Olivia Wilde’s bottom can’t read. And neither can she because its hotness stops her. The medical community have long known that the development of an elegant posterior is the equivalent of growing a tumour on your frontal cortex. Fuck keeping your 12 year olds from sex and drugs, you’d best hope little Sarah grows a lumpy butt if you want her to stay in school. And so went the bemused, frustrated, kind-of-amazed-this-actually-happened conversation around Tom Carson’s review of Paul Haggis’ "Third Person".
In that review Carson suggested that audiences would not believe that Wilde’s character was a writer. Because why? Ah yes, because she has too good an ass for that to be a credible day-job.
Let’s look a little closer at what Carson actually said:
"With that tush, who’d need to be literate? Who’d want to?"
Most outlets, including Jezebel, whose glorious piece first drew our attention to this story, are pointing out 2 mistakes. First, that Carson assumed the having of a hot butt and being literate are mutually exclusive. The second glaring error can be summarised in one word: "tush". Quite.
Both these points are spot on. But there’s more that’s problematic than the idea that people with lovely derrières would never also be writers (you see, Tom, there are sufficient synonyms for "ass" that we can permanently retire ‘tush’!)
For one, it really matters that Carson said this about a woman. He has subsequently maintained that in his comment he never specified a gender. But, you know, he was talking about a female character; the tush in question was a woman’s. It’s pretty disingenuous to try now to detach that fact from the statement he made. And it matters that it was about a woman because the kind of prejudice Carson displayed in making that comment is precisely the kind of prejudice that underpins much sexism. That’s why it’s worth looking at what he said in this context.
Who’d need to be literate?
What Tom was implying here wasn’t simply that a woman with a nice butt might not be a writer – that is, literary – but that she would not be literate, as in, able to READ AND WRITE. That is, she’d lack the basic skills international governments plough billions of dollars into securing for their young citizens, the achievement of which is, for many, the index of vaguely civilized society. We fail kids when we don’t teach them to read. But lady kids?! Pah! Why do them broads need books?
Had Carson written "literary" rather than "literate" the point would still have been idiotic, but the distinction matters: by writing "literate" he was saying that having a good bottom in the world means you can get by without, I don’t know, ever needing road signs, or recipes, or a copy of Rebecca Solnit’s "Men Explain Things to Me" after a tedious day of patronizing comments from sexist reviewers. Women, that is, can be permanent, yet of course wholly sexual, infants, parading around with their cute behinds, getting all they need without partaking in "adult" practices like book-learning and forming cursive shapes with a pen.
This infantalization is one of sexism’s most prized weapons. It’s the old favorite it reaches for in the armory. I think, actually, that it might even explain Carson’s bizarre choice of the word "tush". No grown man I know would ever dream of using it (straw poll of 7 confirm this). Why not? Well it’s an oddly childish term, a word that heralds from days when your "tushy" was a cute thing your mother tapped before packing you off for a day of japes with the neighborhood kids. It’s quite similar to the way that male commenters, when trying to belittle a female journalist, will use a shortened, infatalized nickname. Tush is the shortened, infantalized version of bottom.
The problem with infantalization is, amongst other things, one of status. Children should be seen and not heard (I don’t actually think this… but my mother does!), and this is precisely the kind of status Carson was attributing to Wilde and her buttocks. You are there to be looked at, to be gazed upon and adored, but not to have agency, and certainly not to express that agency in a literary mode. Women are told this all the time: be seen, but for god’s sake stay silent. Removing attractive women from the realm of the writer is just another way of making that already male-dominated space a little more male and a little more exclusive.
Who’d want to be literate?
What was Carson saying when he asked who, with such a gorgeous gluteus (ok, I know, I’m pushing it now), would even want to be literate? What’s the distinction between needing to and wanting to? Where the first is all about what attractive women can hope to get from men, the second is about what attractive women can aspire to for themselves. Why would you want to be a writer when you could be appreciated as a person with a hot ass? Why would your entire matrix of desire be oriented to anything other than getting by on the back of your butt? Which is to say: why would you use your brain when you could use your bottom?
Here’s the thing: we fail young women whom society deems "attractive" by expecting them to want to be nothing more than attractive in the world. We fail them a second time when they resist this expectation and then we can’t, or won’t, see past their attractiveness. My best friend is an academic. She’s also super hot. She works in a field where it’s hard to be heard when you’re a conventionally attractive woman. Many of her older male colleagues don’t see her as a specialist and she has to work inordinately hard to get them to take her seriously. She used to think this was all in her head. It’s not. Because why would she want to be a Professor when she could be using her looks, amirite Tom Carson?
The fall-out (or, what "tush gate" teaches us about how to deal with sexism, from both sides)
As our friends over at Criticwire reported earlier today, Carson’s comments did not go silently into that bustling interweb. Jezebel issued the first burn and then Wilde herself stylishly followed suite.
GQ responded today by Tweeting the below, which Carson duly RTed alongside offering Wilde his own apology. (Am I allowed a slight snigger, given the nature of this blunder, that his Twitter Handle is @TomCarsonWriter? Because #TomCarson’sLiterate Because #TomCarson’sInadequateBottom?).
But here’s the thing: Tom Carson could have been a massive ass (sorry) about this, and he wasn’t. Many men loathe being called out on sexism with a virulence you’d imagine reserved for the toasting of still-connected testicles. He took it. He apologised. He politely reminded those of us who’ve not come across him before that he’s not a gorgon beast fresh from misogynist hell, but a guy who fucked up, who’s sorry, and who has, if you believe his friends, been a support to struggling female writers in real life. (Though let me say this, if we are talking about things being mutually exclusive: it is not inconceivable that a man can be a friend to women in some quarters whilst also perpetuating other sexist practices).
The tone of GQ’s apology was also great. We blew it. We regret it. We’re sorry. Not so hard, huh?
The final take-away is this: I wonder how much it matters that Olivia Wilde weighed in herself. Let’s be clear: we need women of her prominence calling this stuff out. I expect that had she not, had this remained a Jezebel bugbear, GQ might even have relished the click-baiting shitstorm. But it’s a different issue when someone with 1.4 million Twitter followers, standing, status and, for want of a better word, clout, says something. It matters too, I think, that she was funny in her riposte. I’m not saying that you have to be funny to be heard, satire and humour aren’t mandatory, of course, but they can be a great way to expose the idiocy of certain positions.
Oh and by the way, even on Carson’s own ridiculous logic there have been plenty of writers with enviable rumps (and other parts besides!). My own personal favorite? The marvellous Anne Sexton, who was a model as well as a stellar poet. Here’s a picture and a poem, so you can read her words whilst wondering how on earth she managed them with quite such a rear.