Earlier this month, the New Yorker published a review of the film Gemini by critic Anthony Lane. In it, Lane spent more time critiquing actor Lola Kirke's appearance than the movie. Now, Kirke is calling out the New Yorker film critic for how he wrote about her. Specifically, she's urging not only Lane, but moviegoers in general, to rethink how they view women in Hollywood.
In a letter to the editor titled "Definitions of Beauty," which the New Yorker published in its latest issue and online, Kirke wrote:
“I am disappointed by Anthony Lane’s glib criticism of my character’s appearance in the film Gemini. To deem unflattering the ‘big jeans’ and ‘baggy gray top’ I wear throughout the film is to suggest a preference for heroines in more tight-fitting clothes. And to even mention my ‘haircut from hell’ is to miss the point of my performance entirely. We need to see female characters be powerful and beautiful in ways that don’t rely on outdated representations of women.”
In Gemini, Kirke plays Jill, the personal assistant to a movie star, played by Zoë Kravitz, who finds herself cleaning up her boss' mess. In Lane's review, the critic spent a solid chunk on Kirke's appearance in the movie, critiquing her outfit and her hair. In his review, he wrote:
"Most of the time, she wears big jeans and a baggy gray top, while sporting the haircut from hell — brown bangs cut straight across, as if by a six-year-old with blunt scissors. At one point, in need of camouflage, she dyes the tresses blond but keeps the style. Talk about unsane. Kirke, however, who made such an impact, in 'Mistress America' (2015), requires no disguise; she is sphinxlike enough as it is. The cracking of the mystery, at the conclusion of 'Gemini,' is daft and unsatisfying, but no matter. The case of Lola Kirke remains unsolved."
Many agreed with Kirke's letter, as journalist Ester Bloom tweeted, "This letter to the editor Lola Kirke sent The New Yorker had me pumping my fist and cheering out loud."
Unfortunately, this isn't the only recent movie review critiquing a female actors' physical appearance. Last year, New York Magazine's David Edelstein received backlash for his Wonder Woman review, which focused on actor Gal Gadot's physical attributes. Right off the bat, Edelstein described Gadot as "somehow the perfect blend of superbabe-in-the-woods innocence and mouthiness," before stating, "she’s a treat here with her raspy accented voice and driving delivery." Throughout, the review, he intertwined critique of the film with leering comments about Gadot's costume. He continued:
"She looks fabulous in her suffragette outfit with little specs, but it’s not until she strips down to her superheroine bodice and shorts, pulls out her sword, and leaps into the fray, that she comes into her own."
Edelstein stood by most comments, but later addressed the backlash in a letter for Vulture, writing, "I underestimated how much a superheroine at the center of a woman-directed film would mean to many people, and descriptions I considered lively and complimentary would come across as demeaning."
Back in 2013, New York Observer critic Rex Reed called Melissa McCarthy "hippo" and "tractor-sized" in his review for Identity Thief. Reed hated the movie, but his review spent more time hating on McCarthy's body. He went as far to call her "a gimmick comedian who has devoted her short career to being obese and obnoxious with equal success." (Reed later addressed the criticism in a radio interview, but did not outwardly apologize.)
What Kirke's letter asks, without ever explicitly saying is: What does reviewing a woman's appearance have to do with reviewing a film? And the truth is, nothing. In these reviews, the mentions of Kirke's, Gadot's, or McCarthy's looks are not pertinent to understanding their movies, but it does reveal more about the person reviewing them — and society in general.
In each of these reviews, the male critic writes about the female actor's appearance, as if it is her performance. As if whether they find the female lead attractive somehow makes the film better — or in Reed's case, worse. These guys dedicated more time in their reviews describing these women's looks than having any kind of discussion about choices they're making as actors. It sends the message that women are not serious performers who can hold their own, but eye candy for the audience.
What Kirke scolds Lane for in her letter — and it could easily apply to the other examples— is that his review shows a lack of respect for craft from female performers. He writes as if Kirke's costuming, hair, and makeup weren't deliberately chosen to say something about her character. That they weren't acting choices to force an audience to see her in a different way, but mistakes because that hide Kirke's beauty. What he should have done is delved into why her costuming works or doesn't work for her performance, instead of why it doesn't work for his personal taste.
These kind of appearance-driven film reviews don't seem to happen to men because critics have too much respect for them. When Kirke talks about Hollywood needing to move past "outdated representations of women," she means that people in power, like film critics, need to start treating female actors like their male counterparts. They need to focus on actors' performances and not their appearances to show female actors are more than just something to ogle. Otherwise, what stops the audience from disrespecting female actors, too?