After speculation that her ‘puffy’ face was a sign that she’d undergone plastic surgery, Ashley Judd responded at the Daily Beast with what has been harkened as a kickass feminist essay, a comment on how patriarchy functions and a response to the Mentality of Patriarchy. And it’s received such a positive response from feminist* sites for a good reason: it’s a good, strong argument against the negative effects of patriarchy in general and the objectification of women in particular.
Of course, not only is it good, but, coming from someone who has been in the business for over twenty years – and who therefore has the ability to take this conversation to the media in a way that most feminists probably only wish they could emulate – it has the potential to bring this ongoing conversation to the forefront of popular culture. Until the next hot topic pops up, at least.
Jumping right into her commentary on the way in which women’s bodies are objectified, Judd opens the essay with the following:
The Conversation about women’s bodies exists largely outside of us, while it is also directed at (and marketed to) us, and used to define and control us. The Conversation about women happens everywhere, publicly and privately. We are described and detailed, our faces and bodies analyzed and picked apart, our worth ascertained and ascribed based on the reduction of personhood to simple physical objectification. Our voices, our personhood, our potential, and our accomplishments are regularly minimized and muted.
Judd goes on to argue that patriarchy “is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it,” challenging the idea that patriarchy is simply the product of men’s subjugation of women and insisting, rather, that it’s a system in which we all take part, but which “privileges, inter alia, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women.”
If you’re like me, you’re reading all of this so far and thinking, ‘Yes, yes, YES!’ This is a feminist argument, there’s no denying that. And it’s great to hear it coming from someone on ‘the inside,’ as it were.
The response to Judd’s essay has been explosive enough that she’s been able to continue her conversation on a number of shows (according to the Jezebel article, within “the past 24-hours, Judd has appeared on the NBC Nightly News, Rock Center, The Today Show and Access Hollywood Live“) and as much as I would like to say that she’s done an absolutely amazing job of following through on her argument, this is, unfortunately, where it starts to fall apart for me.
The following is an excerpt of the conversation that Judd and the hosts had on Access Hollywood Live (the second video in the Jezebel article):
Billy Bush: Let me ask you this. Every time – often times – if a woman comes in – and let’s use, [I couldn't work out her name] was in the other day, I’ll use her as an example, she lost 50 pounds, said to her ‘wow, you’ve lost 50 pounds’ – she’s been open about it – ‘you look fantastic! God, you look great.’ Is that – that’s an objectification, in – to some degree. Is that okay? ‘cause I think most women, when you tell them ‘you’ve lost weight, boy, you look wonderful,’ they feel good about it – they like that.
Ashley Judd: And I believe that is one of the ways that it’s very cunning and insidious. Because it is a compliment, yet it’s a backhanded compliment. And, you know, when I hear…or see someone who’s carrying that kind of weight, what I think is that there’s probably some disordered eating, that there are health problems, that there’s self-esteem issues, that there – that, you know, that there’s a lot more than just the number on the scale.
I understand that I might be expecting a bit much from Judd – after all, this was an off-the-cuff question and she didn’t exactly have time to think about her response before giving it – but I find that her pathologisation of fat within the framework of a discussion about the damaging effects of the media’s focus on women’s bodies is, at best, highly problematic.
There’s also more than a hint of this same concern about fat within Judd’s essay:
Four: When I have gained weight, going from my usual size two/four to a six/eight after a lazy six months of not exercising, and that weight gain shows in my face and arms, I am a “cow” and a “pig” and I “better watch out” because my husband “is looking for his second wife.” (Did you catch how this one engenders competition and fear between women? How it also suggests that my husband values me based only on my physical appearance? Classic sexism. We won’t even address how extraordinary it is that a size eight would be heckled as “fat.”)
Within this paragraph, Judd is making a salient point about how weight gain is used as a weapon against women, with the media trying to tell them that they should feel insecure about themselves and, as she says herself, creating a sense of competition between women as a result.
But she also goes to great length to justify, or explain away, her weight gain, by saying that she just didn’t exercise for six months (which is “lazy”). And, while she makes the point that heckling a woman for being “fat” at a size eight is “extraordinary,” there’s something that I find troubling about her specificity in this instance. I wonder if, in light of her comment about weight on Access Hollywood Live, she would feel the same about a woman who was a size ten, or eighteen, or thirty-two? I admit, this is conjecture on my part – and perhaps it’s even unhelpful conjecture, insofar as it is attempting to go beyond what is said and therefore risks being completely off the mark – but there is an almost nervous repudiation of fat here that, again, I find troublingly problematic.
There is a similar distancing from fat in Judd’s closing paragraph, where she asks the question, “who makes the fantastic leap from being sick, or gaining some weight over the winter, to a conclusion of plastic surgery?” Again, the justification – It happened over winter! That happens to everyone! – makes for an odd bump in an otherwise smooth argument.
I don’t think that any of this makes Judd’s overall argument less worthy of the positive recognition that it has received. This is a conversation that needs to continue – and if Judd can use her celebrity to push this in the mainstream media, then all the power to her! She is clearly more then capable of making the points that need to be made; and she’s doing it within an overtly feminist framework, using words like “patriarchy” on talk shows and filling me with happiness along the way.
I can even understand that, as someone who has lived in the lime light for so long, she would have internalised issues about her weight. It makes sense!
I just wish that, when making the point that objectification “affects each and every one of us, in multiple and nefarious ways: our self-image, how we show up in our relationships and at work, our sense of our worth, value, and potential as human being,” that she wasn’t simultaneously making comments about weight that reinforce the very same system that she’s set out to fight. Because this is not a conversation that should have any “buts” or “unlesses” attached to it.
* I’m only including this because, well, Jezebel…