Web Only / Features » March 28, 2014
By Making Fun of Gwyneth, Are We Really Dismantling Privilege?
The reactions to Kim Kardashian and Gwyneth Paltrow show that no matter what, women can’t win.
I’m not personally invested in the feelings or fortunes of Gwyneth Paltrow. In fact, I’ve probably made more cruel jokes about Paltrow than I have brain cells to remember them with... But now, here, in the least 'perfect' moment of her adult life—divorcing the father of her children in the public eye, and being shamed for it—I’m beginning to question whether those jokes have accomplished anything beyond reinforcing the very oppressive structures I have a problem with.
On March 25, Gwyneth Paltrow and her husband Chris Martin published an announcement on her blog: They had decided to get a divorce after over ten years of marriage. They had spent the past year trying to save the relationship before deciding that it was best to go their separate ways. The split was not acrimonious, and they intended to co-parent their two children, the post said. Nevertheless, this was a sad and difficult time, and they would like some privacy for their family, please.
It was probably the best that any couple breaking up a ten-year marriage in the public eye could do. The reason it didn’t work—why the couple definitively have not gotten the privacy they requested, and instead sparked a firestorm of scornful press coverage—came down to two misjudged words: “Conscious Uncoupling.”
It is the title of the blog post. The phrase is also the core concept of a supremely silly self-help guide by Drs. Habib Sadeghi and Sherry Sami, which came attached to the message. (“The misunderstandings involved in divorce also have much to do with the lack of intercourse between our own internal masculine and feminine energies,” goes one choice quote from said guide. Ask yourself, reader: In a blog post about divorce, is the phrase “lack of intercourse” ever really wise?) Paltrow’s temerity in putting a positive spin on the matter was apparently too much to be borne. Within days, there was a parody interview with Paltrow posted on the New Yorker, a snarky list of “tips for consciously uncoupling” at The Frisky (“have a nutritional guru examine your quinoa leftovers to determine your true emotional states”), and a Slate widget to “find out how Gwyneth Paltrow would describe your relationship status.” She has been accused of denying her “sadness [or] ire,” of withholding gory details about who cheated, and of trying to make her break-up “better than” everyone else’s. Apparently, Gwyneth Paltrow should run shrieking through the streets for our entertainment. Otherwise, she’s just trying to show us all up.
It’s hard to imagine a less compassionate reaction to a woman who’s coping with the dissolution of her family. (Martin, who co-signed the post, has been largely spared from mockery.) But then, we never quite react to Paltrow as a woman. Our animosity toward her is less about who she is than about how she’s been positioned. The problem isn’t so much that Gwyneth Paltrow thinks she’s “better than us;” it’s that a classist and racist system has positioned her as the “best” kind of woman—indeed, the only acceptable kind—and has punished the rest of us for failing to measure up.
Paltrow’s status as an Internet punching-bag has been building for years. Some of it comes from factors beyond her control: She was born into wealth and became a second-generation movie star, given not only massive privilege but instantaneous access to one of the most glamorous and unattainable career tracks in the world. The rest comes from Paltrow’s own decision to embrace her status as the Ideal: She’s put herself forward as a domestic role model, with a line of cookbooks and an ill-named newsletter (GOOP, for God’s sakes) that plugged the kind of airbrushed, costly lifestyle that only a woman with Gwyneth Paltrow's hefty income could maintain. While other women of the world struggled to make rent, Gwyneth advised us to buy hibiscus-infused sea salts and $5,000 handbags. Revolt was inevitable.
But beyond her economic privilege, Gwyneth was, until a few days ago, everything women are told we ought to be—white, conventionally pretty, thin, rich, glamorous, straight, married, child-rearing, kitchen-adept, extremely blonde—qualities that most of us have been punished for failing (or not wanting) to be. Gwyneth’s fame is not only visible, it’s fragile: We could dismantle her image, easily, and we did, transforming her from Oscar-winning A-Lister to “Most Hated Celebrity in Hollywood” with every sarcastic tweet and eye-roll we’ve sent into the universe.
It’s worthwhile to note the other big celebrity scandal of the week—before “conscious uncoupling” took the world by storm—was Kim Kardashian and Kanye West’s appearance on the cover of Vogue. Kardashian seemed to provoke as much rage as Paltrow, precisely for being what Paltrow was not: “vulgar,” sexualized, “new money,” an unmarried mother in an interracial relationship, a woman with a sex tape who once accepted $500,000 to accompany a wealthy man on a date. A woman, in other words, who could never convincingly embody the pristine, old-money femininity Vogue espouses, no matter how much wealth she has accumulated in her lifetime. Kardashian and her husband, simply don’t belong; their Otherness has been protested so vehemently that actress Sarah Michelle Gellar tried to organize a boycott of Vogue for running the cover, and The Daily Beast ran an article about whether the cover would “kill” Vogue’s “respected prestige brand.” One anonymous Vogue reader told The Daily Beast, “[a] Vogue cover used to be something aspirational. Thanks to Kim Kardashian, it’s not anymore.”
So, being the feminine “Ideal” within an oppressive hierarchy results in being rejected, mocked and dehumanized. And being a “non-Ideal” woman who aspires to a prestigious platform … well, that also results in being rejected, mocked and dehumanized. We hate Kim Kardashian for being a reality-TV celebrity on the cover of Vogue, and we hate Gwyneth Paltrow for being a Vogue celebrity who doesn’t give us the reality-TV version of her divorce. We loathe Paltrow for being self-consciously “aspirational,” but we boycott publications because Kardashian has failed to be “aspirational” enough. We hate Gwyneth and Chris for coming apart, and we hate Kim and Kanye for being together. The key to the grand game of feminine “Ideals” is that no woman, anywhere, ever, actually gets to win it: Gwyneth Paltrow is “perfect,” and we hate her for it. But we also hate every woman who isn’t “perfect” enough.
I’m not personally invested in the feelings or fortunes of Gwyneth Paltrow. In fact, I’ve probably made more cruel jokes about Paltrow than I have brain cells to remember them with; I once bought one of her cookbooks from a second-hand bookstore specifically because I thought it might be fun to post stupid-sounding quotes from it online. And I don’t deny that Paltrow the Aspirational Icon—Paltrow the living face of the impossible expectations we put on women within a sexist society—is at least in part a creature created and popularized by Gwyneth Paltrow herself. But now, here, in the least “perfect” moment of her adult life—divorcing the father of her children in the public eye, and being shamed for it—I’m beginning to question whether those jokes have accomplished anything beyond reinforcing the very oppressive structures I have a problem with.
Being the world’s most obnoxiously perfect woman, according to the rules of a society that dislikes women, still results in being disliked. Mocking Gwyneth Paltrow won’t solve that basic problem. The problem doesn’t stop until we realize the game is rigged, and stop playing once and for all.
Sady Doyle is an In These Times contributor. She is the author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beatdown. You can follow her on Twitter at @sadydoyle, or e-mail her at sady