Breaking the Barbie image

2012-02-28 00:00

MELISSA McCarthy, nominated for an Academy Award for her scene-stealing performance in the hit film Bridesmaids, was unlucky, yet her nomination represents a shift that has taken place in the entertainment industry over the past few years. Gone are the days of Hollywood stars in the exclusive image of Marilyn Monroe or Jayne Mansfield and I can’t find a 21st-century equivalent of Raquel Welch.

In their place is McCarthy. In their place is Adele, the biggest selling artist of 2011. In their place is Susan Boyle, who stood on a stage and with the first jarring bars of I Dreamed a Dream, smacked us in the face with our inherent prejudice. There’s Betty White, America’s golden girl, who at 90 is finding herself part of pop culture and there’s Meryl Streep, the Academy’s Iron Lady, laying waste to the notion that an actress over the age of 40 might as well be dead. These are just a few examples of countless women who 20 years ago would never have been given a second glance. Today, they are the ones gracing the covers of magazines. It is their names on everybody’s lips. They have broken the Barbie image, they have broken the sex-sells philosophy. What this means is greater opportunities for more women in the world of entertainment.

The entertainment industry is where art intimates life. With women shattering the glass ceiling, it is a natural progression for actresses once playing wives and secretaries to find themselves playing editors in chief, chefs and prime ministers.

Streep attributes this change to more female executives making decisions in Hollywood. The 24-hour news cycle and social media have also contributed to this shift. With the access technology provides comes a degree of normalcy and immediacy. There is no longer the time or the need to be repackaged, airbrushed and forced to cater to a demographic. Talent is now unfiltered and society is able to distinguish between those with flash and those with true substance, true ability. With more access comes more depth, so we have come to expect more from our celebrities than a breathy rendition of Happy Birthday Mr President.

It is interesting to note just how far some women have come, biding their time and changing from within, an industry where your relevance was once indelibly linked to your sex appeal.

Allison Janney (The West Wing) was told by an agent that because she stood at 1,8 metres tall, she could only play lesbians and aliens. When Janney rattled off a list of famous actresses who also stood at 1,8 metres, the agent replied: “But those women have something in common, they’re drop-dead gorgeous”. Janney went on to win four Emmy’s for her role in The West Wing, playing neither lesbian nor alien.

Mariska Hargitay of Law and Order SVU (who incidentally is Mansfield’s daughter) was told at the beginning of her career to change her name and get a nose job. Hargitay refused. Today, she is one of the highest paid actresses on television.

This changing image of women in entertainment brings with it the hope of a virtuous cycle — where a girl in Ireland, self-conscious about her body, might see McCarthy at the Oscars, and feel inspired. Where a girl in India might watch The Iron Lady, and think: “Maybe I can be a leader too”. With this shift, we are on our way to a meritocratic entertainment industry. There is so much potential out there, if we just unblinker our minds.

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