The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Feminism Week: Whatever Happened to Scarlett Johansson?

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

Once upon a time, I was a Scarlett Johansson fan.

How could I not be?  She entered the scene as the broken equestrienne Grace in The Horse Whisperer, a teenage actress holding her own opposite Kristin Scott Thomas and Robert Redford.  A few years later she popped up in the indie sleeper Ghost World, as the weird, offbeat Rebecca, who decides to become more normal after her high school graduation, while her best friend goes in the other direction.

Then there was Lost in Translation

Can I tell you how much I love this movie?  It’s such a beautiful film, showcasing the quiet desperation of both Bill Murray’s and Johansson’s characters.  The delicate relationship that grows between the two never crosses that line into “icky” territory.  (Don’t think so?  Johansson was born in November 1984—five months after Ghostbusters was released in the United States.)  It was a story about two lonely people who connected while jet-lagged in Japan.  It’s a story about people who are just a little bit broken, feeling disillusioned and disappointed in life.

One interesting—and likeable—thing about this movie is that although Johansson’s character is young and pretty, and although Murray’s character seems to be attracted to her (although this is never stated explicitly), the character is never played up for sex.  Johansson spends most of the movie in conservative sweaters and slacks.  Her makeup is light and natural looking.   Neither is she played off as an ingénue—she’s too jaded for that.  Despite the differences in their ages, you get the sense that the connection between the two characters has more to do with who they are, and what they’ve been through, rather than just the typical story of an older guy falling for an attractive younger woman.

I guess I found something sort of relatable about Johansson in that movie.  Like her, I was in a dysfunctional romantic relationship when I saw it.  I, too, was in my early 20s, on the verge of graduating college at the time.  I couldn’t figure out where the hell my life was going, or what the hell I was doing.  I felt lost, and…disappointed.

Plus, she just seemed like the kind of girl I could relate to.  Unlike many of the stick-thin actresses in Hollywood, Johansson had boobs and curves.  Granted, they were 1940s pinup curves rather than average-woman curves, but still, she had a body type closer to mine than most of the other young startlets ever managed.  She also had that slightly raspy voice, the years-ahead-of-her-time maturity, and the history of taking awkward girl roles.  She was something different than the usual Hollywood actress sort, and I liked that.  I guess I had something of a girl crush on her at the time.

So what happened?

I consider Lost in Translation to be something of a turning point in Johansson’s career.  Before that, Johansson was a well-respected, but lesser known, actress.  But Lost in Translation was the movie that turned her into a star.  But being turned into a star also turned her into a sex symbol, and since then, it seems like every movie I see her in has her playing one role…

The femme fatale.

Now it seems like whatever movie I see her in, it seems like she’s playing the same types of parts.  Take The Black Dahlia, where she’s the mysterious, sexy woman who reminds the lead detective on the case of the woman whose murder he’s investigating.  Or take He’s Just Not That Into You, where she’s the sexy yoga instructor who lures a married man away from his wife.  Or take Vicky Cristina Barcelona, where she plays a free-spirited young woman who enters into a polyamorous relationship with an estranged married couple.  Or take Match Point, a movie in which, according to IMDb, “a former tennis pro falls for a femme-fatal type who happens to be dating his friend and soon-to-be brother-in-law.” Guess who plays the femme fatale.

Outside of the movies, it seems like every time I see her, it’s on the cover of Maxim or Vanity Fair, or she’s being ranked on one of those “Sexiest Women in Hollywood” lists.  It’s gotten to the point where I see her, cringe, and think, “Oh, no, not again!”

I guess it’s no surprise that Johansson would end up playing sexy roles.  She is an undeniably attractive woman, and the fact that she looks more like a 1940s pinup than a conventional Hollywood beauty of today only adds to her appeal.  What bothers me, though, is that she repeatedly seems to be playing characters that are male fantasies of what women should be.

Even in The Avengers—written and directed by no less than Joss Whedon of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame—when we first see Johansson’s Natasha Romanov, she is tied to a chair, wearing a skimpy black dress, and being tortured by kidnappers for information.  Granted, we very quickly learn that this is a ruse, as Natasha turns things around on her kidnappers and kicks their asses without even breaking a sweat.  But still, we can’t change our initial images of her.  Furthermore, she spends most of the rest of the movie running around in a catsuit that seems specifically designed to show of Johansson’s figure.  Honestly, how could she kick anyone’s butt in that thing?  I wouldn’t imagine it offers the best range of movement.  Not to mention the fact that, if I were fighting to the death in a catsuit, I wouldn’t be leaving said catsuit unzipped in just such a way to show a tantalizing bit of cleavage.  I mean, seriously, don’t female superheroes get armor or Kevlar?  She is a superhero who uses her sexuality.  From a female perspective, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor is undeniably attractive, and wears even fewer clothes.  So how come he doesn’t have to use his sexuality?

It’s kind of a chicken-and-egg argument.  Does Johansson choose to take the sexy, male-gaze infused roles, thereby deciding to sell herself as a sex symbol, or do they simply comprise the majority of roles available, and Johansson happens to be young enough and genetically blessed enough to take advantage?  After all, upon closer look at Johansson’s resume, we see that she does take roles that don’t fit into the femme fatale category (The Other Boelyn Girl, The Nanny Diaries, We Built a Zoo).

The fact is, the movie-making industry is dominated by male writers, directors, and producers.  Fact is, most movies are made with that coveted male 18-35 demographic in mind.  And the fact is, the movie industry continues to perpetuate the virgin-and-whore archetypes that have been degrading women for centuries.  Johansson and her career choices have undoubtedly been affected by this.  Who can blame her for playing the game?

I’m not a Hollywood actress.  I would also never claim to be nearly as attractive as Johansson is.  But I am a young female working in a male-dominated office, a woman regularly placed in a position of authority over men significantly older and more accomplished than me.  Most of the time this is fine, and I’m lucky that most of the people I come into contact with respect me as a professional.  But that doesn’t mean that, every so often, I don’t encounter men who think it’s all right to call me “baby” or “sweetheart.”  That doesn’t mean I don’t notice that sometimes, men I work with consider eye-to-boob contact an acceptable form of interpersonal communication.  That doesn’t mean that I don’t get invitations—often from married men—to go to lunch so they can “show me the ropes” or something equally inane.  

I don’t blame Johansson.  Certainly, the perceptions and stereotypes I battle were around long before Johansson made her screen debut.  But I hate those types of movies with a passion—and I resent Johansson for perpetuating them.  It’s those types of characters that teach boys and men that women belong to them, that they are objects available for their gaze and domination.  I doubt many of them realize they’ve internalized the message, and even fewer of them would own up to it.  But it’s there, and it continues to affect the male/female dynamic in both professional and personal relationships.

That’s why Scarlett Johansson frustrates me.  I know she can do better.  She can’t change the fact that she’s an attractive woman, nor should she have to.  She was beautiful in Lost in Translation…but the movie wasn’t about her being beautiful, as so many of her subsequent films have been.

We need more movies that show women as more than just objects of male gaze.  We need more female writers, directors, and producers to enter the filmmaking world.  (Though that’s not to say that a male couldn’t create a strong, compelling, realistic female character.)  We need to change the way we calculate desirable demographics.  After all, maybe if Hollywood made more movies that would appeal to women, more women would go to the movies.

It’s not Johansson’s fault.  But I can’t help but look at her and think about the actress she could have been.