Last month, actress and activist Ashley Judd took a lot of heat from mainstream and social media. Pundits and bloggers alike went after her, sometimes viciously, for her appearance, pointing out that she seemed to have gained weight, especially in her face, and was no longer the "familiar beauty audiences loved her for."
Nevermind that she had been ill and treated with steroids for a month, let alone that she is now 43 years old and still quite stunning. Word went out that she'd "had work done" and it had gone badly, "messing up" her face. Ironically, Judd has countered, when she has no visible wrinkles on TV, she is also accused of having had "work done", attested to by plastic surgeons who weigh in even though they have never set eyes on her.
Judd, usually averse to publicity, did not let the insults stand. In commentary posted on The Daily Beast she faced down the frenzied media (pun intended). Underscoring that "the conversation is really a misogynistic assault on all women," she wrote, "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."
The key word in that quote for me is "voices," because while it may be time to revisit The Beauty Myth that Naomi Wolf wrote so eloquently about in 1991, I believe there is more than meets the eye in the assault on Judd's appearance. I think she was pilloried as part of the so-called War on Women.
Judd is a fine actress but she is also a strong woman who actively advocates for other women in this country and abroad (in addition to her work related to HIV/AIDS). She is therefore part of a sisterhood that has found its individual and collective voice and refuses to be silenced, ever again.
Women like that get punished. I know because it's happened to me. I've been called ugly, unlovable, unfeminine, and "probably fat" just for voicing my opinion on matters ranging from gun control to Israeli politics.
As Wolf said in her important book, "The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us." Wolf also points out that as women breach the power structures of patriarchal society, unattainable standards of female beauty are foisted upon women to punish them for their inability to achieve those standards, and perhaps more so for their resistance to male authority.
Ashley Judd gets this, of course. And although she did not specifically make the connection I'm making in terms of the hideous backlash against women who speak out on behalf of other women -- whether or not they are famous -- she did choose to address the issue because, as she said, all the talk about her was "nasty, gendered, and misogynistic" as well as "outrageous and subtle."