In the wake of a couple, disastrous pieces written by male journalists about female movie stars—one on whether Renee Zellweger was the same person if she’s changed her face and voice, the other that starts with a lecherous lede on Margot Robbie—there’s been a lot of examination of what profiles of celebrities mean, how we talk about famous women, and why we need to do better. But I’ve also heard a lot of runarounds.
“The piece was bad, but I’m uncomfortable with straight-up banning men from writing about women.”
“What’s the big deal? They make their living with their face, it’s fair game.”
“We write about male actors’ bodies and faces all the time anyway.”
Here’s the thing: We don’t; not nearly in the same way, to the same degree, or placed within the same societal context. And while no one is suggesting that a ban on men writing profiles about women is something that could actually happen, it is worth interrogating what people mean when they suggest it.
They mean that they’re tired of profiles being written about women in a way that no women would ever write it. Not because all writers are special snowflakes whose words are delivered by their individual Pokemon of creativity, but because there are things men just won’t pick up about writing for, and about, women. I can ask any woman in my life and they can tell you the difference between a female character written (or shaped) by a woman, and one shaped by a man. Sometimes it’s the little details—The demented takedown of the “Cool Girl” trope in Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn—other times it’s the whole shebang that gives it away (most comic book “empowered” ladies).
Take Harley Quinn: A long, tortured history has lead her to become what many view as one of the most flawed and engaging comic book women ever. She’s strong, she’s grown into and away from an abusive relationship, she’s sexual, she’s fun. But in the hands of male comic book writers and directors she’s merely strong, fun, and—perhaps most prominently—sexy.
“Margot Robbie does have fun with the character. When the film gives her room to breathe she nails Harley’s acrobatic and madcap personality. But the movie refuses to reckon with the clearly abusive nature of her relationship with the Joker (played by Jared Leto), who spends the film trying to save her,” writes Angelica Jade in Nylon. “[Director David] Ayer can’t help gazing at her body and having characters remark on how hot she is…Instead, Suicide Squad is more content to ogle her and have her shoot off one liners that act as paltry representations of agency and humanity. ‘I sleep where I want, when I want, with who I want,’ Harley says to a guard early on in the film before licking the bar as a come-on. It’s a frat boy’s idea of empowerment.”
It’s that difference that men—even well-intentioned ones—can’t often pick up on. It’s the difference between a fictional comic book character being forced to wear skimpy clothes while crime-fighting and Beyonce choosing her next leotard for a performance. Both exist within the male gaze, but only one is able to exist (at least somewhat) independent from it.