The XX Factor

Hey Anthony Lane, About That Scarlett Johansson Profile …

Scarlett Johansson, aka “Camel Eyes”

Photo by MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images

Scarlett Johansson’s eyelashes are like a camel’s. Her lush womanliness takes vibrant, palpable form. There is a beguiling, peppery charm to this irresistible screen siren, no lie. She begins to speak and, oh, what a voice!

What is it about ScarJo that inspires culture writers to do horrible things with words? The latest offender, a New Yorker profile by Anthony Lane, contains the following doozies:

Would it be construed as trespass, therefore, to state that Johansson looks tellingly radiant in the flesh? Mind you, she rarely looks unradiant, so it’s hard to say whether her condition [pregnancy] has made a difference.

Johansson was, indeed, gilded to behold. She seemed to be made from champagne.

Then came the laugh: dry and dirty, as if this were a drama class and her task was to play a Martini.

Johansson’s backside, barely veiled in peach-colored underwear …

 … using nothing but the honey of her voice …

She is evidently, and profitably, aware of her sultriness, and of how much, down to the last inch, it contributes to the contours of her reputation …

Inappropriate-uncle creepiness aside, Lane’s piece spends more time on the fragrance Johansson endorses (The One, for which “she made a short [promotional] film, in luscious black-and-white. … The director was Martin Scorsese, who, presumably, was attracted by its top notes of zesty bergamot and mandarin”) than on Johansson’s response to the Woody Allen controversy:*

Would she work with him [Allen] again, in the wake of recent events? “I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t,” she replies.

Had Lane not been so focused on the “contours” of Johansson’s “reputation,” he might have gotten a more illuminating response from his subject. When the Guardian asked Johansson last week about the op-ed from Dylan Farrow that called her and other actors out for supporting Allen, even though he stood accused of child molestation, she said: “I think it’s irresponsible to take a bunch of actors that will have a Google alert on and to suddenly throw their name into a situation that none of us could possibly knowingly comment on … that just feels irresponsible to me.” That answer, terrible as it is (have pity on celebrities with Google alerts!), at least tells us something about Scarlett Johansson. Nothing in Lane’s piece does.

In the context of the profile, Johansson’s short quote on working with Allen just provides more evidence that she is at once thoughtless (in the literal sense—she cannot think of why collaborating with Allen might be a problem) and above the fray: more fantasy construct than person. Likewise, Lane dismisses the SodaStream incident (Oxfam criticized ScarJo for accepting money to advertise for an Israeli company that owned a factory in an illegal Palestinian settlement; she resigned from her gig as an Oxfam spokeswoman rather than give up her endorsement deal) as a web of conflicting interests the actress couldn’t possibly understand:

Step back a little, and the whole farrago acquires a comic flavor, and Johansson sounds plausibly dumbfounded by her time at the heart of the storm: “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.”

But is she really so clueless? In that Guardian interview, Johansson says of her agreement with SodaStream, “I stand behind that decision. I was aware of that particular factory before I signed it. … I’m coming into this as someone who sees that factory as a model for some sort of movement forward in a seemingly impossible situation.”

The problem with the New Yorker piece, then, is not (just) that it salivates over ScarJo, but that it refuses to treat her as a human subject, with qualities of mind. (If this is because Lane didn’t have much time with Johansson, maybe the magazine shouldn’t have run the piece.) When Lane isn’t characterizing Johansson as strangely blank and opinion-less, he’s trafficking in the dream of the remote, unknowable Woman—a flat projection of male desire. Rather than try to comprehend her (which is what profile writers are supposed to do), Lane notes how “[Johansson’s] deadpan demeanor … suggests that we should be summoned, not repelled, by things that we do not understand.” He speaks of her “unknowability that both tempts and eludes the public’s craving to know more.” He says that “no one will ever quite unravel what Johansson is or does.” And here he is, endeavoring to deliver insight into her sex appeal:

Think of the sublime look that she fires up at Robert Downey, Jr., in “Iron Man 2,” as she ducks under the ropes of a boxing ring. She then flips Jon Favreau over and slams him onto the mat. Downey drinks her in and says, “I want one”—the best line in any Marvel picture, telling us everything about Iron Man, the superhero so blasé that his only option is to buy, or build, enough toys to perk him up. 

This example sums up the profile: a vivid description that, while it seems as though it’s going to unlock some piece of ScarJo, actually just ends up “telling us everything about” the guys “drinking her in.” Since when are we reading a psychological exploration of Iron Man, who happens, unlike Johansson, to be fictional?

The worst part, however, is that Lane wants it both ways: He pants over ScarJo as the generic representative of a certain erotic fantasy and then has the chutzpah to critique her, slyly, for lacking substance. His piece begins:  

These are exciting times for Scarlett Johansson. In the past year, she has played the girlfriend of a porn addict, in “Don Jon”; she has played an operating system, using nothing but the honey of her voice, in “Her”; and she has seen her friend Scott Stringer become New York City Comptroller. It’s been one thrill after another. 

As my colleague Willa Paskin wrote in an email, “THERE IS NO PLANET IN WHICH A FRIEND GETTING MADE A COMPTROLLER COUNTS AS EXCITING TIMES.” You can also imagine bigger triumphs than playing someone’s girlfriend and a voice.* The gushing tone seems satirical—a way to send up ScarJo as overhyped and silly. (Similarly, Lane sarcastically celebrates her ability to project “absolutely nothing” in a photo shoot.) Yet the story is complicit in creating the very image it’s mocking. Lane portrays Johansson as an ethereal ideal, and then congratulates himself on seeing through his own mythologizing. He thinks he’s a more astute critic of Scarlett Johansson because he’s humorously conscious of the way her physical charisma works on him and us. But a real profile would have peeled back the sex appeal altogether and shown us the woman underneath. This one just ended up being a portrait of Anthony Lane.    

Correction, March 18, 2014: This post originally identified The One as Scarlett Johansson’s new fragrance. The perfume is made by Dolce and Gabbana, and the actress is paid to endorse it. This post also originally misidentified Johansson’s character in Don Jon as a whore.