Emmy Award-winning actress Cady McClain offers a raw, insightful look at the dark underbelly of Hollywood—its brutal objectification of women.
Los Angeles can turn you into many things. Among them: A desperate 42-year-old “cut-to-look-like-Jessica-Chastain” ex-model turned “actor/director” all hopped up on injections, festooned with obvious hair extensions, known for crashing publicity events to which she hasn’t been invited.
She also regularly has photos of herself in a bikini taken. Right now I’m looking at one where she’s spread-eagled on the sand with a little mound of earth covering the only thing she doesn’t want us to see.
In her desperate desire to please, to never grow old, to stay media relevant, to remain “employable in L.A.” … she drives herself to be something she isn’t: young, successful, and “hot” as defined by show business.
I’m struggling. And before you ask: The picture above this article isn’t her. It’s me.
I was first exposed to this woman’s photos as they were in a mass e-mail from Image Collect—a photo-sharing site I sometimes use to purchase pictures for articles I’m writing. When I saw her pictures, I immediately recognized something very disturbing: a nightmare-ish version of myself.
Trust me, I have nothing against a woman’s right to show herself sexually, get plastic surgery, or seek attention. Like her, I am an “actor/director.” I’ve directed two short films (both of which have accepted into festivals) and won awards for my work as an actor. I’ve survived being a child actor to having a long adult career. Yet despite the recognition of my artistic merit, I now feel a keen pressure to accommodate the media machine. Last year I even took a photo of myself in a bikini (my first public one ever since I was 16, when I wore tights under my suit), but I also did so again recently—a busty shot of me looking saucily at the camera. My friends applauded my 45-year-old courage and said “You look great!” but I feel torn about it. On the one hand, fashion wunderkind Sophia Amoroso says that “selfies” are “the” new way to show self-respect; on the other hand, I really did it for the same calculated reason as this woman, to get attention from my social media followers so I could remain relevant as an actor.
I hear the voices in my own head that say, “Hey, it was your choice. No one held a gun to her head or yours,” and I would agree absolutely. Yes, you’re right. I hear you, but my real question is this: What drives a person to this level of attention seeking?
Why do I feel I need to keep posting photos of myself on social media? It certainly doesn’t sum me up as a person. I have worked really hard to reach a level of ability in my profession … and I have a life outside it that doesn’t suck either. However, this woman doesn’t seem to be pursuing a career that is based upon her ability. She seems to be pursuing a career based upon how much attention she can get, like a modern day equivalent of the Los Angeles ‘80’s icon Angelyne. Why do women like this exist? Does she exist within me? Perhaps, like me, she was withheld encouragement at a vital age and now she strives to fill the void. It could also simply be that she is trying to exist as something larger, something that mostly exists within the world of show business: a “star.”
I am not writing this to judge her or to “hate on” her. Every person I know who needs an audience to buy their product is now being told that they must submit to doing whatever it takes on social media in order to get attention in order to sell that product. This gal is only trying to hustle what she has to make a living. I do the same thing.
No, I am writing this because I suspect that the main difference between this woman and myself, media-wise, is that deep down I am aware that what I am doing is subtly compromising something important in myself. And I am suffering because of it. I am suffering because I am objectifying myself in order to sell my art, and because I am being told that I have no choice. That if I want to have a career I have to objectify myself.
Yet I am resisting the endless chanting of self-proclaimed “social media experts” that I have to be this submissive to the machine. I have a choice … and this woman, and all women, have a choice, too. Bikini selfies—when used as a desperate grab at power instead of something personal, casual, and fun shared with friends and loved ones—come with a price tag that only the subject of the photograph can truly appreciate.
I know we can all feel desperate at times. Full of fear. Aching for recognition or respect. But hopefully there is a moment when we realize that there is a line in the sand we must not cross, that we must not compromise ourselves in ways that will feel shameful. People who inherently understand their own limits are happier people, I think. They understand that sometimes they have to let go of a goal if achieving it compromises their self-respect.
Today the media makes a blood sport out of what happens when a person makes a compromise one time too often, the tragic “train wrecks” of human carnage created by years of doing so. We shouldn’t be surprised that self-objectification often ends up with people addicted to the surgery that promises a return of youth, booze, pills, drugs, bad relationships, eating, spending … the list of ways to numb oneself is endless. Then addiction becomes a perpetual loop: you keep participating in a shameful action and then drink to numb the fact of what you did. Again, I’m not here to point fingers or judge. There were years when a drink after a particular work experience was the only way to wash away the creeping feeling of shame. I get it.
But there is another reason so many actors and “celebrities” and people who put them selves out there in the public eye become addicts:
The criticism of those who try is ruthless, and it’s not just the criticism of the public. It’s criticism that can exist within the hallways and backrooms of your own job.
For example: because of my interest in directing, I’ve luckily been able to sit in various television control rooms to watch the process of shooting. There, I’ve overheard directors and producers speak with complete contempt for the actors with whom they are working. We aren’t talking about fair or reasonable criticism of young actors who needed to go back to class and learn their craft. The people being mocked and ridiculed were hardworking, experienced, adult actors. Actors who may have had their issues, who may have been a bit too insecure on a certain level, but most people in the arts know some emotional sensitivities can come with the territory. In my opinion these actors certainly didn’t deserve contempt. Patience, yes. Contempt, no.
Then there is the age issue. It’s almost a joke how ruthless anyone (show business or not) can be to a man or woman over an age deemed by some random idiot as “the limit.” When I was 28 years old and had a lead role in a film at the Hampton International Film Festival, a film that was one of five nominated for the highest honor, I was asked my age by some guy standing next to me at a party, a guy whose only credit in his brief life was that of the director of one short film. When I told him my age he said, “Oh then it’s too late for you to make it in films. It’s over.”
Really? At 28?
Now it’s one thing for the general audience to have a bitchy opinion, but when my colleagues and those who have the power to make decisions in show business rule any actor out at any age, when they mock us, objectify, and over-sexualize us, when they reward those who continue to seek attention in a desperate manner and minimize the hard efforts of those who seek reward based on merit, they send a continuous and painful message:
“Your worth is not in your ability. Your worth to us is measured in your ability to generate attention that we can make money off of. Your job is to be a product, and your greatest value to us will be when you become a train wreck for TMZ or some other hack site to capitalize on. Why? Because everyone stops to look at a train wreck.”
I experienced this phenomenon myself when a certain media TV show boiled my memoirs, “Murdering My Youth,” (a book that took me five painful years to write) down to it’s most salacious moment. In fact it almost followed the formula of a well known news channel edict, “if it bleeds it leads.” I was interviewed for over an hour and my life story got summed up as, “Daddy molested me and I’m all f-ed up about it.” Where were all the insights I gave on the other issues the book touched on? Has TV become as desperate as an aging actress? Is this what we as an audience are going to be subjected to as we proceed into a future that seems to promise an overload of media entertainment and news sources? Endless tortured women, dead children, and drug addicts? “Forensic Files” on 24/7 rotation?
In conclusion, if there is one lesson I got out of seeing the photos of this exposed woman, it is a realization that I don’t want to play this tragic game of “look at me” any more. Even if audiences are shrinking and there is less money out there I am and have been for a long time (and I don’t think I am alone) interested in a deeper conversation. If I am desperate for anything, it is that.
Ironic PS: You can follow me on Twitter at @cadymcclain.