They were talented, so do looks really matter?

// 25 March 2007

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Barbara Ellen, in an article in The Obsever today, denounces Hollywood for its “prettying up” of historical women, and their distorted portrayal in the adaptations of their life stories to the silver screen.

Ellen’s article is interesting in that it does draw attention to the fulfilled temptations of big shot directors to cast women as the part of strong female role models who more effectively fit the cultural template of what constitutes feminine, both historically and in the present. It seems that it’s acceptable for us to have talented and successful foremothers, as long as they don’t have a faces like bulldogs chewing a nest wasps.

This has resulted in what Ellen has called “wilfully inappropriate casting,” which unfortunately often dilutes and devalues the strength and achievements of the historical women who fought to carve a place for themselves in their chosen field at a time when society was strongly patriarchal. Beatrix Potter, for example, was in reality short-haired, strong-willed and exuded an air of wilful confidence in one of the very few portraits that still exist of her.

Is this far removed from Renee Zellweger’s portrayal as the headstrong, yet pretty and demure, blonde? Yes, argues Ellen, since:

“…’Beatrix,’ as played by Renee, was all twee glances and bunny pouts. Bridget Jones. Bridget Jones in a bustle. Nothing like the woman in the photograph at all.”

She goes on to criticise the casting of Ann Hathaway, the willowy dark-hared Hollywood glamstress who was cast as Jane Austen in the recently released movie Becoming Jane, who was by far “too green to convey Austen’s complex hinterland.” Austen, a prolific writer in her day and one of the most influential female novelists in literary history, unfortunately now also has to suffer the injustice of her image being ‘prettied up’ on the cover of Wordsworth classic novels since, as the MD of Wordsworth Editions Helen Trayler remarks:

“The poor soul didn’t have anything going for her in the way of looks.”

Aww, if only Austen was as good with the blusher brush as she was with the quill, eh? Or maybe not. All this does is to confirm the double-standards that exist in Hollywood, altering our perception of what constitutes successful. Philip Seymour Hoffman, although not movie star attractive in the traditional sense, won an Oscar for his portrayal of Truman Capote, but it seems that for women to be considered successful, and watchable, they also have to be attractive and look ‘fuckable,’ just to get those box office figures up.

Attractiveness has become a way by which society judges our success, whereas for men they can just be appreciated for their talent alone. As Ellen remarks women have to be portrayed as “wispy, likeable, ‘fragrant,’ characters,” even though this completely dismiss real-life documentation, as it’s not acceptable for women to be seen as too strong, too confident; they still have to display some degree of wispiness so that however successful they seem, the implication is that though they feign to complete independence they could still benefit from the stabilising influence a strong patriarch would be for her. Yawn.

However, perhaps to articulate this argument is in itself counter-productive? After all, Hollywood caters for the mainstream, the production team very often more pre-occupied with getting bums on sits in cinemas throughout the world rather than holding on to the vestiges of artistic integrity. That’s not to justify their recourse to the unrealistic, but what it means is that a majority of the audience are not elite members of the literati but those who know little about, or who no nothing at all, about the historical figures they are watching brought to life in front of them.

Therefore, maybe the inaccuracies of their portrayal can be excused since what these films have done, and continue to do, is introduce an audience to a number of strong female role models and books about which they would have otherwise remained ignorant. So speculation as to whether or not Ann Hathaway looks more breathtaking in a corset than the real Austen ever did aside, at least this, as was also the case for Potter, has provide greater exposure for her work, drawing attention to the written word, which is something that would probably have pleased both women.

Ellen’s argument that these women have been made to look too pretty is valid, yes, and is not as controversial as the initial belief that they were not aesthetically pleasing enough in the flesh to warrant a more accurate representation, but it still demonstrates an unnecessary preoccupation will looks that deflects from the wider implications of this cinematic genre.

Photo by JIGGS, shared under a Creative Commons License

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