Sasha Weiss of The New Yorker has the latest entry in the seemingly endless rounds of backlash against Anne Hathaway. It is strange enough that it won’t get lost in the mix, a credo that ends up insulting the actress Weiss purports to defend. Weiss proposes that Hathaway is disliked because she acts like a little girl, and Americans have an irrational hatred of little girls. She describes Hathaway as resembling “a nine-year-old girl about to dig into a big slice of birthday cake” and, evoking the 1994 best-seller Reviving Ophelia, construes this prepubescent era as “a small window of time when girls have that mien of utter at-homeness in the world.” Hathaway’s supposed girl-in-a-grown-woman’s-body behavior at the 2013 Oscars is contrasted with other actresses of the night.
Let’s take a quick survey of the people who were applauded for their red-carpet performances. A pale, limping Kristin Stewart with her perennial teen-agery pout and a bruise on her arm; Jennifer Lawrence, who is casually funny and naturally sarcastic and is most famous for her tomboyish roles; actresses in middle age like Sally Field and Meryl Streep, whom one can admire freely in the way that one admires a mother. Bruised teen-agers: likeable. Women who seem a little like men, or like they can hang with men: likeable. Post-menopausal women, old enough to be sexually non-threatening: likeable.
Weiss then goes on to compare the backlash against Hathaway with the backlash against “actual nine-year-old girl” Quvenzhané Wallis, including The Onion’s infamous tweet calling the star of Beasts of the Southern Wild a “cunt”:
The Onion, as usual, had blurted out a terribly ugly version of a suppressed, itchy attitude that is probably more widely held than we’d like to think: the idea that young girls are ridiculous, annoying, and a little disgusting. They’re glittery, they squeal, they like attention, and—most disturbingly—they threaten to evoke illicit sexual feelings. The word “cunt” didn’t bubble up by accident.
Yes, people who hated on Wallis for acting like a little girl—for flexing her arms when her name was called in a list of Best Actress nominees, for instance—are completely out of line. Wallis is a little girl, rendering her age-appropriate behavior adorable. Little girls should be applauded for their puppy dog handbags and “sparkling golden shoes.” Little girls are not expected to be “like men” (by which Weiss apparently means sarcastic, a quality I strongly dispute belongs to men and that women are only borrowing). Little girls are not expected to know how to get along with grown men.
But grown women? Grown women should speak “like men,” an odious phrase that Weiss uses when she should be saying “like adults.” Grown women should be able to “hang with men,” just as grown men should be expected to hang with women. Getting over the prepubescent disgust with the opposite sex is part of adulthood, though sadly many major politicians didn’t get the memo. Grown women don’t carry puppy dog purses.
In reality, Weiss’s contention that society is unduly cruel to deliberately girlish women misses the point entirely. Our media is awash with the sexual fantasy of the infantilized and therefore submissive woman. (Watch a delicious satire of the trope from Community here.) This does, in fact, tend to drive many women bonkers. But it should not be construed as some deep-set societal hatred for girls so much as an entirely understandable reaction from grown women who have every right to expect women to be regarded as adults. And that goes double for when we’re engaging in adult behaviors like being sexual.
Is that what’s driving the backlash against Anne Hathaway? It’s possible, though the case is a lot stronger when you’re talking about women hating on Zooey Deschanel or her lookalike Katy Perry. Hathaway’s image has never been particularly girlish, unless I missed the day that she gallivanted around a candy paradise squeaking about kittens while wearing a teeny miniskirt. Still, even if Weiss wanted to mount this defense of women who really do draw negative reactions because they act girlish, I would resist her. Expecting adult women to act “like men”—i.e., to have self-awareness, to be calm, and to have a sense of humor—is not something that other women should have to apologize for.