In a profile for Vanity Fair’s August 2016 cover, writer Rich Cohen struggled to separate actress Margot Robbie from her existence as a sexual being, as many male writers have felt inclined to do about women forever. The feature on its own, which takes an odd tone and is not particularly well-written, was enough to attract considerable media attention. The thing is that it’s not an anomaly, rather, it’s synonymous with his style of writing about famous women in an oddly fantastical, idolizing tone.
The general idea is such: This woman is a fairy in a field, and look, she’s doing something quaint, and how lucky are we to have been there to witness it. The Robbie profile, a promo obligation to support her roles in Tarzan and Suicide Squad, features this descriptive passage about her looks:
She is blonde but dark at the roots. She is tall but only with the help of certain shoes. She can be sexy and composed even while naked but only in character. As I said, she is from Australia. To understand her, you should think about what that means. Australia is America 50 years ago, sunny and slow, a throwback, which is why you go there for throwback people.
Cohen also describes Robbie’s wondrous movement through the air as if it’s weird she hasn’t been swept away:
She wandered through the room like a second-semester freshman, finally at ease with the system. She stopped at tables along the way to talk to friends. I don’t remember what she was wearing, but it was simple, her hair combed around those painfully blue eyes. We sat in the corner. She looked at me and smiled.
What is “painfully blue”? It isn’t the absolute worst of this incessant form of male celebrity profiling rooted in fantasy, but it’s nevertheless a prime example.
Cohen has profiled several famous women for Vanity Fair, including Madonna, Jessica Simpson and Angelia Jolie twice, all stories that bear the mark of a man who’s content to follow the gross, formulaic pattern of males writing profiles through the lens of a sexually focused idol worship, not to mention a generally blasé editorial tone that often reads like long, unedited stream-of-consciousness, as if he forced himself to write in a journal after coming home from a long day of work that wasn’t actually a long day but really seemed like it. Vanity Fair is perhaps more culpable than Cohen—after all, they’re editing, publishing and encouraging him. But for whom he’s writing is clear: old white male fogies who are similarly interested in how these women fit into their own narratives.
In a May 2008 Madonna profile tied to her album Hard Candy and two film projects at the time (the story’s dek acknowledges that she co-wrote, produced and directed one of them), Cohen introduces Madonna in the opening graphs:
To reach her, you must wait for a sign. When it comes, if you are pure of heart, you begin to move toward Madonna, and move fast. One moment you are in Connecticut, wondering if it will snow, the next moment you are swept up by a force greater than yourself. You’re in a car on the highway, flashing past sleepy towns, moving closer and closer to the center, which you approach deftly and humbly, in the manner of a pilgrim. Like a pilgrim, you set off before first light. Like a pilgrim, you remove your shoes—to pass through security at the airport. Like a pilgrim, you read and reread sacred texts: profiles and reviews, the first published in the early 1980s, the most recent published just a second ago, which constitute a kind of record, the good news, the Gospel of Madonna.
(What’s equally tough to get through in the piece is Madonna’s own constant self-praise of her work in Africa, even derailing a question about her kiss with Britney Spears to say, “When you think about the way people treat each other in Africa...”)
That aside, like in the Robbie profile, Cohen doesn’t properly observe what Madonna was wearing because he’s so bowled over by her beauty. While caught up in her rapture, he writes:
Madonna sat bolt upright on a leather couch. She wore a white dress—at least, that’s what I think she was wearing. She was stunningly beautiful. I mean, you’ve seen this person only on TV or in movies, in two dimensions, now here she is. What’s more, when I was in high school, I dated so many girls because they looked like Madonna that I had the feeling I had slipped off my chains and made my way out of Plato’s cave and was seeing the real thing at last.
Cool. Here’s an excerpt from his July 2008 profile of Angelina Jolie, “A Woman in Full,” in which he writes that she “crossed the floor like a pilgrim, with her head down.” (He seems to like pilgrims.) The lede:
It’s an established fact. Some women can’t stand being pregnant, getting big and bloated, and hauling around a giant stomach, and some women, for reasons probably understood by Darwin, love it. That Angelina Jolie is one of the latter can be seen in any of the thousands of pictures of the actress—who was, after all, impregnated by Brad Pitt, which is like being impregnated by a future man or a star child—that began to proliferate in the celebrity weeklies and supermarket tabloids in the spring of 2008, by which time Jolie, who is carrying twins, had bellied out like a sail.
Jolie, who indeed has an oddly magnetic quality about her, has been a frequent subject of male deification over the years in print, and here is no different. Cohen writes, invoking YA fantasy-world imagery:
She carries herself with strange dignity, as if she were an emissary of a secret order, a messenger from a lost kingdom. You see it in every picture. Shot after shot. She’s a princess, an aristocrat. I mean, the woman knows how to be photographed, where to look, where the light comes from. (Us says they’re just like us, but Us is wrong about them, or wrong about us.) She’s not quite flawless in person—she’s more real, human. It’s the same product, only it’s been taken out of bunting and plastic and set in this ordinary place, as opposed to the dreamworld cooked up by set designers and admen.
Because none of these profiles are complete without a mention of Audrey Hepburn or some other old white movie star, Cohen goes on to compare “Angelina Jolie in 2008" to “Elizabeth Taylor in 1951, or Doris Day in 1956, or Mary Pickford in 1917.” In describing how much she resembles her dad Jon Voight, he notes, “It’s disconcerting to recognize the face of an aging man on a beautiful woman.”
Here’s an excerpt from his second Jolie profile, in August 2010:
I want to slow the picture here, show her frame by frame (the way Hitchcock first shows Grace Kelly in Rear Window, when she leans in to kiss Jimmy Stewart): first her arm, long and elegant, a gloved hand reaching out for help. Then a foot on the stairs. Then another. Then Jolie herself. She is stunning in a period sort of way. She’s in a black evening gown and a cape, which, I’m later told, was made for her by “Oscar-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood.”
Her hair is pulled back, her lips are full, her eyes huge and alien, her head alien also, too big for her body, for her narrow shoulders and skinny waist—alien in that big-headed Martian way, proportions that Hollywood and conspiracy theorists use to denote species of a higher evolutionary order, whether of good or ill intent. Her back is red where the main phrase of her dominant tattoo is covered: “Know Your Rights,” which, she says, comes from the Clash song. Covering these words seems symbolic, but I’m not sure how, or of what.
Ironically, in the piece, he unknowingly I.D.s himself when he mentions Jolie’s Salt role being written for a male actor and writes: “Writing for a man, then swapping gender, is, as it turns out, the best way to create an utterly liberated hero, a character with none of the tropes that writers, even if they don’t mean to, fall back on when creating a role for a woman.”
When he met her before, he says he “made the mistake of thinking, Well, yes, she’s pretty but not that pretty, but now I could see my mistake, for here, in Venice, where she was working, she was set to maximum wattage.”
Here’s his profile of Jessica Simpson, which begins with a focus on her “the “sudden weight gain,” in June 2009 VF:
Off the left side, you see a world of orderly streets and squares, where fans crowd theaters showing the new blockbuster by Jessica Simpson, who looks down from a marquee, slender and blonde and shaped like a barbell, booming on top and in the middle, skinny as a pencil between, and radios blast an endless stream of Jessica Simpson hits, her voice syrupy and love-filled.
I didn’t want to ask about her weight directly, so I hinted at it, asking instead about body image in general, physical changes, perception—from my questions, you might have thought I was interviewing the Wolf Man. “It comes with what I do,” she said, “and I know that every day the media’s going to challenge me, is going to want to bring me down. But I feel like I’m at such a place that I own myself, and it’s authentic. I own that authentic part of myself, and none of those words are harsh enough to make me believe them.”
Compare any of this with Cohen’s profile of Channing Tatum—an actor who stars in and was at the time promoting a film franchise about men as objects of desire—in August 2015. Tatum is described in hyperbolic terms, like magazines love, but with less fantastical language. He’s “unsettlingly handsome” with “a kind of dense, dark-star compactness”:
He wore a baseball cap sideways and greeted me with a hug. His charm is of the regular-guy variety, the big, sweet kid in the back of study hall who could easily hurt you but chooses not to because, though he excels at football and can be ferocious on the field, he’s actually sweet-natured, a force of goodness in the world. Of course, Channing Tatum is not really a regular guy—that’s just a trick, movie magic. If anything, he is a regular guy raised to a kind of platonic perfection, jacked to the highest power, multiplied by himself, then multiplied again, thick-shouldered with clear green eyes and a smooth face with a careful scattering of stubble, an imperfection that highlights the perfection of the whole.
Rather than as some beautiful, mystical adornment—like how the women in his profiles are depicted—the real miracle is that Cohen presents Tatum as just a regular guy who happens to be perfect.
Images via Vanity Fair.