For many years, in the fascinating but frequently bleak recesses of gossip internet, there were a number of blind items circulating about a former A List actress who had fallen from the top and was, to use their terms, ‘crazy’. This actress, the blind item posited, was a wildly unprofessional diva who could turn on a dime, making her staff and crew’s lives hell yet appearing fresh as a daisy for the camera. The picture painted was one of a woman of immense difficulty whose problems seemed to delve into substance related issues. Even by blind item standards, which make celebrity roasts look tame, these stories felt unusually cruel to me. When gossip hounds leaped on one particular actress as the undoubted culprit, the story felt even more unnecessary than before. All this hubbub for her, I remember thinking. What did someone have against her?
This month, when the New York Times published their piece on Harvey Weinstein, the first major name calling him out was that actress from the blinds: Ashley Judd. Suddenly, it made an awful lot of sense. Weinstein, infamous for wielding authority over entertainment publications and using Page Six as his own personal burn book, would have no qualms about setting out to systematically destroy the reputation of a woman who wouldn’t do as he said. I doubt many people read the original blinds like I did but like smoke in the wind they spread from place to place without much propulsion, and I’m sure those whispers came up in more than a few conversations when Judd’s name was mentioned. How do you make a woman seem hysterical? You tell the world she’s difficult.
Branding a woman difficult is an easy task in part because nobody has ever come up with a tangible definition for what makes us difficult. It’s a malleable state where the goalposts can be moved to suit one’s purpose. Women can be difficult for doing something as simple as demanding basic respect or politeness from their team, or even just being in charge of a team. We can be slapped with the deadly moniker for having high standards for ourselves and other. If we’re in any way ‘overemotional’, be it anger or sadness or impatience or whatever, that’s enough to be defined as difficult. Don’t raise your voice or cry or roll your eyes or even mask yourself in an emotionless manner, because that’s the prime state of being a difficult woman, and most certainly, don’t do anything that would constitute being ‘crazy’.
In Weinstein’s world, the entertainment industry that creates the media that influences almost every element of our lives, women are always difficult, but it pales in comparison to how men (at least straight white men) are difficult, because for them, it never seems to be a bad thing. Being a difficult man is a badge of honour: It means you have impeccable standards and a stalwart dedication to getting the job done; it means you’ll do anything to create the most wonderful art possible, and no cost is too high; it means people will be more understanding of your troubles, and even when you slip up, you’ll be given chance after chance until you get it right, because everyone knows you’ll get it right at some point. Being a difficult man isn’t just tolerated: It’s welcomed.
I think of the pop culture I consume daily, and the ways our circles talk about it and the people who make it. I look at how, even in the aftermath of Weinstein, so many people across spectrums of gender and race rush to defend the figures who make stuff they like, such as the people I saw saying David O. Russell isn’t a bad guy, he’s just a tyrannical director, or the defences of Alfred Hitchcock’s treatment of women as being a symptom of the times, and besides, yes we know Roman Polanski’s a bad guy but wasn’t Chinatown pretty darn good and really, isn’t that what matters?
The message is clear: People, particularly women, are of less value than art, however weakly that concept is defined. They’re certainly worth less than money under the judgemental gaze of patriarchy and white supremacy. They’re necessary collateral in the fight to get American Hustle made, or they’re the real problem, standing in the way of artistic perfection like Dancer in the Dark, or they’re an object to be defiled in the name of Last Tango in Paris. They’re the puppets forced to dancer, and they’re seldom the puppet master. If they are, then the rulebook is replaced with a new one.
Hollywood is still seen as the denizen of the strutting peacocks, the hotbed of unrestrained masculinity. It’s that supposed robustness of maleness that many see as the key to making films, and as Alec Baldwin noted in the New York Times, the act of making a film is oddly militaristic: ‘They call it shooting. Its groupings are called units. They communicate on walkie-talkies. The director is the general. There is still the presumption that men are better designed for the ferocity and meanness that the job often requires.’ It practically breeds difficult behaviour, but not for everyone. I struggle to think of a single female director with a reputation for David O. Russell style behaviour who gets endless fawning column inches written about her, or an actress who can go obsessively method for a role and pull the on-set shenanigans of Dustin Hoffman or Jared Leto and be rewarded for it.
I’m mostly talking in terms of the film world here, but generally I’m sick of the double standards of difficult behaviour across the spectrum of our society (standards that before even more impossible to navigate if you’re a woman of colour). Google the name of any female politician with the word ‘difficult’ and the chances are you’ll find a veritable smorgasbord of thinly veiled misogyny where she’s described as ‘complaining’ or ‘whining’ where men are simply described as ‘saying’. I’m exhausted with having to watch the most aggressive and incompetent men being rewarded over and over for no reason other than it’s what we’ve always done, and I’m bored of the status quo of hyper-masculinity that seems impossible to rein in until the system is publicly embarrassed into doing so. Mostly, I’m sad for all the women deemed ‘crazy’ for refusing to accept this all. Let’s think more about what it means when you see a woman slandered as ‘mad’ or ‘hysterical’ or indeed ‘difficult’, because the chances are all she’s demanding is equality and justice.