Keeping up appearances: What "likeability" really costs women in Hollywood

Three generations of women in TV and film talk candidly about the industry's narrow opportunities for women

Published August 30, 2015 8:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Reuters/Eric Gaillard/Mario Anzuoni/Chris Pizzello)
(AP/Reuters/Eric Gaillard/Mario Anzuoni/Chris Pizzello)

This is the first of a three-part series on actors, writers, and directors in today's Hollywood, reported at the Television Critics Association press tour in Beverly Hills, California, in July and August of this year.

Dolly Wells and Emily Mortimer, the creators, writers and stars behind HBO’s comedy “Doll & Em,” needed a selfie stick.

The two best friends — who also play selfie-taking best friends on their show — were at the Beverly Hills Hilton for a full day of press, and wanted to get a shot that included their carefully chosen (and impeccable) hair, makeup and outfits. But as soon as Mortimer suggested, half-seriously, that they needed a selfie stick, the two women burst out laughing. It might have been true, but it also struck them both as ridiculous. “You’re wanting to exist in this world — the world of making films or writing or being an actor — because there’s something so exciting, just from the art of it. You see these films that’ll shape your life forever, and you’re proud to be a part of it. But there are so many bits that are embarrassing or silly or weird,” Wells told me. “It doesn’t feel … aware.”

The thing is, “we sort of did need a selfie stick for a second.”

It may seem slightly superficial to start a discussion of women in Hollywood with selfie sticks. After all, limited or flawed representation of women is an endemic, industry-wide problem, across film and television, both in front of the camera and behind it. Hollywood’s issues with depicting women have spawned critique that have themselves become so widely discussed that they’re also often the topic of critique: the Bechdel test, the final girl, the manic pixie dream girl and Netflix’s algorithmic suggestion for films with “strong female leads,” a metric that manages to be empowering and condescending at the same time.

But in the particularly superficial world of showbusiness, where the faces and bodies that tell the stories of our day are developed, the appearance of things translates directly to marketability. I spoke with many women in the industry this summer in Beverly Hills, and observed many more. Head writers and showrunners; makeup artists in between gigs. Publicists, standing in the back of air-conditioned rooms all day while wearing three-inch stilettos; actresses, moments before or after a crew of photographers was snapping their picture, for immediate distribution to the Getty Images wire service. Appearances aren’t just important, they’re tantamount. Hollywood is the only place in the world I’ve seen people wear foundation and powder not just on their faces but on their arms; where a woman I’d just met told me when she was planning to get fillers injected atop her cheekbones. (She also told me that like herself, I might benefit from eyelash extensions. I have not taken the plunge, but my mascara usage has noticeably increased.)

In “Doll & Em”’s first season, Mortimer’s character Em is starring in a film role described, with varying degrees of sincerity, as “the female ‘Godfather.’” In the final scene, she’s made up to look sixty-ish, but clearly either the makeup artists or the director have never met a 60-year-old, because after three hours of careful makeup, she looks more like 80. Em — who at one point, is so fed up with the term “strong woman” that she screams, “I am not a strong woman! I’m fucking vulnerable!” — is consumed with self-consciousness. In the mirror, she gingerly touches her cheeks, noting the put-on sagging and the exaggerated crow’s feet. At lunch, her friends don’t recognize her because of all the makeup — the illusion is so successful that she has become an old lady. For one day, she is transported to a different body, and throughout that day, she is overlooked, ignored, sidelined. It shouldn’t matter — Em is the star of the film, doing her highly regarded job. But it does; she’s visibly shaken by the experience.

We can, and do, break down Hollywood sexism by the numbers. But far more pervasive and insidious than statistics is the omnipresent pressure of keeping up appearances. By some accounts, Patricia Arquette won her Oscar earlier this year for pledging to not have work done during the years-long filming process of “Boyhood”— a reality spoofed by Lisa Kudrow in “The Comeback,” who responds to someone praising her lack of plastic surgery by immediately calling a plastic surgeon to make an appointment. Rachel Brosnahan, of both WGN’s “Manhattan” and Netflix’s “House Of Cards,” told me that the legendary Frances McDormand made a point of sitting her down to say, “Don’t you dare touch your face. Don’t you dare.”

Women live in a world where the media is constantly barraging you with beauty, body and appearance-based imperatives. Hollywood is a magnifying glass held up to the sun, pinpointing those messages with laserlike intensity. Which is why such extraordinary mundane details as actress Gaby Hoffmann’s body hair, whenever it’s spotted, causes such a stir. There is a narrow range of being available for women in Hollywood, and because she has “strayed,” the media won’t let her forget it.

* * *

But it’s not just fashion and hair and makeup (which are usually part of the job) or even purely obsessions of the body, around fitness, weight, plastic surgery and more. It’s publicly held romantic relationships; it’s strategically flaunted platonic ones. It’s the shifting norms behind the seemingly innocuous term “likeability,” a data point that makes or breaks careers in the public eye.

Dana Delany, formerly of “Body Of Proof” and “Desperate Housewives,” brought this up in passing while promoting her new show, “Hand Of God,” which debuts next month on Amazon. “For women, you know, there’s always that thing on network television of the likeability factor, and that’s something that Amazon really never mentioned and really was against it.” In the industry, likeability is an actual score, which factors in how well audiences remember the brand a celebrity is endorsing or representing as well as how they feel about the person in question. And it’s a score leveraged at both men and women, for things like advertising deals, hosting positions, and as Delany indicates, broadcast network leading roles.

But as she identifies, it’s harder for women to achieve it. The top 10 most likeable celebrity endorsers in the first few months of 2015, a ranking developed by Nielsen, is seven men to three women. No woman cracks the top three. Less quantifiably, “likeability” is what created the furor around Lena Dunham’s creation “Girls,” also on HBO, leading producer Jenni Konner to dismiss the term outright. And outside of just Hollywood, we know this to be true: The word “abrasive” appears to be a criticism reserved solely for women; the Harvard Business Review observes that “for women leaders, likability and success hardly go hand-in-hand”; and in the 2008 Democratic primary, now-President Barack Obama told his opponent Hillary Clinton, “You’re likeable enough.”

It’s a question of perceptions that reaches behind the camera, too. More and more attention is paid to the lack of female directors in film and television, but little has changed. When I asked Lesli Linka Glatter — a three-time Emmy nominee and storied television director who has worked on “Homeland,” “Mad Men,” “Twin Peaks” and more — why it continues to be a stubborn problem, she said:

I don’t know that there is a tell-all answer to that question. [If there were,] the problem would be solved. We’re looking at something in an industry that’s very liberal, very open, so it’s shocking that this is an issue at all. The fact that something happens between the 50-50 [gender] split in film school to when people move into the real world of getting hired, and I don’t think that has anything to do with talent. It has to do with the hiring policies.

The more it’s in the zeitgeist and the consciousness of people, the more it will change, I believe. I think many before this discussion felt that, “Oh, things have changed! This is no longer an issue.” But it’s just not true. Like — I have had said to me more than once, “We hired a woman once, and it didn’t work.”

Glatter’s story is a refrain so common it’s almost absurd; both Elizabeth Banks and Diablo Cody report similar stories, and earlier this year, Kathryn Bigelow called the state of gender equality in direction “horrific.” In her conversation with me, Glatter focused, understandably, on the unfairness of one person representing an entire gender. I found myself wondering something broader; if we culturally just cannot picture women behind a camera, but merely in front of it. The idea of woman as Object, or Other, has been the subject of discussion since the first days of feminism. There is no lack of talent, Glatter assures me. There is just a wall of perception; a barrier that encompasses both tense work dynamics (“it didn’t work out”) and shrugged-off fatalism (“and it never will”).

If Glatter, the director, is exceptional for being one of the few successful female directors in Hollywood, some of that is due to a self-perception quite different from what Mortimer and Wells describe.

“For me, coming from modern dance, which was such a female field, I never thought about being a woman. I never saw it as a hindrance or a plus. It was just what I was. It never occurred to me when I transferred into film, certainly in the beginning, that this would be an issue at all.”

Brosnahan pointed out that some of the keeping up appearances is even about naming oneself as a feminist. “I’m a feminist, and I think that people are afraid to say that sometimes, and that’s immensely frustrating to me.”

“More people need to be less afraid of being unpopular,” she said, citing McDormand, Arquette, Emma Thompson and Melissa Leo as actresses who have paved the way for her career. Brosnahan is a slight woman with a lot of spirit, and when she started talking about the privileges that she’s had, her eyes filled with tears.

“Obviously, as a woman in Hollywood, I’m often frustrated by things that I read and the different ways that I’ve seen women portrayed,” she said. “It’s also my place as an actor. I vet the work that I choose very carefully, now that I’m given the luxury to vet more. It’s very important to me to not perpetuate certain stereotypes about women in the world and women in Hollywood. But it’s also my position not to judge.”

“[Sexism] is a difficult thing to talk about. It exists much as all these other -isms do ... [But] led by these incredible women, I think it’s important to be unpopular.”

* * *

You know, Wells said, “In these interviews, they always say your name, ‘Emily Mortimer’ or ‘Dolly Wells’ or whatever, and then your age. They never do that for the man.”

“They do,” Mortimer responded, “but not so much.”

“I didn’t know they do!” Wells exclaimed, turning towards her best friend. It is almost as if I am not there.

The two women, especially when together, practically bubble over with observations about the world and shared laughter. I happened to be their first interview of the day, and as I asked them about Hollywood, I could see that they were themselves settling into their Hollywood selves for the day — the question-answering, automatic-laughing professional mode we most of us have to turn on at some point.

On “Doll & Em,” they channeled the “name and age” interview angst — and the pressure to tweak that number downward ever so slightly — into rueful laughs. In the second episode of the second season, Wells is asked how old she is. And she knows that her manager, who has flown in to watch the scene being filmed, would want her, for the sake of Wells’ career, to maybe shave a few years off.

“That was something that I’m proud of Em for making us do,” Wells said. “Just celebrating that, and making it funny."

“Olivia [Wilde] and Evan [Rachel Wood] are talking, and they say, ‘You’re 42, right?’ And I’m like, ‘Yup.’” And I was thinking — [Screams.]! I’m not going to say 37, because that’s not how old I am. But it was sort of agony, because maybe we could say that because you still feel sort of young,” she said.

“But the whole thing is sort of a relief,” Mortimer said. “It’s like outing.”

Wells added: “It’s like taking back the power. You’re owning back the power.”

When Brosnahan was speaking about the women who came before her, she could very well include both Mortimer and Wells, who are a generation older. But Wells and Mortimer felt a lot more ambivalence about their perceived power.

“Even this morning,” Wells said, “we were talking to each other about — we’re kind of old to be learning this still, but — It’s okay to not always be liked by everybody. That’s something that’s so female.”

Mortimer added, “We were saying we’ve got to go today and be proud of ourselves. We can’t be modest and put ourselves down and say, well, this is just such a silly thing. That’s partially an English thing, but it is also a thing about not wanting to seem too go-getty and pushy. But we’re saying, come on! We’ve put so much work into this. We’ve got to turn up today and talk positively.”

Wells interjected: “The girls in their twenties, or even my daughter, who’s 13, they don’t realize that they don’t have to do that. It’s not even entering their heads that it’s going to be unattractive —“

“— to ask for things, to be proud, or to even stand up for themselves,” Mortimer finished.

The second season of “Doll & Em” engages more directly with feminism — Mortimer tells me there’s an episode where she meets Virginia Woolf, who then helps her carry her shopping home. “Doll & Em” makes an attempt tomine the humor in being people from a certain generation who feel kind of conscious of a new drive towards equality. In some ways, for our daughter’s sake, we have to be part of that, but at the same time — being so confused by it in ourselves. The whole business of taking selfies and things.”

* * *

As a not-particularly-photogenic woman, my brief glimpses of Hollywood life are still enough to send me into tiny little anxieties about my appearance — the state of my manicure, the quality of my shoes, the evenness of my eyebrows. It is alarming, even when you are wearing what you think is your best, how inadequate you can feel in the wake of the truly beautiful. “It’s such an image-obsessed world, and you’re grappling with it every day,” Mortimer said to me. “Not just an actor, but as a person.”

What Brosnahan said to me — about it being important to be unpopular — strikes me as increasingly revolutionary, the more I think about it. From where I sit, which is emphatically unglamorous, the vast film and television industry feels omnipresent and powerful, saturating every corner of modern life with an advertisement, a viral video or a niche television show. But inside the bubble, it doesn’t feel quite so powerful; underneath the glamor, it actually feels quite helpless. Hollywood is an ever-changing reflection of the perceptions and attitudes that its viewership brings to the screen; the creative process of a director and an actress and a duo of writer/creator/stars, women or not, are fixed within the firmament of an industry that is inexorably devoted to “likeability.” It is on that foundation that we have built our world of narrow standards for women, with age and behavior and beauty and success. But “likeability” isn’t a real thing. It isn’t definable. It can be any combination of feelings, directed in any number of ways; this is a small thing on which to run a big industry.

Glatter said to me, about the gender-gap in directing: “Honestly, the statistics haven’t changed since I started directing, which is shocking, really. I don’t want to be talking about this with you in 20 years.”

I’m not particularly relishing it, either.

By Sonia Saraiya

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