Rachel Zegler- A Case Study in Cultural Misogyny

by Michelle Chandra

“Difficult” and “ungrateful” women have long been crucified in public spaces for most of history. For what is more transgressive than a woman who does not revel in gratitude and humility for every opportunity she is given? Not earned – but given. Women are constantly doubted and scrutinised by society. It is ubiquitous and all-consuming, and it is only natural, if not inevitable, that we see other women internalise and perpetuate such standards upon their peers. After all, women love hunting witches too. No woman is immune to the coercion of patriarchal bargaining. 

Throughout the last three months, my timeline on social media has been tweet after tweet, video after video condemning the actress, Rachel Zegler, for the new direction of the live-action Snow White film which greatly deviates from the source material. Despite most actors having little to no bearing on the writing, directing or casting of the film, she has been the prime target of vicious and vitriolic backlash. Another day, another disillusioning eruption of cultural misogyny. 

The ‘Girlboss-ification’ of Female Leads

“She’s not going to be saved by the prince and she won’t be dreaming of true love” 

Sarah Connor in Terminator

This media phenomenon is nothing new as the late 2000s to the end of the 2010s have been constantly hampered by notions of the “girlboss' ' – a capitalistic, empowering artifice and a fantasy of what women ought to be in a liberal meritocracy. In media especially, we see a deflection of meaningful and well-written character relationships and dynamics in favour of a “go it alone” narrative whereby lead female characters are effectively stripped of feminine characteristics in favour of embodying qualities that have been long associated with traditionally masculine characters – cool, faultless, ambivalent, unemotional. 

Of course with the ever-changing pop cultural sphere and its relationship with the political landscape, audiences have soon come to reject this “girlboss” model that postures femininity and the pursuit of romance and love as inherently anti-feminist. The pursuit of deep human connections between women especially in the form of romance or close friendships is something that is vital not only in a character developmental standpoint but for the human experience. Not only is it reductive but it’s harmful to force women’s choices into binary camps – a notion that actually is inherently anti-feminist, and dismissive. Women shouldn’t be presented with the idea that you have to be “tougher”, “smarter”, or “stronger” – characteristics associated with traditional masculinity – to be a good role model, or to even just exist. 

That being said, why is Zegler of all people bearing the brunt of this backlash? Why are we funnelling all our imbricated exasperation for this static idea of feminism and womanhood onto a singular person rather than the studios and studio executives who continue to create and fund films that preserve a trite and overused version of mainstream feminism?

There comes a time in political discourse and media commentary when we critique an artefact for being problematic that we go so far left that we veer back to the right. The discourse turns stale, vitriolic, and misogynistic and the meaningful discourse we should have been engaging in dissipates. This is the phenomenon encompassing Rachel Zegler. Despite what started as a conversation about superficial film portrayals of womanhood and competing representations of feminism, what we now see is an excessive internet dogpile where netizens are mocking her lack of social capital and fame, even using a body language expert to determine her moral standing in society, and naturally, calling her ‘ungrateful’ and ‘smug’. What we see is an intense level of scrutiny that no other male celebrity (as far as I can remember) has ever been subject to. 

The Picket Line!

If I’m going to stand there 18 hours in a dress of an iconic Disney princess, I deserve to be paid for every hour that it is streamed online

Within the backdrop of this cultural maelstrom of public degradation and humiliation is the long overdue WGA and SAG-AFTRA writers' strike in which actors, writers, and supporters alike campaign for fair wages, better working conditions, residual payments, and AI regulation within Hollywood’s biggest and most powerful film studios and streaming media companies. Herein lies another basis for the hate against Rachel Zegler, her interview along the picket line where she states “If I’m going to stand there 18 hours in a dress of an iconic Disney princess, I deserve to be paid for every hour that it is streamed online”. This statement has sparked a lot of controversy, however, when placed in the context of the writers and actors strike, this statement breathes new meaning.

The issue of residuals and fair compensation is one I will not delve into in this article. For a more in-depth look into the writers/ actors strike, have a look at this recent Blitz article.

The prevailing narrative of actors like Zegler being “ungrateful”, “conceited” and “greedy” is circulating within public discourse and there is a reason why Disney Studios is not intervening with this particular narrative. Much like every other major studio company, Disney Studios wants the public to view actors, and by extension, the people striking as childish, difficult, and money-hungry. By encouraging and feeding into this type of discourse, netizens are hurting and dismissing a worthwhile endeavour. The attack against Rachel Zegler cannot be viewed in a vacuum – it has the potential to have a wide and sweeping effect on the way the general public responds to and perceives the strike. 

Closing Remarks 

Even when men endure public backlash and scrutiny, and cancel culture, it is never as hostile or vitriolic as what women have to endure. Throughout the last decade, we have seen women driven out of Hollywood, becoming public enemy number 1 for the most minute of transgressions. This experience is not unique to Rachel, this has happened before and was the experience of many prominent female celebrities such as Jennifer Lawrence, Anne Hathaway, Brie Larson, Taylor Swift, Kristen Stewart, and Meghan Markle. When we step back from the half-baked justifications of incoherent political and social commentary regarding representations of women and womanhood in pop culture and behind the smear campaigns and insidious dog whistles, we can see a tide and true notion: Misogyny sells. Misogyny generates traction. Misogyny is irresistible.  

Note: I don’t mean that the attack against Rachel Zegler don’t have any merit to them. I have seen creators engage in meaningful discourse without stooping so low to attack her every move but what we see from these creators is that they attack the system, not the person. What we see from Rachel haters are half-baked attempts to form a coherent excuse to be sexist by using “feminism”. 

Michelle studies a Bachelor of Arts/Law. She loves white chocolate, Taylor Swift, and has a penchant towards anything so long as it’s pink! She joined Blitz because who wouldn’t want to be part of an unhinged media community that’s as obsessed with pop culture as she is? Fun fact: She got eras tickets (this is her peak)

Blitz Editor

Anandi Ganguly

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