The following essay is entitled “Stasis” and was written by actress Ally Sheedy. It is an excerpt from the new collection Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture edited by Roxane Gay. The book is out now.
I was eighteen years old when I went to Hollywood to begin my acting career, after growing up in NYC and being raised, in great part, by feminists. My mother, Charlotte, took me to small grassroots meetings that eventually evolved into the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, and I had listened to arguments about the framework of the Equal Rights Amendment, gone on marches, and attended consciousness-raising sessions.
In one session designed for the kids, a woman demonstrated how her walk changed when she put on high heels. What I clearly remember is someone saying, “If I’m wearing those heels I can’t run away.”
Hollywood was, to put it mildly, a shock.
On one of my first auditions, a director told me he liked me but could not possibly cast me because there was a “beach” scene. Apparently, my thighs and ass were going to get in the way of my fledgling career. I was five seven and weighed about 130 pounds.
It did not matter that I did a good job on auditions, that I was smart, that I had natural ability. My thighs were the “thing.”
So I dieted. All. The. Time. I learned that whatever I might contribute to a role through talent would be instantly marginalized by my physical appearance. I learned that my success would be dependent on what the men in charge thought about my face and my body. Everything I had learned back home had to go out the window as I adapted to these new requirements: what I looked like was paramount.
It wasn’t even just whether I was pretty or thin; it was that I wasn’t sexy. When I managed to land my first part in a big movie, I was given a ThighMaster as a welcome present and told to squeeze it between my legs at least a hundred times a day. A director of photography told me he couldn’t shoot me “looking like that” when I walked on set one day. He said it in front of the whole crew. I was too wide, I guess, in the skirt they had given me to wear.
A few years later, I was told point-blank that my career was moving slowly because “nobody wants to fuck you.” There was something about me, sexually, that wasn’t selling.
It was a challenge for me starting out, but it seems almost impossible for young women now.
I do volunteer work in film and theater with teenage students at a public school in New York. The kids are gifted and, in my junior class, we recently completed a performance of Shakespeare scenes for the rest of the theater department. I asked four sixteen-year-old actors with real acting chops and courage what they’d experienced trying to make the leap to professional work: Kai, Michelle, Layla, and Jo.
Kai, who played Lady Macbeth, told me she was thirteen when she first got a call from an agent, and they told her father to leave the room: “Then they asked me how tall I was and for my weight and that I should put my weight on my résumé,” she said. “They asked me for my cup size. They told me to turn around and then told me ‘Work on your sex appeal.’ ”
At fifteen, she was asked if she would feel comfortable “humping a table” in the audition room and her mother was asked if she would be “comfortable” with Kai working in only a bra and panties.
She explained that she’s now sent to auditions in the “slut category” and was told to diet down to a size 4 because her agent would not re-sign her contract if she were above that size. So, Kai said, she understands that “body size comes first”: it doesn’t matter that she can handle Lady Macbeth at sixteen, because she will be playing thin and overly sexualized characters if she wants to get work.
Layla, who chose to play Iago in a scene from Othello, also told me that casting people have been “typing” her: “It’s my boob size, butt size, skin tone. I get cast as the hairdresser and not the pretty sorority girl.”
Michelle, who played Lady Anne in Richard III and also sings, overheard a director saying, “I was so distracted by her boobs I couldn’t hear her voice” after an audition. For some roles, she said, “I’m too busty. I’m too curvy.”
And it’s not just in the acting world: “I was in class and a teacher kept staring at me and staring,” Michelle told me. “He kept bringing up his wife to me. Then I left class and my friends told me he said, ‘Man, I wish I was still in high school’ about me. I reported it and nothing happened. Even teachers will see you in that light.”
These are gifted adolescent women who don’t get to be judged on their impressive talent: their bodies are already paramount to the work they want to do and it’s only going to get worse. At sixteen these students are being judged on their sexual attractiveness. Their talent is a gift, but it is not enough.
As Michelle says: “We are told to ‘use what you have to work with … boobs, ass.’ ”
Jo, who played Paulina in A Winter’s Tale, said, “I don’t care how talented you are, it’s your ‘look.’ ”
Kai says: “What is ‘the look’? What can I be? What should I have?”
Apparently, the look is now a superthin stomach area, big breasts, big butt, gorgeous face, and a freed nipple. When they first told me about the nipple thing, I tried to understand but it was clear that it was not the “burn the bra” mentality with which I was raised. These young women must be comfortable without a bra and with visible nipples under a thin shirt as part of a perfect breast — big enough to be sexual, but not so big that it’s “slutty.”
Meanwhile, a director recently told Kai: “I don’t see the innocence.”
“I’m so close to giving up on everything,” she said.
These girls say that there is an unattainable image that men have set for them in their professional lives — and that the men subscribing to this image have been raised to think this way.
Layla explained: “Laws can’t be changed. It’s psychological attitude. It’s not being fixed. It gets worse. People think it’s being fixed … It’s not fixed. It can’t be fixed.”
I realize I am privileged: I am white and work in the film and television industry. I’ve had great opportunities, worked hard for them, and done the most I could do with them. But I also made the conscious decision to not market myself in a sexual way, and it cost me. It is very, very hard to create a career as an actor without sexualizing oneself; I have been navigating this minefield for over thirty years with varying degrees of success. I’ve spoken out about the sexism in my industry before and faced backlash. I’ve been called “bitter” and told my behavior was “cringe worthy.” Whatever.
There were things I just could not bring myself to do: the film by the (great) director that would require me to shoot a scene in a shirt but no panties, for example. (He was making some kind of statement, I suppose.) I rejected the advice to “date” men that could possibly advance my career. I didn’t go on auditions for films that I felt glorified sex work, that depicted women being sexually abused in a gratuitous way, or that required me to leave my sense of self on the doorstep. (All of these films became huge hits.)
But this is the way women are set up in the media. There has been some movement, I suppose, but not much. It’s a frustrating and demoralizing struggle with some moments of triumph in spite of itself. And I still love acting. I still love a good role more than just about anything.
Why is the female physical appearance so important in the arts? Sean Penn is the most gifted actor of my generation, and I don’t think he’s gotten Botox. I don’t think Bryan Cranston had butt implants.
What is a woman to do? Turn on the TV and you get a good look at rape culture. I have tried to make a career without contributing to it.
I’m still trying.
It used to be, when I was younger, that there was the “bombshell” role and the role of the less attractive friend. At my age, it’s a little different: there is one major female role available for every five roles available to men my age. There’s the mother role and maybe something a bit more than that. One of my favorite TV roles a couple of years back was that of a rather ruthless lawyer described in the script as “40s,” brilliant and … thin. Sometimes the characters I play or could play are described as “still attractive,” in spite of their age — because women my age aren’t usually attractive, or so Hollywood seems to think.
The best characters I get to play are the complicated, dark, kind of crazy ones. I love those characters because I can just do my job and not deal with whether or not some producer finds me “sexy” or reasonably attractive for my age — but I’ve had to search for those kinds of roles. My kid has asked me why I love playing deranged characters: the quick answer is “no makeup” followed by “no men.”
From feminist teach-ins at Columbia and Barnard as a student, to Hollywood and beyond as an artist, to teaching young actors in a prestigious public school, I can see the fight for women’s equality remains. I can look at myself in the mirror without shame (but with endless bills to pay) because I circumvented the exploitation rampant in my industry, somehow. But what do I tell my students? How can I tell them to not accept that their success is dependent on their physicality, but also that they may be contributing to the same stereotypes that hold them back?
The issues women are facing in the film and television industry are not just about fair pay for famous rich white actresses: I find it shameful when my superwealthy peers complain about being paid only $400,000, though it is, indeed, helpful to illustrate the wage gap between men and women in the industry.
It’s more important to tackle the absence of a platform for young women who are extremely talented but who are not thin, blond, white, and/or deemed sexually desirable by the powers that be. It’s more important to tackle the frustrating status quo where the powers that be are still male and take up disproportional space in the audition room and the boardroom.
We have to end the system where it is only white men who decide when a woman — in any position, “privileged” or not — is deserving of power and agency.
I’m still navigating the sexual appearance standard in professional work. When I am called to consider a role or audition for a role in TV/Hollywood Land, my talent is never in question. The “studio” or the “network” wants me on tape to see what I look like now.
I was never alone in a hotel room with Harvey Weinstein, but I’ve been at “dinners” that felt like come-ons and I’ve walked into rooms where I’ve been sized up and then received phone calls or “date” requests that I’ve turned down.
Today, if the producer or executive or male director in charge finds me sexually attractive, then I’m on the list. This is how it goes. This is how it IS. If the Harvey Weinstein disaster illustrates anything at all, it illustrates the entirety of the power structure. The lurid details of his rapes are disgusting and yet a shield, in a way, for the greater toxicity of that power structure.
His behavior and his crimes are so … what? Undeniable?
Any culpable man in the entertainment industry can pull up some feigned dignity and state publicly (or privately) “Well, I didn’t do THAT … exactly” as a kind of self-protective blanket of denial. There are some actors that have expressed “support” for the women who have spoken up about Harvey Weinstein who are guilty of the same or similar behavior. It’s good PR for them but there are quite a few liars.
There are scores of directors and executives and producers who have not spoken up because they are complicit and behave in just that Weinstein way. They don’t want to be called out.
This isn’t about naming names. I don’t have enough for a lawsuit, but I do have enough for a broken heart/spirit. Nothing will change in Hollywood. Some men will get careful. Some men will pretend they never behaved like predators and wait this out. What’s so disheartening is knowing Harvey Weinstein’s sick actions will be addressed (finally) and yet the entire culture and context for his sick shit will remain in place.
I hope it changes.
I hope I’m wrong.
I’m not holding my breath.
Excerpted from Not That Bad, compilation copyright © 2018 by Roxane Gay. Copyright © 2018 by Ally Sheedy. Published by Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.