Do Celebrities Know What Sexism Is?

Do Celebrities Know What Sexism Is?
Image:Alberto E. Rodriguez (Getty Images)

This week, New York Magazine’s pop culture vertical, Vulture, kicked off a series intended to celebrate the films of Nancy Meyers with a “Chaotic Taxonomy” of the running themes and motifs of Meyers films—roast chicken, feel-good love stories, gorgeous kitchens, etc.—that also served as a lighthearted love letter to the films themselves. Noting the themes of Meyers’s movies in a largely celebratory piece, however, was the impetus for Meyers’s daughter Hallie Meyers-Shyer, director of the film Home Again and included in the taxonomy, to label the discussion of her mother’s work “sexist” and “inappropriate,” though it was neither.

As Hollywood has faced a reckoning with its actual history of collective racism, sexism, violence, and exploitation, some celebrities have also used this reckoning as a PR tool to attempt to label any press they personally do not like as sexism. Vulture writer Rachel Handler painstakingly parsed each of Meyers’s movies for the themes that pop up continually in her work, using a wine glass rating system to award points for Meyers tropes like white wine, in a fun attempt to organize the “very specific cinematic world and language” Meyers has created through her films. The world is one Handler repeatedly explains she loves very much, her reason for undertaking this task in the first place. Meyers-Shyer, however, dislikes this praise as it focuses on the emotions, homes, and mentions of therapy in her mother’s films instead of praising movies like Private Benjamin, a movie in which joining the army teaches a woman she does not have to sign a prenup or marry a philandering French communist, as “feminist triumphs.”

“To reduce her movies to a ‘wine glass score’ is a much bigger issue than a dumb drinking game,” Meyers-Shyer wrote in a Notes App screenshot response. “It evokes an unfriendly and all too familiar feeling I thought we were past as a society.” But the “feeling” to which Meyers-Shyer seems to be referring is not feminism, it is her personal perception of being slighted by Handler who says that while Home Again was “technically” the work of Meyers’s daughter, the film smacks of the tropes and themes found in the catalog of her mother, a point that has been noted by numerous critics since the film’s release. What Meyers-Shyer is legitimizing is her personal response to professional criticism written by a woman by labeling it anti-feminist, a strategy that rings hollow when a celebrity is focused on their tarnished brand rather than the actual systemic injustices women collectively face.

“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other,” is a phrase that gets bandied about when women criticize other women. Most notably, Taylor Swift used it in response to a silly, one-sentence joke Tina Fey made about her at an awards show. But the originator of the quote herself, Madeline Albright, has clarified that she intended the place in hell for the women who benefit from the gains made by other women while also working to uphold the systemic injustices that hold other women back in an op-ed apologizing for misusing her own phrase:

“I understand that I came across as condemning those who disagree with my political preferences,” Albright wrote after suggesting that women who backed Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election were hellbound. “If heaven were open only to those who agreed on politics, I imagine it would be largely unoccupied.”

But the idea that women should only ever agree in praise of other women and even then, only praise them with only the praise they want to hear in the name of feminism pops up over and over in celebrities’ responses to their SEO. In April 2019 Olivia Munn issued a statement over gentle criticism of her sartorial choices on the fashion blog Go Fug Yourself, run by two women.

“I’ve always believed that when you choose a career that comes with an audience there are some things you sign up for,” Munn began in an “essay” posted to social media. But she does not mean “you” as in her followers, themselves likely not wealthy celebrities who attend red carpet events in order to be photographed in opulent costumes gifted by fashion designers for the express purpose of being photographed for publicity. Munn means herself. And what she was angry about was the fact that two women, whom she wrote that she does not consider “legitimate” critics, whatever the fuck that means, had the gall to not like her outfits:

“Blogs like theirs have been around for a while, with their snarkiness and hypocrisy on full display,” Munn wrote in the post. “And we’ve accepted it because as women we’ve been conditioned to believe that being publicly chastised for our weight, our looks, or our choice in clothing is an acceptable part of our existence.”

Again, she is slipping into the third person with the expectation that the woman reader will immediately spot the sexism in lighthearted criticism. But public sentiment was overwhelmingly on the side of Go Fug Yourself creators Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, who have made it a point to critique only the designer clothes worn to high profile events—where the clothes are meant to be on display—by both male and female celebrities, never their bodies or looks. The harshest criticism of Munn, as Slate notes, is correctly identifying a pair of hotpants as “absurd.”

There is no special place in hell for writers who do not like what a woman celebrity is wearing or point out that Nancy Meyers films often focus on wealthy white women with aspirational kitchens. Yet the tone of these statements read like Meyers-Shyer and Munn expect to be roundly praised for their bold, feminist stances. Munn writes that “The world woke up in 2017 but you stayed sleeping,” implicitly comparing her speaking out against criticism of her hotpants to the women, including Munn herself, who spoke about their sexual assaults in solidarity with MeToo. But what these diatribes are actually doing is subjecting women journalists to unnecessary scrutiny for simply having opinions.

Go Fug Yourself is a niche fashion blog with only a fraction of the followers Munn has. Handler, while having a pretty choice job at New York Magazine, is not a Hollywood director who has the clout of two legendary Hollywood directors backing her. But judging by the celebrity reactions to Meyers-Shyer’s Instagram post, including reassurance from Reese Witherspoon that she had, in fact, directed the movie Home Again in which Witherspoon starred, and a praise hands emoji from Mindy Kaling, it would appear that myriad other “feminist” celebrities support this myopic conflation of feminism and personal branding. (Meyers-Shyer’s Instagram account is now private, effectively sealing off the echo chamber.) Aside from Instagram, is there any special place reserved for women celebrities who will not let women critics do their jobs without being labeled sexist for doing it?

And while this debate rages afresh on social media—with Meyers-Shyer’s latest misunderstanding of feminism as a personal shield against things she does not want to hear rather than a collective political battle for reproductive, economic, and workplace rights—women who are not rich and famous are unemployed at higher rates than any time in recent history, unable to afford to keep their homes, and without childcare in the event that they do find work. It is not sexist to note that the characters in Nancy Meyers’s films are often very adept at eating pasta without staining their pristine white pantsuits, but even if it were, that is not a battle worth fighting right now when non-wealthy women collectively, and women of color especially, are fighting for their lives.

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