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Reel Women: James Franco’s Whiny Male Privilege, and Why Actresses Don’t Pull Stunts Like Shia LaBeouf

Reel Woman James Franco Shia LaBeouf
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This week, James Franco, the multi-hyphenate talent and student of all things art, finally chimed in on the ongoing shenanigans (Shia-nanigans?) of Shia LaBeouf — from his plagiarism of Daniel Clowes, to his plagiarized apologies for his plagiarism, to his bizarre public appearances wearing a bag over his head declaring “I AM NOT FAMOUS ANYMORE,” among various other ridiculous things. Franco’s op-ed in The New York Times read like a myopic declaration of male actor privilege, particularly because you’ll never see actresses pulling the same stunts LaBeouf’s been pulling (or that their other male counterparts have, for that matter) — and if they have or had, they certainly wouldn’t have a career afterward. 

In Franco’s piece, he defends LaBeouf’s “erratic behavior,” “questionable” actions, and “performance art,” saying that the young star is simply trying to “reclaim his public persona” in a profession that is very open to scrutiny — a profession which makes him feel as though his life is not his own. He goes on to compare LaBeouf to the legendary Marlon Brando:

Off-screen he defied the studio system’s control over his image, allowing his weight to fluctuate, choosing roles that were considered beneath him and turning down the Oscar for best actor in 1973. These were acts of rebellion against an industry that practically forces an actor to identify with his persona while at the same time repeatedly wresting it from him.

 

Franco also compares both himself and his choices (appearing on ‘General Hospital,’ for one) and LaBeouf’s recent antics to Joaquin Phoenix‘s ‘I’m Still Here’ faux-rapper meltdown period. I want to pump the brakes on Mr. Franco right here. Actresses can not and do not get away with any of the same behavior, nor have they ever seemingly tried. Take the example of Brando’s weight fluctuations, for instance, which Franco praises as an act of rebellion against a system that forces its stars to conform and maintain perfection — does any of this sound familiar?

Actresses have been the target of tabloid fodder since the dawn of tabloids, with their weight, aging, and plastic surgery the number one punch- and headline. They are under constant scrutiny to maintain a youthful, perfect appearance, and cameras are hiding in bushes and around every corner to catch them should they dare to falter for even a second. And that’s just their appearances we’re talking about.

An actress could not get away with the kind of “performance art” stunts that Franco, LaBeouf, or even Phoenix have pulled because it would ruin their careers. Who a woman sleeps with is enough to mar her good name for several months or even years because we’ve made her personal life our business. As soon as someone becomes famous, their personal life is no longer their own, and what Franco gets right is that there is something wrong about the lines between public and private personas, and the ongoing struggle for an artist to maintain and define their public persona when those lines have been grossly blurred from the outset. Defending Shia LaBeouf is not the way to have this conversation because LaBeouf — or any male actor — isn’t the one with the real problem here.

LaBeouf continues to be hired for film work, just like any number of actors who have made even more egregious offenses have — Sean Penn, Charlie Sheen, Terrence Howard, and several other actors have all been charged with and convicted of assault, and still continue to enjoy successful careers. Boys will be boys, and we shrug. But how often do you hear of an actress getting charged with assault? How often do we see actresses acting out like LaBeouf, or “experimenting” with roles like Franco? For an Academy Award-nominated actress to take a role on a soap opera would be career suicide, but Franco writes an op-ed explaining himself and takes some college classes and we think he’s a lovable, eccentric living art installation. He’s fun to laugh at and about, but we still take him seriously when it matters. Could we do the same for an actress? Hardly. But we’d never have to because an actress could not and would not dare attempt the same stunts.

Maybe actresses are just classier. Or maybe they’ve just been boxed in for years and know better than to step outside the rigid lines of conduct. When Jennifer Lawrence speaks off the cuff in interviews, for instance, it’s wildly refreshing — it’s the biggest act of rebellion we’ve seen from an actress in years. She got Doritos on her ‘American Hustle’ gown? What a rebel! She talks about butt plugs on late-night television? What a breath of fresh air! This is behavior that we consider to be an appropriate level of shocking and taboo for an actress. It’s just the right amount of outrageous to be relatable and endearing. But let’s say Lawrence plagiarized a comic artist for a short film and followed it up with a series of plagiarized apologies, then wore a bag on her head and did some weird apology-as-performance art with said bag on her head. What then? Would we still find her antics adorable? It’s hard to say because actresses just never cross these lines. They don’t have the room to spare.

Franco’s piece reads as though he’s saying that when an actor’s weight fluctuates, or he acts like an a-hole, or when he makes some pretty major mistakes, it’s all part of his right to reclaim his public persona and rebel against a system that’s trying to wrestle his identity away from him. Was Lindsay Lohan’s downfall an elaborate piece of performance art, then, or do these excuses only work for men?

Franco explains that his actions and decisions have been to challenge what’s expected of him as an artist, and it just sounds like a bunch of pretentious whining, privileged crap. Poor James Franco, a respected actor who has been given so many opportunities, who could physically harm someone and still enjoy a successful, lucrative career! We will never hear a woman defending her acting choices because actresses are not afforded the same opportunities as men like Franco and LaBeouf. They are not given the same breathing room. Franco whines about public scrutiny and the suffocation of trying to maintain control of a public persona, while actresses have been dealing with this same struggle — only much worse — for far longer. Franco’s concerned about being forced to take prestige roles or be a certain kind of actor, as if we should pity him, while women are still trying to make enough room for themselves in front of and behind the scenes and have their voices heard, counted and matter.

This week, the Women’s Media Center, founded by Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, and Robin Morgan, released their latest report, finding that women are still underrepresented in front of and behind the scenes, with women representing 28.8% of speaking characters in the top-grossing films of 2012 — and that’s just one of many depressing statistics. For the production of the 250 top-grossing domestic films in 2013, women only accounted for 16% of directors, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors. And according to their report, during a snapshot taken during a two-month period in 2013, men wrote 82% of all film reviews. Men are telling our stories, choosing which stories to fund, they are the faces and voices of our stories, and they are telling us which stories are good.

And over there is James Franco, whining about how he and Shia LaBeouf are struggling to make sure they don’t get pigeon-holed as a certain kind of artist, how they have to struggle to make sure the public and Hollywood doesn’t control them too much. At least James Franco has a platform to whine about all of this privilege whenever he feels like it. You go ahead, Franco. Meanwhile, the women of Hollywood will be doing the real work: fighting for shared space and parts that matter. They’ll be doing studies like Jane Fonda and Geena Davis, who both try to make a real difference in Hollywood. These are women who know what it is to struggle, who know what it’s really like to have a persona that’s been co-opted by Hollywood, the media, and the public; women who have never been able to make a real mistake in their lives or “experiment” if they ever wanted to work again.

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