Anne Helen Petersen became a big name earlier this year when she announced she was leaving her career in academia to work as a long-form feature writer for Buzzfeed. She had been running a successful blog that elevated a normally low-brow medium: Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style. Petersen boasted the book-smart creds on the topic—she earned her Ph.D. in 2011 after writing a dissertation on the history of tabloid gossip. And last month, she published her first book, "Scandals of Classic Hollywood."
On Monday, Esquire published a cover story dubbing Penelope Cruz the "sexiest woman alive" — an annual event for them. Lucky for us, Petersen read the article and live-tweeted her responses.
Of course, to get to the cliche-laden description of Cruz, readers had to plow through a thousand words about bullfighting. Because … Cruz is from Spain. Or something.
The piece goes back and forth between what sounds like a boring lunch date and more descriptions of bulls getting murdered for sport.
After the initial shock had worn off, Petersen got to analysis.
But part of the problem, she points out, is that these kinds of articles happen because celebrities don't give journalists access to their real lives. There is such a thing as a truly well-written celebrity profile. This is not one of them.
If you make it to the end of the article, it does seem like he had some trouble getting any magazine-worthy quotes out of Cruz:
She will not discuss the evolution of her relationship with Bardem, for instance, whom she first met filming Jamón Jamón, at age seventeen, but didn’t marry until four years ago. “That is for us,” she says. She declines to talk about her recent motherhood (a three-year-old son and a daughter who just turned one) except to say that family is everything to her and the reason we have not seen much of her lately. And, more surprisingly, she does not want to say too much about the movie she’s just filmed—the Spanish-language Ma Ma—saying only that her character suffers from an illness she will not reveal. Nor does she want to say too much about the movie she’s about to make—Grimsby, with Sacha Baron Cohen—for reasons that are just as foggy. (She says she’s been watching famous speeches to prepare for her part; she will not say which speeches.) She has asked not to be asked about one of her rare public demonstrations of anticalculus, her controversial signing of an open group letter in the Spanish media condemning the Israeli bombing of Gaza, referring instead—at the table, in person— to a statement released by her publicist as her final word on the subject.
As Petersen points out, that doesn't make it okay to write a long essay that essentially compares a famous woman to a slaughtered "pure-white" bull with "six darts hanging out of its back and a drape of blood spreading over its hunched and heaving shoulders." There's something distinctly fetishizing about the whole thing, particularly the attempt to link Penelope Cruz to matadors and Picasso paintings.
That's especially true since, when he asks her about bullfighting, she seems uninterested. Per Esquire:
“The bullfights?” she says. “The bullfights?” she says again, as though she has never heard the word. Her mouth turns down at its corners.
(Pro tip: That mouth motion is generally referred to as "a frown.")
Perhaps, if news outlets want to write about celebrities, they can decontextualize their lives and work from how "sexy" they are. The Esquire article reads like Penelope Cruz just wasn't interested in being there, wasn't interested in being profiled, wasn't promoting anything in particular that she wanted to discuss. So the writer had to come up with something, and that something involved a lot of bulls getting killed.
Esquire got some nice photos of her and a long, meandering jumble of words to accompany them. If you just want to have photos of beautiful celebrities, that's fine. But don't force some poor writer to create a lengthy cover story to accompany it when there's just not much to write about.
Find someone who wants to talk to you — even if they aren't a contender for sexiest woman alive! — and profile someone who wants to be written about.
Oh, and don't compare women to animals getting killed. Evidently that needed to be said.