A lot of questions ran through my head when I first read Anthony Lane’s profile of Scarlett Johansson in the latest issue of the New Yorker, like “How could anyone on staff let descriptions like ‘radiant in the flesh’ and ‘dry and dirty laugh… like a martini’ and ‘seemed to be made from champagne’ and ‘the honey of her voice’ get published?” and also “How long did it take Lane to type out all 5,000 words with just one hand, while he was busy jerking off with the other?” But the one that plagued me the most was easily, “Am I really reading the New Yorker? When did the New Yorker start publishing things like this?” It’s chaos in my head. It really is.
No, but really. Have you read the New Yorker profile? You can. It’s not behind a paywall or for subscribers only or something. And maybe that’s because if someone had to pay to read this profile, they would be so incredibly disheartened by Lane’s flowery similes and laser-focused male gaze that they would not ever want to read the magazine again. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so disappointing if this profile was in another magazine, like GQ or Vanity Fair, whose readership fully expects and even demands a certain brand of fawning celebrity profile. But it’s not like I think there’s nothing inherently wrong with the New Yorker publishing celebrity profiles (Ian Parker’s piece on Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig last year was one of the best celebrity profiles I’ve ever read). And perhaps it wouldn’t have been so terrible if it had been written by someone other than Anthony Lane. (Which, yes, I’ve read Lane before, and so, yes, I do know what to expect from his writing. It’s always flowery and male-gazey. But it’s still more of a problem than just what my colleague, Henry Stewart, pointed out, “Oh so you’re just mad because an urbane Englishman in the New Yorker made jokes you don’t enjoy!”)
This isn’t just about jokes I don’t enjoy (although, no, I don’t enjoy Lane joking about performing an ultrasound on the pregnant Johansson; would there be similar jokes about performing prostate exams on aging stars like Brad Pitt or George Clooney?), and it isn’t about the compromised state of celebrity profiles in general because there are a number of reasons, many having to do with ad sales and overzealous PR machines, that celebrity profiles are rarely revealing or even very interesting, and that’s a problem that runs much deeper than Lane’s obsequious writing. No, this is more an issue of expecting better things than usual from certain publications, and hoping that when a magazine like the New Yorker has the chance to talk to Scarlett Johansson, that more will be revealed than the fact that she is (shocker!) beautiful in real life. Johansson in particular happens to be an interesting subject right now not only because of her tangential involvement in the Woody Allen/Dylan Farrow allegations, but also because of her controversial, ongoing endorsement of SodaStream, a company that operates a factory in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. While it is understandable that the focus of Lane’s interview with Johansson would be her upcoming Jonathan Glazer film, Under the Skin, there’s no reason why some of the 5,000 words that Lane mostly devotes to rapturous descriptions of the actress’s body couldn’t have been given to more serious topics. And in fact, Lane does bring up both Allen and SodaStream, but he then first allows Johansson to deflect a question about working with Allen again (“I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t”) and then lets her get away with saying something nonsensical about her involvement with SodaStream (“I think I was put into a position that was way larger than anything I could possibly—I mean, this is an issue that is much bigger than something I could just be dropped into the middle of”). It’s as if Lane goes out of his way to make an interview that could have been fascinating and complex be as superficial as possible. And then the New Yorker ran with it. And I got disappointed, far more disappointed than I wanted to be. I don’t know how to make this any clearer: I don’t want to read any more profiles where I wind up imagining Anthony Lane jerking off to his own poorly conceived metaphors about Scarlett Johansson’s cheekbones. Gross.
There are certain publications—and the New Yorker certainly numbers among them—about which it’s easy to feel a little precious. These publications have a tradition of excellent reporting and thought-provoking writing, and so we want them to be consistently strong and not fall into the traps of the more shallow journalism that exists in other glossy magazines or, you know, on the Internet. And maybe this is unfair, the New Yorker has ad sale goals to meet just like GQ does, but it’s not unfair to complain about a profile of a woman in which the male writer’s leering gaze can be felt so strongly that it makes the reader squirm. And it’s fine to hold a publication like this to a high standard, in the same way that it’s fine to lament the fact that the New York Times can publish trite “style” pieces that have no bearing on most of the world’s reality or idiotic op-eds because the paper also publishes the kind of excellent work that we love and respect. So maybe this profile of Johansson wouldn’t have been worth much more than an eye-roll if it had run in Esquire, but it didn’t run in Esquire. It ran in the New Yorker. And the New Yorker can do better.
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