How do you balance your career and having a personal life? What do you look for in a man? What is your favourite position? These are just a few questions women have been publicly asked. Historically, women have been expected to be willing to answer invasive gendered questions. Whether in a court of law or on a late-night show sofa, this expectation remains.
Over the past few years, female celebrities shutting down sexist questions has become more common and often gains viral recognition. However, this ‘trend’ seems contradictory. Certainly, these sexist questions being asked are largely an organic product of the misogynistic environment that is showbiz, but making the responses of female celebrities into a spectacle seems incompatible with their goal. These provocative questions are being asked, at least partially, for the purpose of evoking a reaction.
Alongside applauding women for speaking up (undoubtedly difficult in itself), more pressure should be placed on the media culture that thrives from and encourages sexism. Jerry Penacoli, a notorious journalist who is known to ask overly “personal” questions, infamously asked Scarlett Johansson if she was wearing underwear in her Black Widow costume. With Penacoli’s self-proclaimed “pleasant yet commanding personality” (according to LinkedIn), he has gone on to win an Emmy. According to the entertainment industry, this is one of the many cases in which asking someone about their underwear is considered entertaining and not a case of workplace misconduct.
At the 2017 Variety Power of Women New York luncheon, Blake Lively was asked about her favourite “power outfit”, a question which later made the headlines. She was there for her work with the Child Rescue Coalition against child pornography. Beyond being an inappropriate question, questions like these trivialise the work female celebrities do. Male celebrities are also asked superficial questions, like Chris Hemsworth being asked about his workout routine and Jonah Hill being asked what it is like to be “the fat guy” in Hollywood. The entertainment industry clearly has a specific set of ideas as to how celebrities should look and act. Interviews about female celebrities’ actual achievements come second to “entertaining” interviews about their fashion.
Female celebrities also face challenges when they do not conform to gendered stereotypes, especially in regards to academic background. A number of successful women in the entertainment industry are also academics, namely Mayim Bialik, Rebel Wilson and MeganThee Stallion. However, this information has to be sought out by finding articles like “30 Celebrities with Surprising College Degrees”. Women’s achievements are not reported enough, coming second to their personal life and appearance.
This is not an issue that women in the entertainment industry face alone. Women in the public eye, whether they are politicians or athletes, are interviewed from a gendered perspective. Serena Williams was once asked whether she was intimidated by her opponent’s beauty and if it meant she played badly because of her jealousy. This fixation on female appearance is also an issue in job interviews. From being asked about what their male partner thinks of the job to how they think that they would deal with a predominantly male working space, women are often asked invasively gendered questions.
This is certainly not a recent phenomenon. A number of uncomfortable celebrity interviews have resurfaced, like Britney Spears being asked about breast implants as a minor in the 90s or Dame Hellen Mirren being asked whether her breasts make her a less serious actress in 1975. In the words of Mirren, these gendered questions are ultimately “boring”. It is time for the media to move away from a gendered perspective and develop a more dynamic understanding of personality.
Illustration: Adeline Zhao