Attack Of The Show veteran-turned-star-of The Newsroom Oliva Munn’s reaction to her (female) critics—probably best embodied by a 2010 interview in which she said said such a phantom critic “needs to fucking turn her fucking computer off, take the sandwich out of her mouth and go for a goddamn fucking walk… Just walk it off, bitch.”—has always struck me as probably psychologically necessary for Munn herself, and a bit off the mark as to how one might reasonably interpret the choices Munn made earlier in her acting career. In a new interview with Flare, she puts some of her frustration with Hollywood sexism as exemplified by women in a bit more context:
She’d lined up a job at Fox Sports, as a sideline reporter for women’s college basketball, but soon landed Attack of the Show!, a variety program beloved by geeks and gamers. She quickly ingratiated herself to her (largely male) audience—leaping into a giant pie in a French maid uniform in one infamous skit, a move she now regrets—and developed a cult following for her quick wit and willingness to play silly. The Daily Show producers noticed her hustle and, in 2010, tapped her to be their “senior Asian correspondent.” The show, already under blogosphere fire for Stewart’s dearth of female players, was skewered for the hire. Sites such as Jezebel accused Munn of being better known for deep-throating hot dogs on Attack and posing for Maxim than for her comedy chops. “There’s apparently no way that I can embrace my sexuality, be on the cover of a men’s magazine, and also be thoughtful and smart, and know what the Pythagorean theorem is,” Munn says. She posed for a second Maxim cover shortly after she was hired. “If you don’t like that I’m being sexual, or letting myself be objectified, then you better not own a push-up bra and wear it outside of the house,” she says.
To work backwards from all of this, the problem, of course, is that there are far too few roles available for women that are simultaneously sexual and intellectual. Munn got one of those rare roles last summer in a supporting turn in Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike. In that film about male strippers, she played Joanna, a woman who was casually dating, or at least sleeping with, the main character, the titular Tampa stripper with dreams of designing furniture, played by Channing Tatum. They had easy, uncomplicated sex after Mike’s shows, and hung out with Mike’s coworkers on Tampa’s beaches. And it turned out, in a reversal that worked to create emotional surprise in the movie in two different ways, that Joanna was a graduate student who met Mike through her field research on strippers and sex workers. She wasn’t just a woman who was capable of having sex the way Mike and his male friends seemed to—though of course Mike’s own relationships to sex and intimacy were more complicated than they appeared—she was someone who, by virtue of her academic position, had built distance into her relationship with Mike and his fellow strippers, who had placed herself in a position to analyze and even to judge them in a way they couldn’t quite reciprocate with her.
Munn’s work on The Newsroom as the brilliant business anchor Sloan Sabbith has also been strong. Sloan’s been one of the few characters on the show who’s been given a storyline that genuinely gets at the frustrations of reporting, and the difficulties of managing relationships with sources who go back and forth about what they’re willing to put on the record. The show has, somewhat contrary to Munn’s own formulation in Flare, paired Sloan’s brilliance with a social awkwardness: she doesn’t have a boyfriend, and instead is pining over her coworker Don, instead, despite the fact that he’s engaged in Television’s Worst On-And-Off Relationships with Maggie, a younger employee at Atlantis Cable News. This time the person who thinks that Sloan can’t be brilliant and sexual isn’t some female blogger sitting at home. It’s Aaron Sorkin.
But at least Sloan is closer to the ideal. What is, and has always been, the issue between Munn and female critics is the question of what she had to do to get to the point in her career where she could get these kind of roles. Munn’s position on her Attack Of The Show work, which included French maid outfits and hot-dog gobbling seems to be that it was a job, and that people who judged her for it were the ones who were setting up a false divide between mind and body, not Munn, who seems quite intelligent, herself. The position of the people Munn would dub her haters is that while Munn may have known that she was smart while jumping into a pie, the work itself didn’t use her body and her mind equally, and it affirmed that the role of women in geek communities wasn’t as equal participants, but as objects.
I’m sympathetic to both of those positions. As someone who doesn’t assign extra points for authorial (or actorly) intent if it doesn’t show up in the screen or on the page, I don’t think Munn has much room to argue that her intention is all that matters here. And while she’s right to suggest that it’s unfair to treat beautiful women as if they’re stupid, her past critics have a point that if her brain wasn’t getting used on-screen, it’s a stretch to suggest that her smarts were as valued by some of her past employers as her appearance. Where I think both Munn and the people she reacts against agree is that a woman should be able to enjoy both her body and her brain, and shouldn’t be penalized for either pleasure, or prevented from switching back and forth those parts of her personality, or embodying them simultaneously. Where they differ is in their optimism about the extent to which women are presently allowed to do that. Munn, perhaps because of her experience and self-knowledge, is optimistic. Munn’s critics are less so. In an ideal world, their shared vision should make them allies, rather than enemies: we’d all be better off with more Joannas and more Sloans.