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  M.   September 21, 2010

Another actress has come under fire. Last week, Gemma Arterton (‘Alice Creed,’ ‘St. Trinian’s,’ ‘Clash of the Titans,’ ‘Prince of Persia’) made waves for speaking out against the objectification she’s faced as an actress to the UK edition of GQ. (Though she appeared as the magazine’s cover girl last spring, her comments are linked to an interview in the October 2010 issue.) Arterton criticized the film world for how it values and uses actresses, stating that she’s been treated like an “object”, and now tries to only work with those who respect her. Her quotes include:

I’m looking at working with people I get on with, that respect me, that don’t just see me as a piece of ass. Which I have experienced as well.

I’ve nearly walked off very big films before, and I would, because I don’t want that in my life. I want to enjoy the work I do.

I read so many scripts and they’re all the same. Either the character is just someone to be in the background or they’re there to help the man, to be the love interest, like I’ve done in ‘Prince Of Persia’ or ‘Clash Of The Titans.’

What I want to do is find characters who are the focus, like Nicola Six; sexy and real women, not perfect, not pin-ups. [Nicola Six is the lead character in Michael Winterbottom’s upcoming ‘London Fields,’ and Arterton is currently in talks for the role.]

While actresses who speak out against these sorts of issues always get at least a moderate amount of backlash, Arterton’s comments are particularly under fire because of her work as a Bond girl and a Daisy Dukes-wearing lead in ‘Tamara Drewe,’ leading to the question: When and how should actresses speak up?

Arterton’s rant comes after playing Strawberry Fields opposite Daniel Craig in ‘Quantum of Solace,’ and wearing super-short denim shorts in Stephen Frears’ upcoming ‘Tamara Drewe,’ so naturally many scribes were ready to take issue with the actress’ statements. The Daily Mail followed their news piece with a bold, all-caps, swathed in black titie: “SO WHY ON EARTH WOULD HOLLYWOOD THINK THAT?” with pictures of Arterton from ‘Drewe’ and ‘Solace,’ plus pictures from ‘St. Trinian’s’ and ‘Prince of Persia.’ Wales Online thinks the actress should “count her blessings.” “NONE of us like to hear pretty girls moaning how terrible it is to be pretty,” they wrote. The Shropshire Star comments: “But a word to the wise, Gemma — get down off your high horse for now and by all means put your money, and your wardrobe, where your mouth is. Then we might just stand up and give you a belated round of applause for a stand well made.” On the flipside, Express wrote “three cheers for Gemma … if she is really prepared to climb off the Tinseltown whirligig in pursuit of artistic integrity and respect,” but that seems to be a rare response to Arterton’s comments.

The backlash, like most media writing, lies somewhere between truth and exaggeration. Sure, it’s a bit suspect that Arterton comes out with these complaints now. She’s a Bond girl, she’s got lots of work on her resume where she plays the sex object, and even her recent GQ cover and sexy video play up the sex factor as much as possible. You must expect that you’ll be considered a “piece of ass” when said ass is hanging out of your shorts in your new film. But it’s also quite suspect that Daily Mail links to her schoolgirl look in ‘Trinian’s,’ where only small bits of skin are revealed, and an image of ‘Prince of Persia,’ where she’s more clothed than Jake Gyllenhaal. Surely there’s a line between looking good — and maybe even sexy — and jumping over it and into full-stop sex object.

What bothers me with these types of discourse is that the issue is not just black and white. Arterton, like any other actress, is taking on a role, and doesn’t necessarily know how that vision will play out when push comes to shove. It definitely hurts her cause that her sexy-shorts look in ‘Tamara Drewe’ comes right out of the source material. Nevertheless, there’s more to every picture, and similar backlash would fall upon the actress if she joined a film and then left during shooting because of how the film was framing her character. We’re in a movie world where complaining about how the cinematic world values your worth leads to critiques that she’s just a woman whining about her good looks.

Let’s face it, there’s not a whole lot out there for actresses. While there are some characterizations that break the norm of sex object, fashion fiend, mother, or sex worker, it’s a relatively small wheel of work that every actress vies for. And popularity always figures in to the money game. An unknown Gemma Arterton is much less likely to get that really great role than the woman from big-budget franchises. It’s a damned if you do and damned if you don’t profession.

What I try to do, in these scenarios, is not just react to the particular context of the actress in question, but how her comments fit into the overall discussion of women in Hollywood. Last year, Nia Vardalos wrote about how studio executives believed that women-led hits were “flukes.” Emma Thompson often speaks out against the back-stage b-s that comes with being an actress in Hollywood. And then, of course, there’s Katherine Heigl.

She’s my go-to person for these types of discussions because the actress didn’t just criticize one film — ‘Knocked Up’ — and then do another, ‘The Ugly Truth.’ She produced and starred in the latter. She jumped from criticizing a film for being “a little sexist,” to helping make one of the most misogynist, piece-of-crap romcoms that we’ve seen in a while. She became a complicit figure in exactly what she was speaking out against. Therefore, for me personally, the line between acceptable media critique and complicit behavior lies somewhere in how involved you are in the project — where you’re not just accepting what roles you can, but actively helping to make said film.

But is that a fair line? Where should it be drawn? Or should there be a line at all? Even Heigl, whose words still irk me to this day — at least she put the issue out there and got people discussing it, even if the hypocrisy of her argument did taint the cause. I’d like to think that we can be a more accepting moviegoing public and not just lambast any voices of dissent as we do celebrities who gripe about overzealous paparazzi. That maybe even if a complaint sounds a little hypocritical, we can see the validity. But actions do have consequences. We wouldn’t be inclined to listen to a doctor lecture about the dangers of smoking if he lights up 10 times a day, so taking it off for a men’s magazine and then complaining about being objectified can come off as false.

Is there a right way to deal with complaints about how Hollywood treats women?

By Monika Bartyzel