What criticizing Kim Novak and Adam Sandler says about us

Please repeat after me: it is never okay to publicly say an unkind thing about another human being’s face.

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Published May 1, 2014   Updated May 31, 2021, 9:34 am CDT


Please repeat after me: it is never okay to publicly say an unkind thing about another human being’s face. “You have a bad face,” no matter how it is phrased or framed, is never really constructive criticism. I know, I know. It seems strange that anyone should have to say this to adults. Yet here we are.

At the same time, it also feels strange that more people haven’t said it in recent months. Following the Academy Awards, we were deluged by wave after wave of ugly, inappropriate comment. The first was the most mean-spirited and puerile: “What happened to her face?” Next came, “Poor thing,” and “She deserves better.” (Which implies that there are faces that do, in fact, deserve to be shamed.) Finally, we arrived at, “But we loved you just the way you were!”

Did you? Did you really? Because it seems to me that media (and overall human) ageism and superficiality are pretty pervasive.

Finally, last week, the most prominent victim called out the bullying for what it was. Yet another reason to love Kim Novak. And, yet, this week, I’ve still seen headlines like, “Over the Hill at 24: the aging of the twentysomethings” and, “In Defense of Aging.” So it seems the Novak experience wasn’t exactly a eureka moment for all of western civilization.

It’s easy (unless you’re the victim) to condemn a handful of offenders in one particularly egregious example of brazen nastiness. The fact is, when it comes to appearances, society is cruel, and in spite of everything we know, it isn’t getting any less so. There are people out there who actually believe it is their job, as professionals, to inform you when someone else has a sub-par face. As if the world needs face police.

I understand that people are programmed to react to physical appearance. It is, to some degree, a natural instinct. I also understand that almost all people turn to one another at home and comment about how everyone looks. I get it. I do it. It’s all in good fun, I suppose. I sure as hell do it. What I don’t understand is why people would think it is okay to air negative opinions about someone’s face in a public forum.

Actually, I think I do. It’s a hacky means of getting a lot of attention and a little applause. It doesn’t even have to be clever; just mean enough to shock. And maybe, if we’re all very lucky, the target will actually change their face, so that we can make fun of them for that, too. We’re all just children on a playground, really.

I suppose that I do grant a pass to comedians. Maybe I shouldn’t. But most of the time, when a comedian makes a joke about someone’s face, it doesn’t feel especially hurtful or damaging, because it isn’t serious. It challenges us to take a joke.

But when allegedly serious people think it’s appropriate to comment publicly about the quality of someone’s face, we as a society have a problem. And a lot of allegedly serious people do. Always have, it seems.

We should know better now, though, shouldn’t we? We’ve gone through the second and third waves of feminism. We’ve lost countless people to eating disorders. We’ve seen people commit suicide simply because they were afraid of looking old. We’ve driven teenagers to Botox.

Yet, it seems that all we’ve learned is how to wrap our superficial digs up in positive things like body acceptance or feminism, so that they can be passed off as progressive social commentary. As if more body-focused negativity will somehow yield body positivity. In reality, “She’s telling little girls it isn’t okay to age,” really means, “I don’t like her face.” “I liked how she looked before,” implies, “I don’t like her face, now.”

How about—oh, I don’t know—just holding your damn tongue?

I mean, does anybody seriously believe that when a woman reads something negative about her face in the Daily Mail she swears off plastic surgery for good? Or picks up the magic wand that can instantly undo what has already happened? No. She calls her surgeon, sobbing, and asks how to fix it. She feels compelled to change her face, again, to please others.

And arguing that other people should look and age the way you want them to is not going to spare little girls the social pressures that lead to plastic surgery. It is, however, going to show them a woman—usually a capable, successfully one—once again being judged on the basis of her physical appearance.

So, if you want women in Hollywood to stop getting plastic surgery, maybe you should just stop saying negative things about their appearance, period.

On that topic: it also isn’t your face. It’s hers. Her face is not your bitch. Call me a boring old believer in bodily autonomy, but I think a person’s face is theirs to do with as they please. If cosmetic surgery makes someone feel better about him or herself, it is no one else’s duty to tell them that it shouldn’t. If slicing up their bodies and spending hours a day at the gym also doesn’t appeal to them, catty comments about their aging process will not slow your own.

I understand, of course, that to some degree the demand for attractive young actresses is just plain biological: we’d rather look at pretty people. That will never change. Marilyn Monroe was a hell of a performer, but would she have become Marilyn Monroe without the aid of cosmetic surgery? There are leading ladies in Hollywood who are one hairline adjustment away from being uncastable.

The men aren’t spared, either.

The night of the Oscars, I read a press release for the previous year’s Razzies. It described Adam Sandler as an “aging, schlubby comic.” The man had just made Jack & Jill. It has a 3 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and a perfect zero among top critics. I felt personally demeaned by the trailer. But the worst things the meanest award committee in Hollywood could say about the film was that it starred a man who is unattractive and subject to natural law. Why is that what they felt most comfortable commenting on? Again, it’s easy applause.

So, at this point, I tink it’s safe to say that nature is not dictating our standards of beauty. Our own childish insecurities are. And we have to stop using our voices to reinforce this insane, unnatural standard of beauty that has developed. Have you seen this? Someone gave somebody else a collection of photos of one of the most beautiful women in the world and said, “Fix everything.” Surgeons in West Hollywood and Beverly Hills get that same request every single day.

And they have for decades. Figure artist and historian Jim Silke is one of the world’s most prominent admirers of Bettie Page. He once observed that, “If Hollywood…had not rejected Bettie Page because of her Southern accent, it would have because of her lazy right eye, too thin upper lip and too defined rib cage.”

He’s right. Bettie Page, one of the greatest sex symbols of the 20th century, rose from obscurity to superstardom based solely on the power of her image on film, but she didn’t have the rib cage for Hollywood. Hollywood was looking for a very particular type: Kim Novak. Studios became infamous in the ’50s for turning away any girl who could not be made to look like Kim Novak, circa 1955.

How was this ideal attained?

Cohn put Novak on a stringent diet, all the while calling her ‘that fat Polack’ (Novak’s background is Czech) behind her back. She followed an exercise regime. She was assigned a make-up artist. Her teeth were capped. Her hair was dyed blonde, then rinsed to make it gleam lavender in the light.

Before the 2014 Academy Awards, Novak, now universally admired as an exceptionally gifted actress, fasted for three days.

These days, that isn’t enough. Things are getting worse and it isn’t biology that’s driving it.

This article originally featured on The Good Men Project and was reposted with permission. Larry Womack is the founder of 1450 Media. Prior to that, he was a news editor for The Huffington Post and Executive Editor of RawStory.com.

Photo via Sharon Graphics/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


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*First Published: May 1, 2014, 11:30 am CDT