Sometimes it’s the smallest offense that tips annoyance into full-blown outrage. CTBoom, a rather juvenile Connecticut news/entertainment/humor site I sometimes read, recently posted a video of a McDonald’s commercial involving a Hollywood actress-type who has never heard of Connecticut. But it was the post’s title, not the commercial, that set my metaphorical hair aflame: “Moderately attractive female asks McDonald’s ‘What’s Connecticut?’”
Leaving out the ick-factor of the word “female” and the observation that the actress was conventionally pretty (HUH!?), whatever comedic value exists in a joke about West Coasters’ cluelessness about New England would exist whether the actor who uttered the punch line was male or female, attractive or not. The joke, obviously, is meant to be about ignorance.
But the real ignorance on display was on the part of the CTBoom writer, editor or whatever person came up with that headline. And the reason this inconsequential little article irritated me so much was how very common such ignorance — or feigned ignorance — has become. It didn’t help that it came on the heels of several high-profile incidents demonstrating how a woman’s lack of desirability can wipe all other, more pertinent thoughts from some men’s minds.
Take, for example, the case of Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli. BBC presenter John Inverdale, no doubt thinking himself quite profound, pondered whether Bartoli’s father had ever encouraged her to work harder because “listen, you are never going to be, you know, a looker.”
Leaving aside, again, the fact that Bartoli is a perfectly average-looking woman, the impulse is to reach through the screen, grab Inverdale and shake him with the hope that some of his dormant brain cells will awake and allow him to do his job. (Sports commentator, that is, not fifth-grade-bully-turned-model scout.)
Bartoli herself downplayed the kerfuffle when asked about it, saying “It doesn’t matter, honestly…Have I dreamt about having a model contract? No. I’m sorry. But have I dreamed about winning Wimbledon? Absolutely, yes.” And it’s entirely possible that as a professional athlete with more important concerns than whether certain cretins from the BBC want to sleep with her, she truly doesn’t mind comments like these. Later, though, she invited Inverdale to “come and see me… in a ball gown and heels and, in my opinion, I think he may change his mind.” Which, like Inverdale’s non-apology, rather misses the point.
Though it certainly seems more frequent these days, the hijacking of a story by a man’s opinion on the physical flaws of one of its female characters is nothing new. As a college student watching coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, I remember feeling dismayed at how much of it seemed to center around Lewinsky’s supposedly sub-par appearance. I wondered whether, had that infamous blue dress been a size two and its wearer a WASP, all of those men would be gossiping about some other aspect of this salacious tale. Since that was 15 years ago, I did some Googling to make sure my memories were correct, and found stories dating from just a few years ago about Monica Lewinsky being fat. And yes, I feel bad, as I type this, that I am now creating yet another article linking the words “Lewinsky” and “fat.”
This is a major aspect of why I wish people would stop talking about Lena Dunham so much. One of the highest-profile bashers of Dunham’s looks was Howard Stern. Picking women apart like a buyer at a cattle auction has been Stern’s shtick for years, but many of those women offer themselves up to be the kettle to Stern’s pot. Dunham did not; she simply created and starred in a television show. Dunham, like Bartoli, was cool about the whole thing, and Stern, like Inverdale, eventually quasi-apologized. But the record of their exchange — and his assertion that seeing her onscreen without clothes feels “kind of like a rape” — is permanent.
There was another take on this recently, a more nuanced and compassionate one. A video of Dustin Hoffman, speaking about his 1982 film Tootsie, has been making the Internet rounds. In the interview, conducted in 2012, Hoffman expresses regret about the “too many interesting women I have not had the experience to know in this life” because they were not attractive enough to warrant his attention. The actor is talking about ignoring undesirable women, not openly trashing them. But his awakening is connected to other men’s preoccupation with calling out the fat, the ugly, the merely “moderately attractive.”
Hoffman’s empathy is rare, and it is indeed unfortunate for him (and countless other heterosexual men) that they’ve lost many potential friends, business associates and perhaps even (horrors!) lovers due to this particular sort of blindness.
But the real loss here is much greater than any one man’s oversight or any one woman’s disappointment. The real loss is to a society that dismisses the talents of innumerable individuals who go through life either unnoticed, or noticed only for their flaws, either actual or invented. It is the loss of the discussions we could have, the appreciation or criticism we could bestow, and the progress we could make, if we didn’t keep having to stop to tell some jerk to shut up.