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Ashley Judd in Toronto on March 12, 2012. (Nathan Denette/CP)
Ashley Judd in Toronto on March 12, 2012. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Leah McLaren

Ashley Judd's face: When celebrities are right to fight back Add to ...

We’re all guilty of it.

Once the second glass of wine has been poured and major life developments covered off, the conversation moves on, sometimes to higher-minded terrain (politics, art, the intricacies of other people’s marriages), while other times someone simply blurts out, “Can you believe Lana Del Rey’s lips?” Then we’re off: Angelina’s legs (scrawny), Katy Perry’s eyelashes (fake), Kate Middleton’s hair (impossible without extensions), Kim Kardashian’s butt (an astonishing cultural achievement) and so on until we run out of material or someone accuses someone else of being pregnant.

This sort of talk is not restricted to bored women and tipsy gay men. On the contrary, it has become common practice among all sorts of educated, intelligent professionals, the new-millennium equivalent of making small talk about the weather. Depictions and disseminations of celebrity bodies appear in almost all our media outlets, from thoughtful documents of record like this paper to the most fetid corner of the online press. Images of famous bodies are so ubiquitous it seems almost natural that we should spend so much time obsessing over them, and perhaps on a base evolutionary level it is -- but it ain’t pretty. Nor is it a thoughtful pastime.

And this week a pretty, thoughtful celebrity has decided to remind us of that.

I’m talking about Ashley Judd, of course, and her excellent op-ed piece in the Daily Beast this week. The story, which instantly went viral, causing a Twitterstorm of approval, takes aim at a “pointedly nasty, gendered and misogynistic” media for engaging in a “conversation about women’s bodies [that]exists largely outside of us, while it is also directed at (and marketed to) us, and used to define and control us.”

Judd's essay explores the unavoidable double bind well-known women find themselves in when they dare to exist in the public eye past childbearing age. Namely: If she looks good, she’s had work done; if she looks bad, she’s had work done. Either way, she’s deserving of our unmitigated scorn and scrutiny, right?

Well, wrong, obviously. As it happens, Judd says she hasn’t had work done. The controversy over her “puffy face,” which broke out after an appearance on The Marilyn Denis Show in Toronto last month, was plainly ludicrous on all sorts of levels. In fact, she’d been on steroid medication to clear up a sinus infection and had possibly gained some weight over the winter – horrors.

In truth, the scrutiny Judd endured at the hands of the media (in this case US Magazine, HuffPo and a handful of others) was not particularly unusual, just part of the regular nasty deluge that afflicts and distracts us on a daily basis. What’s unusual here is the way Judd dealt with it. Instead of crying to her publicist, running away to the Maldives, or paying Tracy Anderson to teach her kickboxing, she took control of the debate intelligently, articulately and in her own voice.

That Judd’s cri de coeur is so unusual is actually quite surprising in a world that constantly pillories celebrities for the way they look. While stars will often complain to a glossy media outlet about a more scabrous one (say, to an interviewer at Vanity Fair, about their treatment in the tabloids) it’s amazing how most stars, most of the time, simply suck it up like it’s part of the job.

Reading Judd’s essay, I didn’t just agree with her; I felt vaguely caught out, even a bit contrite. Considering an intelligent actress’s account of what it’s like to be put through the publicity mill made me pause to consider what I already knew to be true: By participating in a culture that dehumanizes others – even the enviably rich and famous – we are giving into our own worst instincts and making the world a crappier, stupider place to be.

Sick as I felt, I’m all for celebrities taking hold of the debate. Say what you will about Hugh Grant, his testimony on phone hacking at the Leveson Inquiry has been brilliant. Even more recently, Tulisa, a pop-star judge on Britain’s X Factor, took to YouTube after her ex-boyfriend released a sex tape of her. In a calm and dignified statement to fans, she explained how devastated she was to have an intimate act made public; and she showed several photos of the offending ex, who appears in the video only as a disembodied penis. She was hailed as a feminist hero in Britain and rightly so: When celebrities take back the debate, they are raising the bar for our culture rather than simply being slaves to it.

It’s too bad Lindsay Lohan hasn’t taken the time to speak out about the viral video of her morphing, addiction-ravaged face that’s been circulating this week. Far from the “warning” it purports to be, the video is an act of public cruelty against a young woman whose struggle to sort herself out despite the perverting influence of childhood fame should give us all pause for concern. Go on and watch it if you haven’t already, but remember: That famous face is a person, too.

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Follow on Twitter: @leahmclaren

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