When Kim Novak took the stage at the Oscars with Matthew McConaughey, I got uncomfortable hearing her awkward line delivery – her very obvious facial “work” was much less of my concern. In fact, although I knew her name and the general sex-appeal-connotation, Kim Novak is a bit before my time. I had to do a quick Google search to confirm her Glamazon history.
Twitter can be a particular kind of cruel to public figures – as Jimmy Kimmel has so smartly pointed out. Sitting with a lap full of gadgets wherever you may be in the world, behind a backlit screen that allows you to choose your level of public prevalence, it is easy for the anonymous to deal criticisms to any person so daring to be in the spotlight. Novak did not leave the stage unscathed, thanks to many nasty Tweets about her plastic surgery.
After catching Addams Family Values on cable television the other night, I almost didn’t believe Morticia Addams was played by the same Anjelica Huston of the recently cancelled, painfully-bad-but-still-addicting NBC series Smash. I flipped through photos of Huston as a much younger woman, and winced at the saga of plastic-intervention taking place on her face.
Novak and Huston both share the common curse of Hollywood desirability. As young actresses, they were lauded as classic beauties and sex symbols. Both were frequently photographed, and held roles as beauty icons in films like Vertigo (Novak) and The Addams Family (Huston). Goldie Hawn was another actress at the Oscars to reveal clear efforts to hold on to her desirability factor, predicated by an entire career focused on her hotness.
So what does it mean to be hot in Hollywood - a fairytale land that denies any imperfection, and asks the impossible to be possible? Well, it means that an actress must go to great lengths to deny her body's natural aging process in order to keep critics at bay (mostly to no avail). What would be the alternative for these women as they aged--Houston now 62, Hawn now 68, and Novak now 81? Let it sink in for a moment that Kim Novak is 81 YEARS OLD. I realized my grandmother was turning 81 this year, and I was weepy all day because 81 is VERY. OLD. My grandmother was not cursed with the eyes of the public or the cameras of Hollywood breathing down her neck, so she can have gray hair and wear house dresses and orthopedic shoes. Because when you are aging, your focus should be on cherishing your increasingly precious years, and soaking in the wisdom age has to offer, not on keeping your body in the right category of beautiful.
Not allowing the aging of actresses is a manifestation of our greedy desire as an audience to keep Hollywood a fantasy for our pleasure. Like the body types we see on screen, that we also never allow to be human, we all want to buy into the fantastical dream that human bodies really can be perfect – even though it is killing us slowly on intimate levels. Celebrities are put into a category of near-alien quality, as we only agree to look at the ones that give an illusion of immortality, with very few exceptions. When considering the exceptions – like Angela Lansbury and Betty White – they are typically women who we allow to fall into more human categories; Lansbury has almost always played the mother, and White came into her fame for this generation already as a Golden Girl. Their desirability was never really there to begin with.
Much like the uncomfortable feelings with overweight, “ugly,” or less-than-perfect bodies that fuel shows like The Biggest Loser and What Not To Wear, we only like to look at what we wish we could be, instead of honest depictions of a human life and body. In fact, when we do look at real human imperfection – exaggerated by shows like Jerry Springer and Hoarders — it’s a voyeuristic circus of shaming. Aging is no different. Honest depictions of aging would mean we must admit that we will also one day lose our youth, and look in the mirror to see sags and wrinkles. But why can’t that be okay?
It must also be said that women are obviously disproportionately affected by the curse of the search for eternal youth. Right out of the gate, women are disproportionately pressured to look as near to perfect as possible according to cultural beauty standards. Men can grow old and more handsome, while women grow old and lose their desirability. This double standard highlights our obsession with child-like, youthful women and the lack of respect for a woman’s mind, harshly bringing into focus that a woman’s offerings are based on her appearance, along with the implicit desire for women to be forever young and innocent. It illuminates the desire to keep women out of their power, for as women continue to grow, so does their experience and wisdom, reflected in stories about aging actresses "really knowing what they want" in their later years.
Like the image we see over and over again of men growing older as their women partners never do, we are sold an illusion of the never-aging woman, and we are sent a very clear message that if, as a woman, you lose your attractiveness, you will also lose your love, your worth, and your spot to the next in line. Men grow old to become more distinguished; we appreciate a man’s “weathered and wise” look, but women aren’t offered that option because it’s not about how a woman lives or what she can offer in terms of experience; it’s about how much her neck sags or how high her breasts sit.
The backlash to Novak’s appearance – which was, by the way, preceded by breast cancer, a struggle with bipolar disorder, a fire, and a horse riding accident (or in other words, life) – illuminates more than the disturbing side of plastic surgery; it illuminates the warped desires of the eyes that fuel Hollywood and all industries predicated on body perfection. We are deeply unsettled by honest depictions of humanness.
Editor's note: This post is in no way meant to cast any judgement on the way these celebrities – and real people – choose to embrace or celebrate the aging process. It is instead meant to address the unrealistic and often harmful beauty standards as applied to women in Hollywood.
Thanks to Salon.