Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Why the Long Face?: Justin Long on Looks-Based Criticism

It's rare that you see men acknowledge their own doubts about their appearance--publicly, at least. If they do, it's often in this sort of self-deprecating yet self-aggrandizing way (I'm picturing Jack Nicholson chomping on a cigar while patting his swollen belly). So I found Justin Long's candid, heartfelt comment (as in log-in-and-register comment) to a critic who panned his looks--instead of merely panning his performance--engaging.

Background: Film writer Michelle Orange penned a review of Going the Distance in which she wrote of Long: "How a milky, affectless mook with half-formed features and a first day of kindergarten haircut might punch several classes above his weight [he plays opposite Drew Barrymore] is a mystery...we are increasingly asked to accept on screen." Then Long, on the Jimmy Fallon show, spoke about how he internalized Orange's words, prompting her thoughtful essay on the nature of critique, which is certainly worth a read. Mr. Long himself commented on the article (scroll down to comments to read).

I didn't know what a mook was either, Justin.

The real story here is the nature of the critic, and Orange's excellent points about "relatability" and how it's become "a cultural phenomenon and evaluative rubric"--a stand-in for, say, quality. But it's also a rare moment in which a man publicly acknowledges that he's not invulnerable in regards to his looks. Long writes: "I never in my wildest dreams thought I’d get to be in one movie, let alone several ... never had any delusions of grandeur. I always wanted to be a theatre actor...always assuming the movie roles were relegated to the good looking people. ... Then I started idolizing guys like Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Sam Rockwell, Woody Allen, and Philip Seymour Hoffman ... if guys that looked like that could do it, I thought, maybe this milky mook could role the dice."

He continues: "I’m surprised by the amount of stock you seem to invest in my looks. I absolutely agree with you too, I’d be hard-pressed to hold a candle to even a fraction of Drew’s beauty... Is that a message you want to proliferate though? That people of higher aesthetic echelons should stick to their own? Maybe you’re frustrated because it so rarely works the other way – I don’t remember the last time I was asked to accept a female romantic lead who was “punching above her weight class” – though it does happen .... I suppose if it were more commonplace though you, as a woman, wouldn’t be so offended and might have taken it a bit easier in pointing out the disparity of our looks in 'Going the Distance.'"

The turn-the-tables approach here works (often it doesn't, because its users miss that sexism is an institution, not isolated incidents) because we simply don't hear a lot of men discussing their own thoughts and feelings on their personal appearance. Beauty, we think, is the women's realm, and public responses to criticism of women's looks vary from the pile-on ("Worst Swimsuit Bodies!") to the outraged (the collective Internet WTF about Jessica Simpson's supposed weight gain). I've heard women rightfully complain that it's unfair that not-devastatingly-attractive men get to play romantic leads while actresses are held to a different standard; I'd never stopped to think of what it might mean for an aspiring actor to look at a screen and see that he might be able to make it despite being average-looking. I assumed--mistakenly, it seemed--that men just didn't think much about it or took those actors' presence for granted. To hear Long's point of view, though, can be more conscious--more inspirational--and it only strengthens my resolve that the solution to the beauty myth is not to make men our miserable company, but to demolish the myth itself.

Still, it's not all about men. Justin Long has pretty much made a career out of being a stand-in for the everyday, kinda cute guy, one who might be inclined to buy a Mac. He's no George Clooney, yet when he came on the scene women and girls were swooning (I remember a former tech-trainer colleague who'd use his name for her SEO classes because it gave her an excuse to investigate him on the clock). I don't think women are any less petty than men in regards to looks, but can you imagine the reverse happening? Long himself points out that it "rarely works the other way"--a not-stunningly-beautiful woman being paired with a prototypically handsome man. Part of this is the dearth of the working actresses who could fit the bill; part of it is that women are frequently written so one-dimensionally that it's hard to imagine such small niches being carved ("We need a Mac girl! Quick, slap a pair of glasses on Katie Holmes!"); part of it is that the rough equivalent of the girl-next-door is still inevitably filled by actresses who are also conventional beauties. (There's better ink out there than mine on why leading men can be out of shape, balding, and liver-spotted and still play romantic leads, while the world shuts down when Kathy Bates does a nude scene, though, so I'll leave it be for now.)

It's also interesting to note that while Long left the comment early in the thread's life, none of the comments before it commented on his actual looks--but once he piped up, people started saying, "Oh, and yeah, you're actually pretty attractive, bro." Nobody wants to hurt anyone's feelings, and I think by acknowledging that Orange's comments did actually hurt, people had a knee-jerk reaction to rush to the defense of his looks. Which sort of misses the point, but if it helps people think twice before panning someone's looks simply because he's a man and couldn't possibly care, then grand.

Cross-posted from The Beheld, a blog with perspectives on beauty, in development.

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