Kristen Stewart, slut-shaming and the war on women

May 9, 2013

I’ve always known I would have a daughter someday. With my brothers, father, uncles and their friends, I was surrounded by men who shaped my understanding of the world. A classic workaholic, my father taught me the importance of playing by society’s rules, doing what was necessary to get ahead. As a former nerd, all he wanted to do was fit in and be one of the guys.

My father and his friends had a term for girls: “Psycho bitches from hell.”

At the age of three, he taught me how to catcall. He trained me to whistle at women in the grocery store and yell things like, “Hubba Hubba!” The woman would usually tell me how cute I was.

“You’ll be a real heartbreaker someday,” she would say.

My dad would wink and nudge me, rewarding me for sexual harassment and complicit masculinity. This is the world I grew up in.

But it wasn’t supposed to be. I was supposed to be a girl. My mother was going to call me Natasha, Tasha for short. I wonder what life would have been like as Tasha, even though I’ve always hated that name. Sometimes when my mother looks at me, I can see she’s wondering the same thing—what it would feel like to have a daughter. It looks like fear.

Yesterday I felt my mother’s eyes on me again. Reader’s Digest released their annual poll of the most and least trusted people in the world. Topping the list was Tom Hanks, long a leader of dependability in the U.S. He often ranks near the top, and joining him were actors like Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and Sandra Bullock.

But guess who ranked at the bottom? America’s “least trusted” actress is Kristen Stewart, who also placed second on Star’s “Most Hated Celebrity” list.

In the poll, Stewart boasts a whopping 24 percent "trust" score, which is the Digest's version of approval rating. That’s nearly as low as George W. Bush when he left office in 2008 and Nixon during the Watergate Scandal. She’s only slightly more popular than BP during the infamous oil spill that cost billions of dollars worth of damage. She has the same approval rating as the Confederacy. If it makes her feel better, celebutante Kim Kardashian racked up 8 percent, making her three times less popular than institutionalized slavery. (Ah, priorities.)

The popular magazine spoke to Dorothy Crenshaw, CEO of Crenshaw Communications (the PR agency behind Starbucks and Bain Capital), about Stewart’s unpopularity. Crenshaw put it bluntly, “Kristen Stewart’s trust was damaged when she was unfaithful.” She might as well have said, "Don't trust a ho."

Unless you were vacationing on Mars, you’re likely aware that Stewart became a tabloid phenomenon last year when the photos were taken of her in a romantic tryst with Rupert Sanders, the married director of her film, Snow White and the Huntsman. After the images leaked, Stewart quickly became the target of a collective witch hunt, and she had to hide in her hotel room to escape paparazzi and death threats from vengeful Twilight fans.

Will Ferrell mocked the scandal on Conan—the fact that America was so invested in the breakup of people they don’t know. Ferrell pretended to break down over Stewart’s infidelity, crying that she was a “trampire.” Rather than realizing they were being punked, the internet turned the joke into a viral meme. You could even order a “Kristen Stewart Is a Trampire” t-shirt to commemorate America’s inability to understand satire. They say you vote with your dollar. In 2012, America voted for slut-shaming.

Although the media moved on from the story (aided by Pattinson and Stewart’s reconciliation), the public clearly has not, and it has killed her career.

Despite being a big factor in building buzz for Snow White and the Huntsman’s success, Stewart was initially dropped from the sequel by Universal. After much criticism, they re-hired her. The film has been pushed back to 2015, quite a delay for a film that made $400 million worldwide. IMDB doesn’t even list a director attached. When Safe House, Thor, Horrible Bosses, Captain America and Ted boasted similar grosses, sequels were pushed into production almost immediately. A sequel to The Hangover got fast-tracked before it ever came out.

In the meantime, Stewart only has one other film lined up, and her On the Road adaptation was all but dumped by the studio despite critical raves for her performance. Topless photos leaked before On the Road's release got more buzz than the film. Like the film, her breasts were not well-received (and a British men’s website later deemed her the “least sexy” actress in the world). She even canceled OTR press appearances after the scandal broke because she was “too ashamed” to be seen in public.

Although easy to laugh off, this sends a clear message about the double standards set for men and women. Case in point: Ashton Kutcher got a nod on America’s least-liked list. But not because of his infidelity. Reader’s Digest cited his virulent Twitter presence as the reason for his low score: “Those with large social media audiences...drifted to the bottom of the list of those tested.” His cheating scandal wasn’t even considered relevant enough to be mentioned.

When I wrote about Stewart in 2012, I argued that her constant slut-shaming in the media was endemic of the War on Women, a rhetoric that teaches us that female sexuality isn’t to be trusted and tells young girls that they have to protect themselves from their own bodies. This was a time when many feared for repeal of their reproductive rights with the prospective of a Romney administration that would erase years of progress on gender equality.

With Obama promising to maintain Planned Parenthood, many feel like the battles were won. However, Stewart’s continuing victimization shows how invisible war can be, the hidden microagressions that affect us every day. Last year, I wrote that Chris Brown could beat the crap out of his girlfriend in public (allegedly for being unfaithful) and win awards for it. After barely making it onto Star’s Most Hated list (at #20), he didn’t get listed in the Reader’s Digest poll at all, yet Stewart did. We still have work to do.

I wonder how Tasha would have made sense of all this. Would she learn she can’t trust Kristen Stewart? Would she look in Kristen Stewart’s face and see fear? I hope she would see someone who is brave and strong in the face of constant criticism. To all the girls demonized as "sluts" for not being what society expects them to be and shamed for being human, Kristen Stewart should be a hero.

One day when I give my mother the daughter she wanted, I want to look into her newborn eyes and see hope, a promise that we can unlearn what we were taught and get it right next time. I plan on giving her the world. I just pray it’s better than the one I grew up in.

Nico Lang writes about LGBTQ issues in Chicago. You can find Nico on Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr.