News Analysis

Sunday 31 August 2014

Eilis O'Hanlon: Angelina walked herself into leg furore with her thigh-high pose

The actress knew exactly what she was doing when she wore that dress, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 04/03/2012 | 05:00

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Google Angelina Jolie's name right now and one of the first suggestions to appear is 'Angelina Jolie right leg'. Nothing about her campaigning United Nations work for disadvantaged children.

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Nothing about her long career as an actress. Just the leg. Which can either be taken as evidence of a sexist media refusing to take a strong woman seriously, or evidence that Jolie has only herself to blame.

Personally, I'd plump for the latter. When she posed at the Academy Awards ceremony in a dress slashed up to her waist, long leg protruding like a small attention-seeking child playing peek-a-boo behind the curtains, Jolie knew exactly what she was doing. Forget the winners of the Best Adapted Screenplay award, which the Salt star was allegedly on stage to hand out. Instead, the night was going to be about her, preferably to such an extent that no one would be talking about anything else.

It was bad manners as much as anything else; but for her part, it was also job done. Jolie's thigh immediately started trending on Twitter. Messages even started appearing from a bogus account set up in the name of her right leg, though not even the team at The Frontline would surely have been fooled by that one. For a while, even those famous lips were overshadowed, with some calculating that Jolie's leg may have become the biggest internet meme ever, a meme being a concept or idea which takes on a life of its own as it is repeated and referenced and parodied across popular culture.

Now, there's nothing wrong with women using their sexuality to build a career, or win attention. It's part of the armoury, and it's denying human nature to say otherwise. If men could get what they wanted from other men by showing a bit of leg, they'd do it, too. But there's a time and a place for everything, and Jolie's stunt just seemed a bit, well, desperate. Would it really have killed her, for just one night, to take a back seat and allow the spotlight to be trained on someone else?

Joan Rivers skewered Jolie with all the scathing forensic wit that only a 70-something Jewish New York comedienne can be relied upon to summon at will, exposing the star for demystifying her own persona by posing in such an obviously artificial way. It was the sort of pose that could only be adopted, Rivers pointed out, by a woman who practised it first in front of a mirror, adding: "Have you ever seen anybody stand with their hand on a hip with a leg thrown out to open an envelope?"

We have now.

Self-styled "tough old bitch" Rivers certainly couldn't have picked a better target. Jolie is typical of a certain type of modern-day female celebrity who thinks she can have it all -- fame, sexiness, motherhood, career, respect -- entirely on her own terms, without having to make any choices or compromises. I may be biased because I never understood her appeal. As an actress, she's so self-contained, so closed and buttoned-up, that it sometimes seems as if she is interacting with nothing else on screen except her own image.

Jolie's reported reaction to being mocked about her pose was typical in that respect. "Who is that guy?" she was quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times as saying after Descendants co-writer Jim Rash mimicked her pose on stage.

Who is that guy? Er, that would be the guy to whom you just handed the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, Angie. That she has admitted having problems relating emotionally to other people as a teenager suddenly makes more sense.

Jolie deserves credit for, as Joan Rivers said, turning herself around from the wild child

who kissed her own brother on the red carpet, prompting some unsavoury speculation, to now taking her place firmly in Hollywood royalty. Last year, she wrote and directed her first feature film, In The Land Of Blood And Honey, about the Bosnian war.

Why then come along and fatally undermine all her efforts to be taken seriously as an artist by engaging in such pointlessly ridiculous games? No male actor would do it. More to the point, most female actresses wouldn't do it once they had reached the same pinnacle in their careers. There's no point blaming a sexist society for refusing to give respect to female artists when they practically encourage others to reduce them to sex objects.

Of course, there were still commentators prepared to complain that Jolie was being given an unfairly hard time last week. Shgari Gradon, a Canadian women's rights advocate, criticised the media for commenting so publicly on Jolie's weight; others said the suggestion that she needed to put some meat on those now more famous than ever bones -- especially when the camera famously adds extra pounds, making one wonder just how thin Jolie really is -- added up to a kind of bullying every bit as harmful as negative remarks made towards fat women.

They have a valid point. Since when did it become so awful to call someone fat, but perfectly acceptable to tell them they're too thin? The pressure put on female guests at the Academy Awards to get it right, knowing those Best and Worst Dressed lists are being drawn up the moment they arrive, is absurd too; George Clooney simply puts on a tux and he's good to go. But that's not what happened last week.

If Jolie had been minding her own business, then fine, she would have deserved privacy in return. But she wasn't. She was deliberately, provocatively putting herself before the world's watching eye, saying: look at my body. Millions did just that. Some decided to comment negatively on it afterwards. That may not be hugely admirable, but Jolie invited the debate. No one was talking about Meryl Streep's body, or Cameron Diaz's, or Glenn Close's, all of whom looked stunning without making a meal of it.

They're talking about Angelina's body because that's what she wanted them to talk about. If they're not talking about it in the way that she hoped, that was the risk she took, and she certainly wasn't doing women any favours by taking it. If Angelina Jolie can be this manifestly insecure, after all, despite being married to Brad Pitt and having more money and awards of her own than most of her female contemporaries put together, what does that say about the rest of us?

Sunday Independent

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