Is Sexism in Hollywood Getting Worse?

I’ve always loved Emma Thompson. First and foremost, her acting ability blows me away. Despite being a relatively ‘fluffy film’, the scene in Love Actually (don’t pretend you haven’t seen it), where she realises that her husband, Professor Snape, is having an affair, and she locks herself away in her room to cry – it never feels less powerful. I can’t relate; it’s not an experience I have ever had, and yet I’m right there with her. I feel what she feels.

The second reason I love Emma Thompson is because she is an intelligent, thoughtful 50-something woman who is still kicking ass and scoring great roles in Hollywood – so it saddened me this week to hear that even the tour-de-force that is Emma Thompson is not immune to Hollywood sexism. Quite the opposite; in an interview this week she
stated that not only has there not been any “appreciable improvement” for women during her career but that “it is in a worse state than I have ever known it”.

And what, does she say, is the overarching bias against women? Surprise, surprise - you guessed it, their appearance. She said: “I think that, for women, the question of how they are supposed to look is worse than it was even when I was young”. I read this line and was, sadly, unsurprised.

Last week, in an overdue fashion, I listened to the audiobook of Lena Dunham’s series of essays penned “Not That Kind of Girl” and was particularly interested to listen to a chapter which described the sexist and condescending things said to her in Hollywood. A
particular line struck me:

[women in Hollywood are] treated like the paper thingies that protect glasses in hotel bathrooms—necessary but infinitely disposable.”

It actually made me laugh. Not because it’s funny, it isn’t, but just out of sheer relatability. I can see that in my own life, my own encounters, my own experiences. Why should I have expected Hollywood to be any different?

When we turn on the television, flip open a magazine or settle down for the evening to watch a film on Netflix we are so often met by aesthetic perfection. Unattainable beauty standards stare back at us that even the subjects don’t measure up to – airbrushed to appear without a pore, wrinkle or freckle. With all of that trouble taken to make them look a certain way, one does wonder what intention the media has. For them to give a moving performance without wrinkle-inducing facial expressions?

In Hollywood particularly, the age old tradition of using a much younger, and more aesthetically pleasing, leading lady does not seem to be going anywhere. Take the recent film 'Focus’ starring twenty-five year old Margot Robbie and forty-six year old Will Smith, for example. Or Silver Linings Playbook with twenty-four year old Jennifer Lawrence and forty year old Bradley Cooper. Not convinced? What about The Great Gatsby with then twenty-eight year old Carey Mulligan and forty year old Leonardo Dicaprio. Where are the great roles for fifty-somethings (or even thirty or forty somethings!) like
Emma Thompson?

It would be fair to say that the use of much younger actresses is partly fuelled by the media’s obsession with female youth and beauty. As a director, adding a sex symbol is probably a sure-fire way to draw in numbers, fuel on set gossip about hook-ups and affairs and ensure your leading lady is still going to be young and beautiful for any money making sequels that are in the pipeline. Younger actresses are more likely to get sought-after magazine covers or prime time interviews publicising your film. But this is a viscous circle – where only the young and beautiful get media coverage and in turn, they are all directors want to use to court the media, and so on.

So much of the media is 'aspirational’. After years of exposure to perfection and plummeting self-confidence the media encourages us to aspire to be like these unattainable actresses; seeking perfect skin, perfect make-up and perfect hair. Following their social media, their interviews and what they advertise – fuelling an industry that
makes profits from our falling sense of self worth. Perhaps we are not conditioned to engage with older actresses in the same way. After watching Emma Thompson’s amazing performance I did not google which shade of eyeshadow she wore during filming like I shamefully did for Natalie Portman in 'Thor’.

And yet, Thompson’s performance has stayed with me all these years later. I know that a film she is in, is a film I am going to want to watch. I know I am interested in what she has to say and, just for the record, I do not remember which shade of eyeshadow Natalie Portman wore.

As I stated at the beginning of this article, I am sadly unsurprised at Thompson’s comments this week. I hope, however, that a growing awareness of the way the media works and its intentions means, however slowly, that this is going to change. Women in Hollywood may be ’infinitely disposable’ to some, but I can safely say that there are many of us who care a great deal about who represents us on the big screen, and that certainly won’t change.

Image sourced from The Times Newspaper Online.

Words by Emma Lentz