Scarlett Johansson opens up about Hollywood and how she was hypersexualised and pigeonholed in her past – what will it look like in the future?
Back in October 2022, Scarlett Johansson told the "Armchair Expert" podcast how she was pushed into a certain corner after her success in "Lost in Translation" and increasingly sexualised even with her young years. In December 2022, she spoke out again in a podcast, "Table for Two", about Hollywood's sexist approach, where she and other actresses (at least in the past) were only given a certain attribute and given the same roles over and over again – and she was just reduced to sex. The actress also talks about the future of Hollywood and the new generation of actresses. Will they fare better?
Scarlett Johansson and the hypersexualisation of young women in Hollywood
What does the average moviegoer think of when he or she thinks of Scarlett Johansson? A complex, successful Oscar winner who has dedicated her life to acting? Or does one rather think of her skin-tight leather costume from Avengers? Of the scene with the pink thong from Lost in Translation? Of the coveted girl with the pearl earring? Scarlett Johansson herself fears it's the latter attributions.
Scarlett Johansson started her acting career as a nine-year-old in the film "North". In the early 2000s she worked on several films with controversial director Woody Allen, including "Vicky Christina Barcelona" and "Match Point". However, Scarlett Johansson had her big breakthrough at the age of 17 in Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation". There she played a 23-year-old student who begins a (more or less platonic) friendship with 53-year-old Bill Murray.
In "Armchair Experts", a weekly podcast by actors Dax Shepard and Monica Padman, Scarlett Johansson now speaks plainly. Due to her early international success with "Lost in Translation", she was already heavily sexualised at 17 and was dubbed "is 15, but looks 30". As a result, she often found herself in situations where she shouldn't have been at her age – but the now 38-year-old only noticed this in retrospect. Sex wasn't really a part of her personality back then, she explains to host Dax Shepard, but because she looked older, it was probably OK for the industry to put her in a "weird hypersexualised pigeonhole".
On the Table for Two podcast, Scarlett Johansson talks about her time as a young actress in Hollywood in the late 1990s and early 2000s: "Young women like that are always objectified, that's just a fact. The pigeonhole you're put in, you're going to stay in for the rest of your life."
Pigeonholing Hollywood: Scarlett Johansson explains how women are typecast
As she got older, Scarlett Johansson realised that she was typecast. Typecasting means that she was only suggested roles for a certain type of character – in her case, the girl who was different from others and had a body to be desired. She didn't know how to fight it, because those roles were how she made her money and she didn't know if she could also further her career with other roles. "I kind of got sucked into it, just playing this "bombshell" type. I was always 'the other woman' and this object of desire. I found myself with my back against the wall. I couldn't get out of that."
Scarlett Johansson also talks about how this typecast was particularly scary for women at the time, because then as they got older they wouldn't get roles anymore. But no matter what type of woman you were supposed to be, it could never match reality, of course. In the end, it is not the actors:inside themselves who decide who they want to be and what role they want to embody, but old white men in Hollywood. So it is not only hypersexualisation that is a problem, but the generally prevailing heteronomy.
In contrast to Scarlett's hypersexualised image, her fellow actress Natalie Portman has been labelled as the "girl next door" who should not be doing sex scenes. Johansson reveals, "Natalie Portman said to me that it's so crazy because she's not that person at all. She's not the prudish, buttoned-up girl next door." But Hollywood in the early 2000s was different from today – women were ascribed only a limited set of character traits. A woman as a versatile being? Sadly, largely absent back then.
Emma Thompson agrees with this. She has spoken to The Times in the past about her typecast, which was damaging to her body image. Unlike a Scarlett Johansson, she was never offered sex scenes, always having to play the "nice woman" who can and should have mentally stimulating conversations. "I don't and never did conform to the body shape or look that male colleagues wanted to see in leadership positions." She was, she says, too forward and not pretty enough to be portrayed as an object of desire. Thankfully, Hollywood now sees it differently.
What does it look like in Hollywood now, according to Scarlett Johansson?
The (female) typecast stems from the sexist view that women cannot be three-dimensional, complex beings, but are only to be used by men so that they can develop. And of course it is easier for the audience to see a person and already know how they behave. But that's not how acting works – and these stereotypes can really damage the actors in their private lives. Because when you are assigned a certain type, the audience mixes the actor with his:her roles. But according to Scarlett Johansson, progress is being made.
"Today, women can really find their own way," Scarlett Johansson tells podcast host Bruce Bozzi of "Table for Two". She brings up Florence Pugh and Zendaya, for example, and then says, "I see these young actresses in their 20s and it feels like they can be all these different things." Emma Thompson also benefits from the fact that things have changed and is happy that she can now shoot her first nude scene at the age of 63.
But with all the progress, you still have to remember that women still don't have it particularly easy in Hollywood. Even five years after #MeToo, the change is not big enough that a safe environment has been created in Hollywood. Scarlett Johansson says: "We live in a patriarchy and I still feel like that certain reality will always be there for women. Even if those 600 men aren't as actively aggressive as they were a minute ago, that fear will still be there." A sad reality that we must not forget in the face of all progress. Let's hope that Hollywood continues to change towards equality in the future, even if this change is slow.
Written by Michael Zippo
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