Filmed That Way: Let's Talk About Megan Fox
It wasn’t that I hated Megan Fox as a teenager, it’s just that she seemed so easy to dislike. She was startlingly beautiful and impossible to escape, despite having only been in a handful of projects and not being especially good in any of them, in my bitter adolescent opinion. I’d seriously hated the deafening bombast of Transformers and the sight of Fox leaning seductively over the open hood of a car while talking about squirting fuel as the camera leered over her had made me rather angry. Stupidly, I’d been angrier at Fox for the sight than director Michael Bay, or indeed anyone involved with the making of the film. I didn’t hate her, I insisted, just the person she seemed to be. It never occurred to me that such images are created out of survival instinct, or are forced upon a woman to perform for braying crowds. Now that she’s taken a back-seat from A-List fame and the scales have fallen from my eyes, I think a lot about Megan Fox. I think a lot about how I wronged her, and indeed, how we all did the dirty on her. This was a woman who harnessed the persona of a very 2007 idea of woman’s sexuality for major career benefits, but it still couldn’t save her when she dared to speak up against those who fetishized her. She was the ideal woman for a generation of men, right up until she called out that bullshit.
It’s easy to forget but Megan Fox is a former child actress. After a strict Christian upbringing and period of teen modeling, she made her acting debut at 15 in one of the many Mary Kate & Ashley Olsen straight-to-video movies. Aside from a supporting role as the bitchy villain in Lindsay Lohan’s Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, her work was mostly limited to TV bit parts and a role in the ABC sitcom Hope and Faith. There, she replaced Nicole Paggi as the daughter of Faith Ford’s character, a role that became sultrier when she took over, at the age of 18. Even in a wholesome family sitcom or cutesy teen movie, Fox was defined in terms of being that girl: The hot one, the bitch, the one who it’s okay to leer at because she’s totally asking for it. As per the guidelines of network TV, Fox’s character could be sexy but not that sexy, something that seemed to bother her. By the time she made it to the movie world, she was ready to walk the walk as well as talk the talk.
2007 was a fascinating moment for the concept of fame - lad’s mags were on the way out, social media had not yet become the behemoth it would in a couple of years, celebrity magazines were losing out to TMZ and similarly sharp tongued internet gossip sites, and this was the year a little show called Keeping Up With the Kardashians would premiere. All in all, it was a perfect breeding ground for Fox to make her name, especially since she seemed so willing to play the game. As slyly as her name would suggest, Fox spun a yarn of the perfect celebrity woman for this era of perpetual flux, and for a brief, shining moment, it worked wonders. For a while, there was a period of time where you couldn’t escape Megan Fox, and where every aspect of her was reported to the masses.
The trick was to do it without giving the world too much of your real self (all things considered, Fox has always kept her relationship with Brian Austin Green, who she has been with since she was 18 and he was 30). For Fox, this involved creating a persona of appealing sexuality, but always being upfront about it being a façade. This took the form of giving frank and lurid quotes about a bisexual affair with a stripped named Nikita, slamming Disney for making their female stars apologize for nude photo scandal, and pushing the image of being a gal who’s up for anything, as demonstrated by her various sexy photo-shoots (although most of them aren’t really any sexier or more revealing than the average GQ/Esquire shoot starring any prominent famous woman). As Lynn Hirschberg put it in a profile of the actress for the New York Times, Fox ‘understood instinctively that noise plus naked equals celebrity.’
Fox famously had a tattoo of Marilyn Monroe’s face on her forearm. Monroe is certainly a figure of comparable nature in terms of having an image that is constantly packaged for dehumanised consumption, often by men. Both women also had turbulent personal problems, as Fox has talked candidly about low self-esteem, OCD and self-harming. Yet the figure I think of the most when I consider Megan Fox is none other than Jessica Rabbit. Ask any bunch of random figures to discuss the basic characteristics of Jessica and the chances are they’ll all start talking about her boobs or her teeny waist or the Veronica Lake swoop of hair over one eye. Nobody talks about her as easily the most interesting and complex character in the colourful ensemble of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? She’s a self-aware vamp who cannot escape the reality that she was created to appeal in a highly specific way to men, but the thing that brings her true pleasure in her life is a wholehearted love for her dope of a husband because he makes her laugh. Jessica is funny and proactive and consistently under-estimated, like many a femme fatale in a golden age Hollywood noir. Megan Fox would make a great Jessica Rabbit, if not for the reasons that first come to mind.
To talk about the Megan Fox persona is also to talk about the persona of one Michael Bay. The wildly successful director whose bombastic action blockbusters have defined the modern age of film-making more than anyone else working today has a style and excessively macho image reliant on thinking everything is awesome. The explosions are big, the camera movements ceaseless, the sound design deafening, and the racial stereotyping constant. Bayhem is toxic masculinity by way of colour saturation. He’s also not someone who seems to have an acute understanding of women. Indeed, the female characters in his films tend to be shrewish ball-busters who need to be taken down a peg or two, nagging spouses with minimal screen-time, or obscenely objectified stand-ins for his id. It speaks volumes that Fox’s character in the Transformers series is named Mikaela Banes. Get it? Mikeala. Michael. Banes. You figure it out.
From the beginning, it was clear that Bay saw Fox not as an actress but as a ball-jointed doll he could manipulate to pursue his fetishes. The pair first met when Fox was 15 and working as an extra on Bad Boys 2. She was part of a club scene, dressed in a flag bikini and six inch heels, which Bay himself approved, but when confronted with the reality that she was 15 and couldn’t be filmed with a drink in hand, his solution, in Fox’s words, was ‘to then have me dancing underneath a waterfall getting soaking wet. And that’s… At 15 and I was in tenth grade. So that’s sort of a microcosm of how Bay’s mind works.’
Fox told a journalist in 2009 that, in order to land the part of Mikeala, she had to audition at Bay’s house and wash his Ferrari while he filmed her. She had no idea what had happened to said footage, and Bay, who did not deny this incident, added, ‘Er, I don’t know where it is either.’ At the time, she would have been no older than 19.
Fox isn’t framed much better in the film itself, even though on paper, as noted by Lindsay Ellis, she’s probably the most fleshed-out character in the entire film. She’s consistently underestimated by every man in the film, she has a tough past she’s struggled to overcome, she’s the only person in the film with a real interest in cars, and she’s easily more competent and interesting than whatever screeching weasel Shia Laboeuf is playing. In fairness, it’s easy to miss all that because the camera is so focused on turning her into a mindless sex object, one who bends like an Escher drawing to display what the director wants to see. Michael Bay had no interest in telling Mikeala’s story, even though what’s in the script had real potential. What he wanted was a hot babe. Megan Fox isn’t terrible in the Transformers movies. She’s not brilliant - nobody is in those films - but you can’t help but wonder how she would have been if she’d had real material and a cooperative director to work with.
Bay’s dictation over her body showed itself in other ways. He demanded she ‘put on a size for Transformers II because [he] doesn’t like skinny girls’, which led to Fox gaining 10lbs in three weeks. By the time filming rolled around for the third in the installment, Bay had no use for her anymore, and she was fired after making some inappropriate comments where she compared Bay to Hitler, a decision allegedly encouraged by Steven Spielberg. In a GQ oral history, it’s clear that Bay is still bitter, claiming she wasn’t focused and had no interest in the movie, before sarcastically claiming she ‘loves to get a response. And she does it in kind of a wrong way. I’m sorry, Megan. I’m sorry I made you work twelve hours. I’m sorry that I’m making you show up on time. Movies are not always warm and fuzzy.’ Remember, this is the man who spent years objectifying her and has footage of her washing his car somewhere in his library. Fox was replaced by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, a Victoria’s Secret model in her acting debut, and the film dismisses the character of Mikeala, easily the franchise’s most sympathetic human, by having one of the robots call her a ‘bitch’. It’s the final indignity to an actress with little power in the face of an industry behemoth: She didn’t want to play by Bay’s rules, so he had a robot call her a ‘bitch’.
By this time, Fox exposure in the media had reached a tipping point, and various male-oriented sites banded together for ‘A Day Without Megan Fox’. This tacky display of hypocrisy only highlighted further the ways that women cannot win with the media: Give them nothing and you’re a bitch; give them everything and you’re desperate; give them just the right amount and they still won’t respect you. Fox understood this conundrum well, even as she participated in it. When asked about the weak boycott, she said she hoped people didn’t get sick of her before she’d ‘done something legitimate’, and that it was hard to avoid being overexposed when headlining a movie that needed to make hundreds of millions of dollars.
It took two women to give Fox a true chance to shine on the big screen, as director Karyn Kusama and Oscar winning screenwriter Diablo Cody teamed up for the satirical horror-comedy Jennifer’s Body. While the film had a lacklustre reception upon its premiere in 2009, it’s gained popularity in recent years, particularly among women who love its sharp-tongued humour and touching portrayal of a complex friendship between two girls. For an actress who was primarily defined by her body in the eyes of the industry and media, it’s only fair that it’s an interrogation of her body that showed the world there was more to Fox than meets the eye.
She also puts in one hell of a performance, switching from coquettish to psychotic in a wink, and handling Cody’s pop culture heavy screwball sarcasm with ease. Watching Fox in Jennifer’s Body, you can easily imagine her doing a Jean Harlow in Bombshell or Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club. One wonders if the marketing team for the film even bothered watching it beyond a few clips, because this very knowing and slyly executed proto-feminist horror-comedy was sold to the public as a hot babe display of Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried making out (a scene that’s much less titillating and rather unnerving in its codependence in context). The opportunity came for the public to see Fox beyond the beauty, but the distributors seemed convinced that nobody would care.
Fox’s filmography after that gets a little thin. Even directors willing to give her a chance to stretch her pretty solid comedic chops, like Judd Apatow and his film This Is 40, can’t help but centre that opportunity on her body and assumptions about her character based on that. Once again, Fox is actually pretty funny in the movie, but google ‘Megan Fox This Is 40’ and be prepared for pages of websites ogling her in the scene where Leslie Mann feels up her boobs. It is comedy where Fox has been given room to breathe, with an extended guest spot on New Girl exposing her to an audience who had previously dismissed her. As Reagan, the newest new girl filling in for Zooey Deschanel while she went on maternity leave, she played to her strengths as the sardonic pharmaceuticals representative with a bone-dry sense of humour and cynical view on the closeness of her new flatmates. Many critics credited Fox’s inclusion with bringing new life to the sitcom, and hoped she’d stay on past Deschanel’s maternity leave. Watching her on New Girl feels like an introduction of sorts. This is the Megan Fox Michael Bay never deserved.
It may very well be that Fox has no desire to rush back into the world of acting. She has three children with Green, who she has been married to for 7 years. The pair briefly split in 2015, with Fox filing for divorce, but by the next year they were reunited and Fox expecting baby number three. She has less press following her every mood, which seems to suit her just fine, and she talks warmly about life as a mother. Occasionally, there will be some faux outrage over her allowing her oldest son to dress like Elsa in Frozen, but neither Fox nor Green are bothered by this, shutting down criticism as quickly as it appears. In 2010, she said, ‘My biggest regret is that I’ve assisted the media in making me into a cartoon character. I don’t regret what has happened to me, but I regret the way I have dealt with it.’ Nowadays, she still uses her sex appeal for the purposes of work, having announced a collaboration for a range of lingerie with Frederick’s of Hollywood, but she no longer has to deal with the endless smothering pressure of being The Hottest Woman Alive.
The past month of awful news surrounding the abuse of Harvey Weinstein and other men in Hollywood had me thinking a lot about the women who never got their chance. Some were scared out of the industry by sexist bullies, others were denied the roles they deserved because the producer didn’t think they were fuckable, and then there are those like Megan Fox who had the world at their feet but only if they obeyed the most exhausting and inane of misogynistic roles. Fox did very well playing the game for several years, but it was never a role she could be truly victorious in, not when the judges are men like Michael Bay. She’s not bad, she’s just filmed that way.
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