Ashley Judd, Misogyny, and Me

Ashley Judd and I have a lot in common. She’s only a few years my senior, and she grew up about 80 miles north of my own Eastern Kentucky hometown.  We were both sorority girls in Lexington and are fanatic about the University of Kentucky’s basketball team.  Our paths overlap in that “we almost know each other” way that connects many Kentuckians: her great-aunt and uncle lived next door to my own great-aunt and uncle in a suburban Lexington neighborhood for decades, I know plenty of people who knew her in her UK Kappa days, her hometown is quite near my beau’s, etc.  I pride myself on being a Kentuckian, and Ashley Judd is one of the Commonwealth’s most famous daughters.  Needless to say, I’ve followed Ashley Judd’s career quite closely over the years.

When Ashley’s manifesto about women’s bodies and misogyny appeared on the Daily Beast Monday, I took notice.It was hard not to notice, to tell you the truth.My twitter stream and Facebook feed were filled with female friends applauding Ms. Judd. People forwarded me the link to the article again and again. As nearly everyone knows by now, Ashley Judd appeared on a Canadian talk show in March and her appearance was dissected by a number of entertainment media sources which cited her “puffy” appearance.Earlier this week, Ms. Judd took to the Daily Beast website to discuss the societal implications of the criticism she’d endured.  Now, I read the article with trepidation, for I’ve often found her writing and socio-political stances to be a bit grating. And, I have to say, I was exceptionally torn, both by the message she presented and by my own response. 

As I read the article, I found myself cheering Ms. Judd’s defense of herself and her looks.  It was a subject that hit painfully close to home.  A day earlier, at Easter dinner, I’d found myself cringing as some relatives clumsily and tactlessly “complimented” my recent weight loss.  I didn’t want to explain that I am coming off an emotionally difficult year, which had been capped off by a month-long bout with bronchitis and a week’s worth of debilitating stomach pain.  I didn’t want to acknowledge the tacit implication that I'd needed to lose some of the weight, nor did I want to deal with my grandmother’s admonition that I didn’t need to lose any more.  I tried to graciously shrug off those statements in the spirit of family and holiday, but they hurt my feelings.  As I read Ashley’s defense of her recent steroid treatment for a sinus infection, I empathized deeply.  Not only had I just felt the need to defend myself against weird back-handed compliments, I had also recently dealt with the “Wow, you look like shit” comments when receiving a similar drug regimen.  I didn’t need the added stress of external criticism, and I could certainly understand the points Ashley raised in her own defense.
Now, I thought that Ashley's Daily Beast article was a little formal and academic for the pages of a political tabloid.  The use of “inter alia” is perhaps not fitted to The Daily Beast’s readership,  but I’m guilty of the same writing crimes.  When I feel defensive, or when I feel I’ve been challenged, I also tend to become verbose.  I sometimes cringe when I look back at some of my earlier published work; I was immediately reminded of this fact as I read Ashley’s article.  This is a woman who has been hurt by her critics in a very personal attack, I thought. She is smart and accomplished, and she wants to fire back with the tools at hand.  In her case, it’s a brand-new MPA from the Harvard K-School.  As always, Ashley Judd presented herself as a hyper-reality version of me.  It would make for a neat little story about the sisterhood and solidarity of Kentucky women if I ended this essay here, except for one small problem: I was one of the people who called Ashley “puffy.”
On March 17, as most of y’all know, the UK basketball team played a tough, tight game against Iowa State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.  In a weekend fraught with upsets, the outcome seemed fairly dubious for a moment.  Nobody wanted to look away from the game for second.  And yet, there it was – a break in play coverage to interview our Most Famous Fan.  The truth is, I didn’t care what Ashley had to say about being in the Yum! Center, or about the team’s style of play.  I just wanted to watch the game.  As I recall, a crucial foul was not shown (y’all refresh my memory – it may have even been a technical?) because we were cutting to an interview with Ashley Judd.  In my frustration and anxiety about both the game itself and the manner in which it was being broadcast, I rashly posted an ugly, petty statement to my social media accounts:  “Nobody cares, Puffy Ashley.”  The following Monday, Ms. Judd would go on to the Canadian talk show appearance which sparked the controversy over her appearance.
Now, sports fans say a lot of ugly things in the moment.  The blessing and the curse of the Facebook Timeline format is that it easily allows you to go back and review your words. Around the time that I criticized Ms. Judd’s appearance, I also criticized sportscaster Bobby Knight for being a notorious blowhard with a vendetta against Kentucky; I’m sure that the General’s famous gin blossom worked its way into the conversation at some point.  It usually does. I similarly criticized Iowa State’s star player, Royce White, who was previously thrown off Minnesota’s team for an incident of theft and assault. As I review these statements, I’m not altogether convinced that I criticized Ms. Judd because I am guilty of covert misogyny, or that I was tacitly buying into the patriarchy (the aspersions that her article casts upon women who criticize other women’s looks).  I do know, however, that I am guilty of committing ad hominem attacks against Ms. Judd, Coach Knight, and Mr. White.  In the case of Ms. Judd and Coach Knight, they are celebrities whose attitudes and public statements often annoy me.  In the case of Mr. White, I was simply scared of his dominant style of play. 
When I said “Shut up, Puffy Ashley,” what I meant to say was “I don’t always enjoy your work as an entertainer and a celebrity.  I often find you grating and preachy.  I find you to be a bit of a know-it-all.”  I have long taken issue with Ms. Judd for the fact that her political stance on the Eastern Kentucky coal industry fails to account for the economic structure of our shared homeland.  I have often disdained her status as our basketball team’s Premier Fan, because it often seems she is only there when the cameras can focus on her the most*.  What I meant to say was, “You are a beautiful woman who is clearly having a rough day. Perhaps the camera shouldn’t rest upon you for so long.  Besides, there are tens of thousands of other blue-clad fans who’d gladly give an interview.” But I didn’t.  Instead, I went for a personal attack, which any first-year student of philosophy, politics, or law can point out as a cheap and lazy rhetorical device.  My own words were reprehensible, and I thank Ms. Judd for pointing this out to me.**
After the Iowa State game, UK’s star forward Terrence Jones tweeted an odd little anecdote.  It seems that Ashley Judd had been clowning around in the Locker Room with the team after the game.  Somehow, she made it out of the gym and halfway down I-65 with Terrence’s iPhone.  It seemed an odd little aside after a hard-won game, but a small contingent of the internet portrayed this in an ugly light.  I saw more than a few wink-and-nod tweets that asked why an older, beautiful, white woman had taken off with a young, handsome, athletic black man’s cell phone.  The implications were far-fetched and seamy.  And completely baseless.  To me, this portion of Ashleygate was the real story of objectification and misogyny.  It was barely removed from the Victorian implication that actresses were whores.  I thought of these ridiculous stories as I read Ashley’s article, and I was forced to compare them to my own gut reactions.  My immediate counterargument to the Daily Beast piece was that Ms. Judd has chosen a career as a Professional Pretty Person.  She once appeared on that wildly popular UK Hockey poster wearing nothing but a jersey. Wasn’t she inherently buying into the patriarchy through her very own life choices, essentially objectifying herself? Or was I, in effect, blaming the victim?

We live in a culture which commoditizes celebrity. We pick our favorites as though we were picking ice cream flavors.  We consider ourselves perfectly justified in critiquing the looks and lifestyle choices of people whom we’ll never meet.  We find it perfectly acceptable to criticize celebrities whose weight falls outside proscribed norms.  And, we expect them to take it.  While Ms. Judd’s defense of herself is far from perfect – it’s a little too patronizing and rhetoric-heavy for my tastes – it is a commendable step in starting a real dialogue about the issue of objectification.
I don’t find myself as moved by Ms. Judd’s missive as many of my fellow Kentucky women.  It wasn’t the “go-girl” manifesto that many of my friends experienced.  And yet, it made me think.  It made me think about how women discuss other women.  It made me think about how men discuss women.  And it will hopefully move us all to choose our description of others’ looks a little more carefully.  And for that, I am quite grateful.
*I’m blatantly rooting for that cute little Josh Hopkins to take up the mantle of Most Famous Fan, but that’s another story for another day…
** I told you I get verbose when I’m defensive. Touché, Ashley.