, doesn’t do drugs, doesn’t drink. Again, there is only a brief, unpoetic mention of her looks: “At five feet six and 110 pounds, with straight black hair that shoots to her lumbar spine, Grey’s naked body is exquisite and natural, with taut skin free of blemishes and tattoos (she resembles Kate Beckinsale in physique, and her affect is a similar mix of languor and brutal hauteur).” In different circumstances, she might have been a hedge fund manager rumored to own a mansion with a well-equipped dungeon, or the notorious head of a revolutionary cell, known throughout tsarist russia for her discipline, endurance, and lack of mercy. “You’re like the wife!”, she yells at her sweet, liberal fiancé. As they say, this is what you want, this is what you get.
Another approach can be found in, “Leap of Faith” by Adam Green, last month’s Vogue profile of Anne Hathaway. It is actual life sculpted into fantasy, though a fantasy as active subject, rather than object, a fantasy that would appeal to some women: being very successful in a competitive and glamorous profession, getting the role of Fantime, being photographed by Mario Testino, ending up married to a solid, kind man, wedded in a wedding gown designed by Valentino. Though Steve Marche, in the Fox profile, turns up his nose at many attractive women, I think even he would concede the beauty of Hathaway, but this quality is only given a one sentence mention: “Hathaway is known for walking the red carpet in Valentino or Stella McCartney, but I can report that she also looks pretty swell in a T-shirt and jeans.” Her looks are obvious, and they must be considerable if she’s on the cover of Vogue, but the degree of such beauty goes unstressed. Dwelling on such a thing would imply less a gift, than an inconvenience – being a well-admired statue gets in the way of doing actual work. For this is the other striking difference from the other profiles, as it gives lengthy space to her surrounding workplace of Les Misérables, what the part involves, and what she did to prepare for it. It remains, I think, movie life portrayed as fantasy: there are no saccharine episodes, but we get only the good moments of film-making, a hard-working cast and crew getting along. That she is at work, actual difficult work, of which she is a part of a larger project, rather than a vanity piece seemingly designed around her, there is no question, and that this is part of the fantasy there is no question either; the active achieving life, rather than life as still object. At one point, on set and in costume, Hathaway, rail thin with two missing teeth, asks the Vogue writer, teasingly, aren’t you going to tell me how I look? It is followed with: “Welcome to my world.” One wonders, what world? The world of acting, or the world where it’s decided one’s chief role is as an object of desire and all else is a detriment to that?
Work is what all these women seek, and it is the search for work, the difficulty of finding good work in Hollywood, which is the undertone of many of the profiles. “We are supposed to be actors, aren’t we?”, asked Carla Gugino with exasperation over people being unable to link her to a specific part from the varied ones she’s played. In 2000, Heather Graham was declared to be the twenty-sixth sexiest woman in the world, but: “it’s still hard to get some jobs.” Adam Stein writes in “The Summer of Jessica Biel” of her role in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, “there has got to be better material than this.” Or, perhaps not, he thinks, as he moves on to her work in Cellular and Blade: Trinity. Biel, in the profile: “I want choices. I want options. I want to lay out all the directions I could go and have the ability to choose.”
Doing publicity such as this, to be photographed in your underwear and for others to wax lyrical about, supposedly expands the choices available to you, demonstrating that you are co-operative and willing in the studio’s wishes, that you will do your part to generate publicity for a movie; of course, such publicity demands are all in your contract, but you are helpful enough to allow them to be in your contract. The humble demographic mass of men may have nothing like the powers of this exceptional woman, a goddess, but they have one: they can make her strip. In being given the gift of one infinity, another is taken away, because beauty fades. The woman defined as a divinity by her looks will discover soon that she is no longer divine, and she will be defined by what she used to be, what she is not now, a fallen goddess, and people will take pleasure in her taking this fall, at her arrogance for even assuming a title of divinity, even when it was given to her by others. In reply to a Slate article, “Porn and the media: How the pornography industry wants to be covered”, one commenter wrote: “‘Entourage’ in no way means that Sasha Grey has gone mainstream. She will be back doing the adult film stuff in no time, if she isn’t already. Because she’s good at it, and not very good at all at the mainstream stuff.” It was said, I think, not without glee, and even as cold-blooded an animal as Grey might feel heartbreak at this dismissal. Some glee might be felt over this heartbreak as well, as if some sword had finally managed to pierce the skin of some deadly beast.
Marche, in an infamous passage of “Megan Fox Saves Herself”, writes:
Megan Fox is a bombshell. To be a bombshell in 2013 is to be an antiquity, an old-world relic, like movie palaces or fountain pens or the muscle cars of the 1970s or the pinball machines in the basement. Bombshells once used to roam the cultural landscape like buffalo, and like buffalo they were edging toward extinction.
Liberation and degradation both played their part. If you want to see naked women, of virtually any kind, do virtually anything to their bodies, it’s a click away. And women no longer need to be beautiful in order to express their talent. Lena Dunham and Adele and Lady Gaga and Amy Adams are all perfectly plain, and they are all at the top of their field.
There’s no doubt that this transformation has been overwhelmingly excellent. But we’re losing something in this process. Because creativity is, was, and always will be sexual. Some of the very first works of art were figures of hugely fecund women dropped all over Europe tens of thousands of years ago. American movies expressed that great fusion of sex and art, too. They are magnificent pagan dreams, utterly profane and glorious. Such movies need bombshells. They need to consume beautiful flesh in their sacrifices.
De Beauvoir, in Second Sex, anticipates all this, and invokes the mystic tradition just as Marche does:
In any case, some will object that if such a world is possible, it is not desirable. When woman is “the same” as her male, life will lose “its spice.” This argument is not new either: those who have an interest in perpetuating the present always shed tears for the marvelous past about to disappear without casting a smile on the young future. It is true that by doing away with slave markets, we destroyed those great plantations lined with azaleas and camellias, we dismantled the whole delicate Southern civilization; old lace was put away in the attics of time along with the pure timbres of the Sistine castrati, and there is a certain “feminine charm” that risks turning to dust as well. I grant that only a barbarian would not appreciate rare flowers, lace, the crystal clear voice of a eunuch, or feminine charm. When shown in her splendor, the “charming woman” is a far more exalting object than “the idiotic paintings, over-doors, decors, circus backdrops, sideboards, or popular illuminations” that maddened Rimbaud; adorned with the most modern of artifices, worked on with the newest techniques, she comes from the remotest ages, from Thebes, Minos, Chichén Itzà; and she is also the totem planted in the heart of the African jungle; she is a helicopter and she is a bird; and here is the greatest wonder: beneath her painted hair, the rustling of leaves becomes a thought and words escape from her breasts. Men reach out their eager hands to the marvel; but as soon as they grasp it, it vanishes; the wife and the mistress speak like everyone else, with their mouths: their words are worth exactly what they are worth; their breasts as well. Does such a fleeting miracle — and one so rare — justify perpetuating a situation that is so damaging for both sexes? The beauty of flowers and women’s charms can be appreciated for what they are worth; if these treasures are paid for with blood or misery, one must be willing to sacrifice them.
The poses in the photos from the Fox piece, the whole purpose of the enterprise, glow not so much with sensuality, but boredom. One, of Fox lying on a couch in a white dress with a partly see through top, evokes despair. What perhaps helped Fox as much as her appearance in Transformers were some accompanying photos for a GQ story (“Megan Fox was a Teenage Lesbian!”, by Mark Kirby), shot by Terry Richardson, which emanate a raw, nasty sexiness5. The current Esquire pictures, especially the cover, suggest a hostage situation: the game is dull now, the game has been dull for quite a while. In “The Self-Manufacture of Megan Fox” by Lynn Hirschberg, she complained, “I do live in a glass box. And I am on display for men to pay to look at me. And that bothers me. I don’t want to live that character.” That was three years ago.
Occasionally, I copy the sentence of the book I’m reading so I can keep track of where I am. One, from my notes, is “We won’t be pinned down, either. We have no one law that governs us. For me there is only one law: I am I.” It’s from Lawrence’s Twilight of the Unconscious; but I was sure it was from The Second Sex.
(Originally, this piece was supposed to be part of something slightly longer, dealing with other themes – whether it ever assumes this other, native ideal, is an open question. On July 18th, 2014, footnote #5 was added.)
1 Though I knew of this piece beforehand, and was planning on referencing it, I think I would be remiss if I did not mention that a Slate podcast which deals with, among other subjects, the Steve Marche profile, brings it up as well, along with the earlier Lynn Hirschberg piece on Fox. I would also be remiss if I didn’t note that Junod gave a reply to Rosenbaum’s piece: “Tom Junod Responds To 2,000-Word Slate Swipe”.
2 Again, I would be remiss if I did not mention that Choire Sicha, in his evisceration of the Marche piece, “Lena Dunham, Adele, Lady Gaga, Amy Adams All Very Ugly, Says ‘Esquire'”, also brings up the strange contrast between the titles written for swooning hearts, and the titles written for, well, let’s say more earthly purposes, and designed for search engines; the slate podcast makes the point as well.
3 Though just about every by Grigoriadis is worth reading, I’ll quote a section from her recent “Bret Easton Ellis’s Real Art Form Is the Tweet”:
And then we’re sauntering down the well-proportioned corridors of the mall at the same lugubrious tempo as everyone else, and he’s talking about the Microsoft swag event in Venice last week, and he’s saying “it’s crazy it’s so nice out—it’s the winter.” And he buys some noise-canceling Bose headphones that he selects from under a blue sign with white lettering that reads GIVE THEM WHAT THEY REALLY WANT and we go into the Mac store to get him an iPhone case and he looks at them but thinks they’re too expensive and he gets flustered and says “it’s so fucking annoying” but buys one anyway. And we’re back outside waiting for a coffee and people are buying Christmas cards and he’s talking about the Gus Van Sant premiere that he walked out of last night because he likes to sit in a particular place in the theater and he was nowhere near that place.
The next paragraph begins: “In a lot of ways, it’s more Ellis’s world than ever, as if he had invented it.” And, of course, the previous paragraph, done without explicit mention of its intent, is a pitch-perfect imitation of Ellis’s style.
4 This is a slight, unmalicious, juggling of the material. I give the original section from which this is taken from.
There’s a bodyguard and a rope blocking the banquette, but people keep leaning over. “Do you remember me from that night in New York?” asks a guy with a goatee. “I spent $20,000 on you.”
“Um, I think I would remember if you spent $20,000 on me,” says Jameson, turning away.
Another man grabs her hand.
“You give me pleasure,” he whispers.
“Ewww she shrieks, cowering. “I’m so over this.”
5 The mention of this infamous photographer in this context, and perhaps in any context, perhaps requires an explanatory caveat. The allegations against Richardson go beyond what is labeled “scandalous behavior”, and fall under the catergory of coerced sex. Some of these allegations can be found at “Why I’m Finally Speaking Up About What Terry Richardson Did to Me” by Anna Del Gaizo, “Terry Richardson Is Really Creepy: One Model’s Story” by Jamie Peck, “Another Model Comes Forward With Horrible Terry Richardson Allegations” by Callie Beusman (this model would turn out to be Charlotte Waters, as mentioned in “Anonymous Model Who Accused Terry Richardson of Assault Comes Forward”, also by Beusman), “Everything Wrong With New York Magazine’s Terry Richardson Cover Story” by Callie Beusman (commenting on the original profile, “Is Terry Richardson an Artist or a Predator?” by Benjamin Wallace), and “A Horrifying Timeline of Terry Richardson Allegations, From Trash Cans to Tampon Tea” by Hannah Ongley. I think Richardson is a talented photographer, someone whose photos are very effective at coveying youth and energy, though I also think his talents are narrow. They take all things and convey only these qualities, or nothing. Where the photographs of Herb Ritts focus on textual contrasts, such as taut skin and hard grains of sand, or Helmut Newton produces unsettling, unassuring nightmare scapes, Richardson’s photos take the Hugh Hefner aesthetic of turning sex into a harmless, friendly and unthreatening playground, then amps up the mass franchise sunniness. The essay that best captures the Richardson aesthetic isn’t about Richardson, but BuzzFeed: “794 Ways in Which BuzzFeed Reminds Us of Impending Death” by Heather Havrilesky. Richardson’s photo of Megan Fox is like his photo of Mila Kunis, which is like his photo of Sasha Grey, which is like his photos of the cast of Glee: youth and sexiness is conveyed in each, the “eternal, unnervingly upbeat present tense”, to use Havrilesky’s phrase, with nothing of the actual performer conveyed. There is something in BuzzFeed‘s quizes and lists which tends to banal anonymity, and despite their erotic vibrancy, there is something in Richardson’s pictures that is ultimately anonymous – the subjects are stripmined for this erotic vibrancy, and everything else is left behind. Absent the youthful sexy feeling, when Richardson photographs Angela Lansbury, Woody Allen, or Oprah Winfrey, there is just absence. There is an emptiness underneath the happy sexiness of Richardson’s happy sexy photos, and here there is just emptiness.