Yesterday, Jon Snow – er, Kit Harington – set the internet on fire when he commented on in an interview with Sunday Times Magazine. Per his words
“I think there is a double standard. If you said to a girl, ‘Do you like being called a babe?’ and she said, ‘No, not really,’ she’d be absolutely right. I like to think of myself as more than a head of hair or a set of looks. It’s demeaning. Yes, in some ways you could argue I’ve been employed for a look I have. But there’s a sexism that happens towards men.”
But the outcry against Kit Harington was fierce
Naturally, there was a backlash on social media from many who felt he was making light of the very real misogyny and discrimination that women endure every single day in the industry, taking umbrage at his use of the word “sexism.” And while people are absolutely not wrong to point out that “sexism” and “objectification” aren’t the same thing, the anger over his choice of words has been overblown. It’s parsing semantics rather than focusing on the message he’s sending. Harington needs to grab a dictionary, but everyone else needs to not immediately grab for pitchforks and torches.
Poor choice of vocabulary aside, what Harington points out about the unreasonable physical standards of Hollywood is a problem that’s become all too pronounced in recent years. Our actors and actresses have become more and more ripped and physically flawless in the last decade, despite the growing awareness of impossible body standards of the industry (and society in general). It’s an unrealistic standard to set not just for the audiences who watch them, but for the actors themselves.
The era of genre-heavy entertainment has wrecked our perception of what’s normal
We’re living in an age where our entertainment is dominated with movie and television adaptations based on fictional works, specifically comic book, fantasy, and sci-fi genres, where inhumanly stacked and shredded men dominate, and svelte women with somehow still naturally huge and perky boobs and butts are the norm. There is a reason why an actor or actresses’ contract for any one of these productions generally comes standard with a contractual obligation to meet with a personal trainer X days/week, work with a nutritionist, etc. We’ve all read the stories – prepping for a film role in a major blockbuster usually equates to their entire life revolving around the gym. Yes, being talented and getting at the essence of a character is still vital, but we’d be lying to ourselves if we said that it’s not just as much about looks now as it is about talent and ability. It’s this aspect that Harington despises:
“There’s definitely a sexism in our industry that happens towards women, and there is towards men as well. At some points during photoshoots when I’m asked to strip down, I felt that. If I felt I was being employed for just my looks, I’d stop acting.”
Again, he incorrectly uses the word “sexism” when he really wants to use “objectification” here, but he’s not wrong in bristling against the idea that he – and any person in Hollywood, male or female – is more than surface, shallow looks. He’s not wrong to want the focus to be on his abilities rather than his appearance, either.
The unrealistic fictional standards can lead to very real, dangerous consequences
But this endless cycle of going down to a normal weight and physique, only to have to bulk up while also being completely ripped often leads to dangerous side-effects for actors and actresses. We love to marvel at actors like Christian Bale when they undergo extreme body transformations, but the reality is that it’s not healthy and nor is it what a human body is meant to do.
Just before shooting is when the actor or actress undergoes the “lean out” phase. First they bulk up and pack on muscle mass, then they strip away all their water weight and fat. If you can get someone down to an exceptionally low fat percentage, say, under 5%, then an actor can appear much bigger than he actually is as it makes his definition stand out more. But maintaining an ultra-low body fat percentage for an extended period of time is extremely dangerous.
The excellent journal has a great article about the changing physical ideals of men in Hollywood, and one paragraph in particular illustrates a specific example of just how much of a toll this leaning out process took on one actor’s body. Matt Damon was not okay while shooting Courage Under Fire, as it turns out:
But maintaining extremely low body fat for the duration of a multimonth shoot is nearly impossible and often dangerous: The stress can make an actor ill, damage internal organs, and make him susceptible to other injuries. Matt Damon, who dropped 40 pounds without supervision for 1996’s Courage Under Fire, got so sick that he was beset by dizzy spells on set, impairing his adrenal gland and nearly doing serious damage to his heart. Even in the best-case scenario, calorie deprivation can exhaust an actor, making him light-headed, distracted, and fatigued.
It’s not that Hollywood directors and producers are intentionally trying to perpetuate this impossible physical ideal and endanger their stars. The shooting and production cycle of a modern blockbuster is insane, with tight deadlines and giant productions where everything has to run smoothly or risk being pushed back. Actors and actresses have no choice but to bulk up and shred in a short amount of time. Yet, they wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t for audience perception.
It’s also on the audience to break this unhealthy cycle
It’s not just the Hollywood machine that perpetuates this unrealistic ideal. It’s all of us, the audience, as well. Think of the immediate backlash when someone controversial is cast in an iconic role, especially that of any superhero: It usually has very little to do with that person’s body of work or level of talent, but entirely about their physical appearance. Gal Godot is still getting grief about being , despite having already played her. Grant Gustin still gets flak for being . It says everything about how much we the audience also feed into the warped body image machine.