The one standout moment of star power during the otherwise boring and bloodless Academy Awards was Angelina Jolie’s leg flash before she presented the award for Best Original Screenplay. The most obvious reason that anyone cares to tune into the banquet of Hollywood’s mutual appreciation society is beauty and sex appeal. The people at their parties are better looking than the people at our parties.
It seems that no one will disagree that Jolie is too thin, but when it comes to beauty, her face is in a class by itself. Clint Eastwood called it “the most beautiful face in the world,” and Jolie carries herself with a sexual confidence that put her appeal into overdrive. Even if her body and, probably, health may benefit from picking up some pounds, it’s hard to imagine how anyone could deny the woman her seductive charm. When she strutted to the microphone at center, put her hand on her hip, and pushed her leg out from her Versace dress, she claimed ownership over the evening.
She’s beautiful. She knows she’s beautiful. She was having fun. The audience responded with scattered laughter – probably of the nervous sort – and cat calls – probably of the sincere sort. The actress, screenwriter, and director responded with a warm smile and smoky laughter when an assortment of whistles and woos interrupted her presentation. It’s the stunning combination of beauty and confidence that makes Jolie so appealing and made the leg flash so powerful and memorable.
The next day, I expected a wave of commentary that shared my reaction, namely awe at the seductiveness of Jolie. Instead what I found was mockery, scorn, and creepy delight in the possibility that Jolie may have an eating disorder. Usual suspects of obnoxious and worthless bloviation, such as Joan Rivers and Bill O’Reilly, harshly ridiculed her. A satirical Twitter feed for Jolie’s right leg drew thousands of followers, but the first to clown around a beautiful woman was screenwriter Jim Rash, who impersonated the pose after winning an Oscar for best adapted screenplay.
Indeed, the criticism came pouring out of the floodgates of the blogosphere as if Jolie had broken some cardinal rule of civil society. The extreme reaction people had to this simple gesture of female sexuality and confidence gave me the impression that rather than living in a country where the Grammy Awards, since the ‘80s, have featured mediocre performers parading in little more than panties with nary an eyebrow raised, at the sight of that leg America has suddenly reverted back to its early Puritan ideals of extreme modesty and limited options for women. To say the least.
It never ceases to amaze me how difficult American culture makes the emotional and psychological life of women. If Jolie does begin to gain weight, it won’t take long for the tabloids, bloggers, and “distinguished commentators” like Rivers and O’Reilly, to call her “dumpy”, “fat” and “chunky”, just as they did when Jennifer Love Hewitt looked curvier than usual on a beach and when Christina Aguilera recently showed off her voluptuous figure. The fashion industry elevates unimaginably skinny women to places of prominence, while popular entertainment idealizes women of only one body type.
Jolie, however, is presently deemed “emaciated”, “disgusting”, and “anorexic”. From the popularity of pornography to the worst trends of hip hop, there are few activities that American culture revels in more than the degradation of women, and from the tabloids to the blogosphere, there are few topics discussed with greater enthusiasm than the condemnation of women for their physical appearance.
The mean-spirited reaction to Jolie’s alluring pose, I suspect, had little to do with body image issues, and more with the ancient emotions, often inculcated in the masses with the emergence of a strong woman: fear and envy. The latter is easy. Jolie is smart, pretty, multi-talented, rich, and on her arm is a man whom millions of women desire. The former is pretty easy, too. Jolie is smart, pretty, multi-talented, rich, and on her arm is a man whom millions of women desire – add to that the self-confidence, self-will, and growth to rise far above the level of sex symbol to Academy Award winning actress, critically acclaimed screenwriter and director, philanthropist, and member of the Council of Foreign Relations, and you have a formidable woman who may flash her leg and wink at you, but will refuse to limit or objectify herself for the pleasure of the unimaginative public.
Jolie, unlike icons so many icons before her, is in control of her sexuality and her mind, therefore most importantly; she is in control of her identity. The seductive pose that revealed her leg was a reminder to the audience, both in the theater and at home, that she maintains authority over herself and that she will decide when and what to give. The leg, in that respect, was the best form of seduction: the playful form.
American culture does not want its women strong, playful, and having fun. It wants women who will surrender themselves completely to please the market or to please the libido of ogling men. The women of reality television programs like Jersey Shore and the Real Housewives series, expose themselves emotionally—and expose a great deal of cleavage and leg—for the voyeuristic thrills of the viewing public, with seemingly no concern for how foolish they make themselves look. The women of popular music, such as Nicki Minaj, Rhianna, and Katy Perry, do their best to mimic Madonna’s sexy antics with boring vulgarity, and in pornography women become, under the ‘male gaze’, little more than surfaces of skin, utterly devoid of any humanity.
The impassioned reaction, both negative and positive, to Jolie and her leg proves the power of the strong and independent woman, and demonstrates the discomfort she still provokes in American culture. She threatens the dominant order of macho ignorance and she violates the status quo of chauvinistic consumerism. She controls herself, giving of herself only when she feels it benefits her. The dominant culture replies with invective, attempts at humiliation that it believes will confiscate her spirit and control her future. It will lose. She will win. She’s got a leg up.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.