A few weeks ago, I was channel surfing one night when I came across Courtney Cox on Letterman. Though I'm not a fan of Cougar Town, I've always thought Cox seems like a smart, sophisticated actress who hasn't yet reached her full potential. So I stopped on that channel to hear what she had to say.
Unfortunately, I was so distracted by how she was dressed I had trouble listening.
She was wearing a super short low-cut dress, and her legs were bare. Not only were they bare, they were also slick looking—as if they had been greased up for appearance.
Immediately I thought of For Your Consideration, Christopher Guest's satirical mockumentary about Hollywood. I didn't like the film as well as his others, and I don't think that's because it wasn't accurate. I think it's because it was too accurate. When you see Best in Show—his best in my opinion—you laugh the whole time. Not just because Guest did such a good job spoofing the Westminster Dog Show, but also because his characters are so ridiculous that you don't take them too seriously. Yes, they are exaggerations of real people you know, but they are not real people. So you can laugh at their unusual behavior without feeling too bad about it.
But in For Your Consideration, the characters seem just like real actors. Though their behavior is unusual to the point of being incredibly odd, they don't seem unbelievable, which is what makes the movie so hard to watch. It's almost too real. You can't laugh at the weirdness of it because it's not much an exaggeration, and laughing at real people seems cruel. And instead of enjoying the film, you leave the theatre feeling bad for these people, which is probably why the movie—billed as a comedy—didn't do as well as Guest's other films.
In one scene, Catherine O'Hara's character is being interviewed on a late-night talk show because she is getting some serious Oscar buzz (which is where the movie gets its name). Before the late-night appearance she looks like a normal middle-aged woman—she has wrinkles around her eyes and mouth and on her forehead, she dresses appropriate for a woman in her mid-fifties, and she has limp dirty-blond hair. . .
But when she shows up for her late-night appearance, she's wearing a too-short, low-cut dress and has had a massive makeover—botoxed skin, plumped lips, waxed legs, blown-out bleached blonde hair, the works. . . .
She looks absolutely insane.
But the message is clear: if a woman wants to be a star, she's got to follow these rules no matter how old she is: show off her bod and make herself over in the image of a twenty-year-old. No, she can't look like an ingenue and may not even look good anymore, but she can stretch and tweeze herself to death trying.
This is why I thought of For Your Consideration when I saw Cox on Letterman: because she was made up almost exactly like O'Hara's character—same low-cut mini-dress, same shiny legs, same pushed-up cleavage. Sure, Cox pulled it off and looked good, not insane. But that's not the point. The point is that we make these women fit a mold that not everyone can or needs to fit, as Tina Fey rightly pointed out on Saturday Night Live this season when she explained that she had to have every hair removed from her body before she was allowed to appear on air. And I've noticed in the years since I've seen For Your Consideration that nearly every actress who appears on late-night television looks this way.
(The Daily Show is the one exception, and I couldn't help but notice that Kristen Wiig looked like a normal person when she appeared there last night in a sweater and jeans . . .
but looked like a frightening Elvira version of herself when she appeared on Letterman earlier this week in a short, tight black dress and goth-like makeup. . .
Cox is 47 next month, and she looks phenomenal for her age (or for any age), but I'm still horrified that she feels like—even at this point in her career, even with all the millions she earned on Friends—she still has to look like a sexpot every time she steps in front of a camera. It also reminds me how accurate Guest's film was—if she wants to continue to succeed in Hollywood, she's got to play by these rules.
I have no solution to this problem. I can tell you to turn off any late-night program that makes woman parade across the stage like some Stepford version of a bombshell, but you probably won't do it. Still, I can suggest this: at least be aware that women are required to look this way if they want to succeed in one of the most profitable industries in our country, and ask yourself, what does it do to the rest of us?