As the recent New York Magazine article, “Why Do Women hate Anne Hathaway (But Love Jennifer Lawrence)?” thoughtfully explores, Anne Hathaway bugs people. Unlike the magnetic Jennifer Lawrence, Hathaway has always had trouble garnering public affection. For the most part, I try to stay away from the popular sport of celebrity hating that this article examines. It’s petty and frankly depressing that our society feels entitled to pass judgment on the personal character of strangers who happen to live their lives in the public eye. That being said, something about Hathaway’s behavior in the most recent award-show season made me want to hit her over the head with her Best Supporting Actress trophies.
I would like to assert right away that I am not a classic “Hatha-hater,” the nickname spawned from the media backlash she has received in recent months. I may never have been a die-hard fan, but I never disliked her. She’s beautiful (without being a sex symbol), intelligent, poised in interviews, and her performance in Les Misérables brought me to tears. I rooted for her to win Best Supporting Actress and maybe a little bit of respect at the same time. So when an ugly mixture of rage and disgust rose in my throat as she thanked the Academy that Sunday night, I wondered where all my recent animosity stemmed from.
It all comes down to the manner in which she accepted her awards. At the Golden Globes, a wide-eyed Hathaway began her speech with a lazy and contrived Liz Lemon reference: “blerg.” “Oh, my gosh,” she whined breathlessly, adding, “this is happening” in an audible and very practiced aside. At the Oscars, she put on a baby-voiced whisper (shockingly different from her eloquent interview manner) to marvel that “it came true.” All this awe-struck modesty coming from the clear favorite was far less endearing than she (or her publicist) must have predicted. Yet, this alone should not be enough to cause such outrage. Most actresses are guilty of this false humility to a certain degree, even the media darling Jennifer Lawrence. Rather, it was the vapid, dumb-girl act that this former Vassar English major adopted to receive these awards that really got my feminist hackles up.
This is surprising, because Hathaway is heralded for being a smart, down-to-earth, feminist. During the Oscars, Lena Dunham tweeted in response to haters like me, “Anne Hathaway is a feminist and she has amazing teeth. Let’s save our bad attitudes for the ones who aren’t advancing the cause.” Yes, Hathaway is a feminist. She is actively fighting for an end to violence against women as the spokeswoman of One Billion Rising, an organization that seeks to end sexual violence against women and girls.
But feminism has many sides. It is not all about combatting issues like sex trafficking, domestic violence, and workplace discrimination. It is also about fighting more elusive enemies. These are the foes that cannot be vanquished with legislation. No petitions or rallies or sit-ins will drive them away, because they exist within each and every one of us. They are inferiority complexes, self-doubt, and self-hatred. They are the compulsive need to please, to be a nice girl—an infuriatingly vague title that can often be translated as being polite, quiet, and dumb.
So while Hathaway is “advancing the cause” in important ways, the subtext of her recent acceptance speeches are simultaneously reinforcing the impulse for smart, talented women to feel they need to apologize for their success. As a young woman attending a university like Princeton, I feel this pressure every time I go home and face the skeptical and belittling remarks about how I got in. People ask if I play a sport, or if I’m a legacy, as if searching for a reasonable explanation for my acceptance. Maybe it’s because I’m a woman, but more likely it’s because I am a socially adept and reasonably well-dressed woman with no apparent boils or thick rimmed glasses to account for my academic success. These conversations almost invariably end with a condescending and disbelieving, “huh, I guess you must be really smart,” as I smile nervously and stare at the ground.
In a recent Nassau Weekly meeting, after I suggested writing this article, there was a moment that illustrated my point perfectly. The meeting was wrapping up when the Editor in Chief exclaimed, “I have a present for whoever participated the best in today’s meeting. Who thinks they deserve it?” Five hands shot up, every single one of them belonging to a boy. Girls, including myself, who had participated thoughtfully throughout the meeting, kept their hands still on the table. Though not necessarily apologetic in the same way as Hathaway, this behavior displayed the tireless dogma of female humility that had been fed to, swallowed by and absorbed into every female psyche in the room.
As girls, we are raised to be demure, humble, unassuming, and never boastful. Our schoolteachers, our mothers, our aunts–they all tell us not to brag. These were the formative female figures in our lives as we navigated how to be a girl and later a woman. These are the ones who we obeyed and whose advice we accepted for years before we knew what it was to rebel. They were our role models, but not our only role models.
As a little girl, I loved to act. I subjected my family to countless plays and musicals and even operas. I begged my mother to take me to the theater. I stared in religious awe at the larger-than-life actresses on Broadway stages. I went home and recreated every line, every song, and every mannerism. When the Oscars were on, I petitioned for a reprieve on my bedtime to watch my idols accept their awards. For weeks afterwards, I would practice my own acceptance speech in the shower, drawing on those of my silver screen heroines.
Of course, Anne Hathaway is not the source of the regressively humble and apologetic behavior that smart, talented women display, and she certainly cannot change it single-handedly. All I ask is that, as millions of young girls at home watch her accept her awards, she shows them that being successful—and being recognized for that success—is nothing to apologize for. I ask that she think of the little girls imitating and internalizing her acceptance speech when she writes it. Anne Hathaway cannot tell the nest generation of girls how to be a smart, powerful woman in modern society, but she can decide whether they internalize a message of groveling humility, or proud self-assurance. She can either be part of the problem or part of the solution. As of now, she’s closer to the former than the latter.