Taste, Class, Fetish Object: The Curious Case of Olivia Wilde


It’s easy to dislike Olivia Wilde.  I should know, because I’ve done it for the last decade with very little effort.  And it’s not because she’s beautiful — I have tremendous affection for dozens of beautiful stars — and it’s not because she had those horrible bangs as Marisa’s girlfriend on The O.C.  My dislike stems from a general feeling of beige vapidity: she, like the rest of her similarly proportioned & styled cohort (most notable members: Megan Fox and Jessica Biel) has presented herself as the plaything of blockbuster boys, a Barbie to be repositioned, given less and less clothing, and stand around and look side-kick-ish.  In Alphadog, in Year One, in Tron, in Cowboys & Aliens. . .on the cover of Maxim, GQ, and Esquire. . .it’s the same song, fiftieth verse.  She’s so objectified that it bores me.

 But look closer, I’ve heard — she’s smart.  She’s from a well-established family.  She was an Italian Princess.  She reads!  What I want to think about, then, is the way in which these twin understandings — of hotness and culture — twine together to form a sort of antidote, or at least alternative, to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.  She’s the new Thinking Man’s Pin-Up, similar to the Gillian Flynn’s “Cool Girl,” but with the distinct connotations of glamour and class that accompany our current understanding of Classic Hollywood.  And her popularity, specifically with men, reflects the complicated cultural politics of the moment — specifically, the desire to be a male feminist and reject the notion of the very notion of pin-up. . . . . and the ubiquity of the male gaze, which trains everyone — men & women, audiences & celebrities — that beauty isn’t beauty unless it’s fetishized.  Olivia Wilde is the compromise of the enlightened man (or woman) who can’t help but live within patriarchy.   If you’re going to make a woman into a sex object, in other words, at least she’s a smart woman — and makes you feel better about it.

The intelligence wasn’t always that clear.  When Wilde first popped up on the cultural radar, her image was almost wholly defined by sex.  First, there was her high-profile turn as a bisexual on a network television show, which prompted the following lead for a cover article in Complex Magazine:

 Olivia Wilde turned heads when she tongued-down Mischa Barton on The O.C., but now this sex-oozing 22-year-old officially steals the show in Alpha Dog. Complex caught up with the No.1 stunna and got her to spill the beans on full-frontal nudity, making out with Mischa, and what’s eating Emile Hirsch (hint: not her!).

And then there was her body.  There wasn’t much of it on display in The O.C. — mostly a lot of skinny arms in tank tops — but there soon was.  Just take a look at the series of photoshoots from this middle section of her career:




olivia-wilde-cowboys-and-aliens complex-2006-april-00 934_olivia-wilde-maxim-july-us-maxim-658284247OliviaWildelast

Choice quote: “I’m happy being sexy.”

 The photos were all sex —  I don’t think I could find a better contemporary example of fetishization — but the articles and interviews were keen to distinguish her from the likes of Fox and other eye candy.  Five themes, repeated again and again, established her class:

 1.) She’s from intelligent stock.

Not just smart, but high brow, investigative journalism stock.  Her parents are “lefty journalists” Andrew and Leslie Cockburn; her grandfather is “lefty journalist” and novelist Claud Cockburn, who was buddy buddy with Graham Greene and fought alongside Hemingway in the Spanish Civil War.   We’re not talking “stringer for the local paper” journalists — we’re talking in depth overseas investigative reporting on the Middle East, nearly a dozen books to their names reporters.

 2.) She herself is intelligent.

She went to one of the most elite boarding schools in the U.S., and was ready to go to Bard before she convinced her parents to let her spend a year in Hollywood.  But the intelligence is mostly modeled through acts, not words: she went to boarding school; she arrives to an interview with a heavy tome in her hand; she cites intelligent, older female actors (such as Christie) as her role models. She “performs” intelligence incredibly skillfully, with quotes like  “I think I have a strong journalistic streak in me—I’m really critical and analytical” and, concerning how she changed her name at the age of 18, ‘It’s not a renunciation of my parents – God, no. I go around bragging about my incredible family. But I wanted a pen name and I was inspired by Oscar Wilde, as he never compromised his identity even in the face of persecution. And he’s a fellow Irishman.’

I don’t mean to suggest that Wilde isn’t actually intelligent — it’s hard to know, really, actually, as hard as it is to really “know” anything about a celebrity — but that the signifiers of intelligence are all there.

 3.) She’s married to a Prince.  

Sure, they got married at age 18 in a school bus. I get that they were quasi-burn-out hippies. But you know what betrays class, and the opportunities it affords? Marrying an Italian Prince and becoming a Principesa.  Her sister-in-law was A GETTY.  They had a CASTLE, which Wilde talked about freely, at least before their divorce:  I’m into European history, so it’s exciting to trace our family back to the 14th century and beyond. How many people get to say “This castle has been in our family since the 1400s”?  Her very prominent gold ring was even embossed with her husband’s family seal.

 4.) She has taste.

Money + Education = Taste.  “Good” taste — highbrow taste.  Thirty years ago, highbrow taste meant opera, poetry, avant garde theater.  Today, at least within the realm of celebrity, you can signify highbrow taste through evocations of the classic and the vintage.  She doesn’t have a Land Rover or a BMW — she has an ‘58 Chevy, which was a close second to her “dream car,” the ‘54 Bel Air.  Her Chevy, which she periodically drove to premieres, was “a little funkier looking than the Bel Air, and I was like, That’s more like me. I love it. I love my car.”  She loves Oscar Wilde; her favorite actress is Julie Christie; she wears a bracelet with a Pablo Neruda quote.  (Neruda: the new Kahlil Gibran?) (But is Neruda actually now middlebrow? DISCUSS).

Sometimes, like when she’s promoting a new (highbrow) play in the (highbrow) New York Observer, she’s depicted wearing turtlenecks, almost entirely from the neck up, as if to encourage us to focus on her brain, not the body that made it famous.


Usually, however, the discussion of her background, education, and taste are paired with images that aggressively fetishize her.

The problem was that none of Wilde’s films worked.  Seriously: that list above, the one that starts with Alphadog, is like a roll call of notable flops of the last ten years.  Lainey Gossip even gave her the worst insult a gossip columnist can give, asking “Why IS Olivia Wilde?” (Translation: What makes her a celebrity despite lack of merit?)

Wilde’s films may not have been delivering, but she gave good gossip: after breaking up with her husband in 2011, she was seen with every hot male star in town.  Gosling, Pine, Gyllenhaal, Cooper, Timberlake — she was playing all of them.  Her flirtation with Timberlake was especially notable, given his recent celebration from Jessica Biel — a star who, as Lainey was keen to point out, would’ve loved to have the sort of work (and play) that Wilde was getting.


Somewhere in there, she met and fell in love with Jason Sudeikis, right as rumors of Sudeikis’ role in January Jones’ pregnancy began to circulate.  (Jones still opts not to name the father of the child; Sudeikis is adamant that the child is not his).

Wilde’s career was stagnant.  She was working like crazy — in 2012 alone, she appeared in Butter, Deadfall, People Like Us, The Words, and The Longest Week, but apart from Butter’s persistent appearance on my Netflix homepage, her work was distinctly below the radar.  And not “highbrow art fair” below the radar, but “trying to be good but actually mediocre” below the radar.  And therein lies the inherent contradiction of Wilde’s image: for someone with such good taste, how did she keep picking such bad roles?

At some point, Sudeikis told her to check out the work of Mumblecore darling Joe Swanberg, who happened to be casting for a new movie, Drinking Buddies.  Swanberg’s movies had made waves in indie, film festival circles, but were by no means mainstream.  Wilde pursuing the role was like Halle Berry doing Monster’s Ball, Entourage’s Vince doing Queen’s Boulevard, or Tom Cruise doing Magnolia — a way to change the conversation people were having about her.  It wasn’t a Terrence Malick film, but it was something.


And, to be fair, Wilde is pretty great in the role: she plays a total Cool Girl, so cool, in fact, that she’s the manager of a microbrewery, the only girl in the entire building.  She wears sexy jeans and tank tops and Chuck Taylors; her hair is relatively unwashed and always up in a ponytail, and her only make-up is a smear of eyeliner.  She flirts mercilessly with everyone she works with, she ices out her boyfriend, she has that light of charisma that attracts everyone into her orbit . . . . and makes every other girl feel self-conscious, less-than.  It’s extremely easy to dislike this type of girl, both in movies and in real life, but Wilde — and Swanberg’s direction — help paint the reality of her situation, the self-deception and hollowness of it, in a way that, at least for me, definitely worked.

Drinking Buddies is receiving a limited release, but most people will watch it, as I did, on VOD or iTunes or whatever, as it is the perfect VOD movie: just cute enough, just thought-provoking enough, just beautiful enough, that when you sit down on a Friday night you’re like this, this is what I want to charge to my boyfriend’s cable bill.

But Drinking Buddies won’t get Wilde an Oscar nomination or anything close to it.  It’s just enough indieness to help bring her textual personal in line with her extra-textual one: to better match the girl onscreen with the girl who reads books and campaigns for Obama and dates Jason Sudeikis.  Critics, though, are making it hard for her: a recent review in The Dissolve, the exact sort of publication that she would want endorsing her, claims that

 Wilde delivers a credible performance as a woman whose external brassiness and rock-star swagger bely an underlying vulnerability, but she nevertheless feels painfully miscast. Wilde possesses an exotic, otherworldly movie-star beauty that makes her a natural for popcorn fare like Cowboys & Aliens, Tron: Legacy, and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, but seems distractingly out of place here. Casting a glamorous movie star might be good for the film’s commercial prospects, but it harms its aspirations to verisimilitude.  

She’s too pretty, in other words, to be in anything other than a blockbuster.  But I think this is a minority opinion: the vast majority of people want beautiful people playing all of the parts; screw verisimilitude.  But the film makes you feel better about liking her: see, she is smart; she does have better taste than Cowboys & Aliens.  It’s not unlike how I defend The Gos: sure, he did The Notebook and it’s a piece of schlock (that I will watch over and over again), but then he went and did Lars and the Real Girl and Half Nelson — and that’s how you know he’s a man of integrity and intelligence and worthy of my desire.


In Lars and the Real Girl, Gosling is almost unrecognizable, hidden behind twenty extra pounds, thick sweaters, and a Dad moustache.  In Drinking Buddies, Wilde might not be glamorous, but she is still very much her beautiful self, and her body is still on display, arguably unnecessarily.  She runs around the beach in a small black bikini and goes skinny dipping, her body belying the amount of dark beer she consumes on a daily basis.  Cool girl indeed.

This division between “classy” and unclassy stars is nothing new: even in silent Hollywood, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, once married, became paragons of class and good taste, hosting salons in their Hollywood mansion that included Einstein and various Presidents.  Garbo was classy because she was European; Norma Shearer was classy because she was married to studio exec and very upright and proper.  But Clara Bow was flirty and bouncy and refused to lose her Brooklyn accent — she tromped around town without stockings and loved to go to USC football games.  She played working class girls; she wasn’t scared to have fun and drink out of the bottle. Furs and jewels don’t make you classy, especially with a look like that one below.

Bow, Clara (1928)   Pers: Clara Bow   Ref: XBO003BC   Photo Credit: [ Paramount / The Kobal Collection ]   Editorial use only related to cinema, television and personalities. Not for cover use, advertising or fictional works without specific prior agreement

 Joan Crawford was totally unclassy until she married Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; Gloria Swanson made everyone forget about her unclassy days as a Bathing Beauty and married a Marquis. Bette Davis was classy because she was from New England and the stage; Katharine Hepburn was classy for the same reasons, plus the fact that she was a snob.  Jean Harlow was super tacky, with her platinum blonde hair, her guileless vampiness, and her dalliances with gangsters.  Hedy Lamarr was classy because she was Austrian; Betty Grable wasn’t because she was solely a pin-up.

Most Popular Pin-Up of WWII: Still not classy

Most Popular Pin-Up of WWII: Still not classy

Look at that list, and you see that class and glamour meant shielding your body — suggesting, rather than flaunting, sex. . . . and cultivating an image that hinged on acting ability, witty dialogue, and intelligence.  Sex objects, however — the ‘It’ girls — were the opposite.

This dichotomy has muddled somewhat post-studio system.  Jane Fonda, for example, moved between images defined by sex and others defined by activism, but she rarely occupied both simultaneously.  Olivia Wilde is arguably the closest we’ve come to the conflation of the two qualities: body and mind, both beautiful; the classy and the pin-up, all in one.  (The other recent example = Rachel McAdams, who I first called the thinking man’s pin-up five years ago).

The problem, however, is that this bifurcation endures.  Because no person is “just” their body or “just” their mind — but even in our allegedly progressive moment, it’s impossible to combine the body and the mind.  It’s not the Virgin/Whore dichotomy, but it’s close: a star is either a Dumb Bombshell or a Homely Smart Girl.

I still don’t know how to feel about Olivia Wilde, but maybe the reason I feel so unsettled is because her image, and its evocation of both intelligence and beauty, is so rare.  But a beautiful smart girl, that’s threatening: who knows what she’ll do.  Which is why, of course, she must be fetishized — visually reduced to the sum of her beautiful parts, even as the interview that accompanies the piece proclaims her aptitude and taste.

It’s a negotiated victory, and one I’m hesitant to celebrate.  Our stars, and the ideologies their images embody, are reflections of ourselves, and the ideologies that structure our lived reality. Wilde — and, by extension, all of us — can break the dichotomy — but only if we still play by the rules.  Lean In indeed.

15 Responses to “Taste, Class, Fetish Object: The Curious Case of Olivia Wilde”

  1. Emily says:

    I all of the sudden liked Olivia Wilde when I heard her talk about playing lesbians/bi-sexual women, “I’m proud to play them. I’ve had young women come up to me and say it helped them accept themselves or feel more confident about coming out and that is an honor.” http://www.buzzfeed.com/skarlan/olivia-wilde-has-made-out-with-more-ladies-than-jason-sudeik

    Of course that’s right in my wheelhouse, and I’m now more willing to say “I like her” and see her (artier) movies.

    • Annie says:

      Yes, very good point — and I think this fits very directly into her progressive “off-screen” image, if that makes sense.

      • Ella says:

        I don’t think that’s necessarily true (this fits into her progressive “off-screen” image), because playing bi or lesbian women is also something that straight men seem to find sexy. I find it a little hard to concede that Olivia Wilde is doing lesbian women a service.

  2. Maria says:

    I couldn’t exactly pinpoint why I was wary of Olivia, but you really hit the nail on the head for me with the line about how her intelligent is mostly modeled by acts and her film choices have been completely lackluster. It’s hard to even define the tone of her career at this point. When I see Olivia Wilde’s name attached to a movie, it doesn’t really make me want to drive to my local cineplex and buy a ticket. It doesn’t make me want to avoid the film either, but I just have no response. As audiences, we know what a Jennifer Aniston or Leonardo DiCaprio or Ben Affleck movie is going to be, even if we don’t want to see it. She isn’t on the same level as those stars, but considering how many magazine covers she continues to land, she should be giving us some response.

    Take Carey Mulligan. I have no idea if she is actually intelligent, but she has perfectly placed herself as the “Smart Girl” with her film choices. They may not all be that good, but you know that a Carey Mulligan film is going to be a certain type of movie when you go see it. It will be based on a book, there is probably some sort of “love ism’t all happy endings” storyline, the female protagonist will be soaked in rain at some point. In short, something that “smart” women will want to go see. Carey’s career looks like it is in a much better place at this point than Olivia.

    That said, I’ll probably still see Drinking Buddies, but mostly for Jake Johnson, Mark Duplass, and Anna Kendrick.

    Sorry for the long comment. Big fan of you blog!

  3. Lisa S. says:

    She may be beautiful and intelligent (or, at the very least, raised and educated in a milieu that gives her the cultural capital to pass as intelligent, but Olivia Wilde has always left me cold because it seems like there’s no There there, if that makes sense.

    I feel the same way about January Jones — another one who is lovely and has a brainy streak (that goes unremarked-upon because it’s more fun to mock her acting style). Which, of course, makes me keenly curious about Jason Sudeikis as a paramour and makes me really want to meet Kay Cannon.

    New Hollywood! I can’t wait to see what’s unearthed once this is all old Hollywood.

  4. Malissa says:

    I think part of what makes her seem like a thinking man’s pin-up vs. an everyman’s pin-up is a solemness in her demeanor. The seriousness makes it easier to imagine that posing sexily is her idea, not something she’s pressured into by men or a misguided subconscious. The objectification comes with permission. You can look on her guilt-free and you can imagine that she models sexily out of some pure joy, love of art, or maybe is just being clever and subversive and doing it all with a cynical wink. I know when she began popping up everywhere that for whatever reason, she struck me as completely in control of her image and supremely confident. I can’t look at a sexy editorial of any Disney alumni starlet and think the same. Wilde may not in reality have given the modeling that deep of thought but she’s laid enough groundwork in interviews and through her solemn, measured line-delivery to give the impression that she’s at least capable of giving it real thought. That “cool girl” image let’s you imagine you could have that conversation with her.

    In the end I think she’s a capable actress who can lend mystery and a kind of thinky air to a role. I remember watching her on House and being intrigued but as soon as her character got a couple bigger, more demanding storylines, I noticed that she didn’t transcend where I thought she might. Doesn’t mean she won’t continue to evolve her skill through future roles. It’s interesting to see how appearing in so many editorials and dressing for the red carpet has given her momentum to push into more acting work. It does seem like navigating that approach can be tricky though. If she’d lay lower and limit the spotlight on her beauty, I think there’d be a little less scrutiny over her acting skill. She’s just so ubiquitous lately.

  5. Annie says:

    I think you nailed why I initially disliked her. Since then, though, I’ve read things she’s written and said, including her twitter, and found her… utterly charming and lovely and warm and clever and thoroughly interested in her activist work and… someone who has against the way people see and treat her because of her beauty (and earlier in her career, her blondness). She’s discussed how much she admired her mother, an equally beautiful, blond, and very tall Ivy League woman in a pushy, male-dominated industry and how her mother tried to show her that one can be beautiful and not be afraid to be smart, too. The girl has a chip on her shoulder that reveals itself quietly.

    She also told a story about going to her first audition in a turtleneck when she was 18, but the casting director she was working for as an assistant told her to put on a tank top instead because sex sells. It makes me really wonder about Hollywood and people’s general tendency to categorize others. Like most young actors, she had to work, so she took the work offered to her. Even women who’ve been in the industry years and are well-respected are victim to the sexual ideal. We laud Judi Dench as much as we do Helen Mirren, but the latter gets more attention because, oh, hey, she’s still hot and her boobs stay up!

    As Olivia’s neared turning 30 and has had more veto power, I think her choices have gotten a tiny bit more interesting, and Jason seems to be encouraging her to take more of the risks she wants to, but is still limited. She pulled herself out of the running for the Linda Lovelace movie because she knew her image and knew it’d only further to oversexualize her image, even though she wanted to play a woman whose story was far more than that. As much of a feminist as she is, and as strong of personality as she is, I think she’s just as susceptible as the rest of us women of so much of our value resting on our sex appeal.

    Sorry for the rambly, fangirl comment.. Like I said, she’s won me over in the past few years, but for pretty much everything she’s done outside of her movies. And she still does and says things I don’t necessarily agree with sometimes. And who really wants to sympathize with someone rich, beautiful AND also a good person? The fact that she’s been in so many terrible-to-okay work but is still going says more about her work ethic and professionalism. We’ve seen countless perfect faces go through and not stick it out in comparison.

  6. Ashley says:

    So would Rita Hayeorth fall into unclassy even though she too was briefly a princess?

  7. Veronica says:

    I just discovered your blog while Googling Rita Hayworth. Love your style, your humor and thoughtfulness. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your take on Celebrity – past & present. Looking forward to reading more. Best of luck with your book. Sounds fascinating.


  8. Kelly says:

    My general dislike of Olivia Wilde was cemented when she showed up 2 hours early to the Academy Awards seemingly to get red carpet coverage. I generally think the only reason to be at the Oscars is being nominated for an Oscar. Anything else reeks of desperation. Show up when you’ve earned it, not when you’re promoting Cowboys and Aliens.

  9. testington says:

    I’m pretty surprised there was no mention of Angelina Jolie here, somebody Wilde, Fox and Biel have all tried VERY hard to emulate. Olivia Wilde is the first to combine glamour and activism since Jane Fonda not Angelina who poses for designer ad campaigns and speaks in front of the UN with similar frequency?

    I think when it comes to Wilde she is disliked for many of the reasons you said but also because people are resentful of entertainers whose celebrity feels unearned. In the middle 2000′s it was Sienna Miller who had a similarly aggressive publicist and despite her multiple Vogue covers and famous romances nobody ever bothered to see any of her movies because she was famous before she had fans.

  10. Ella says:

    This is all well said. Amber Heard is the next Olivia Wilde. I saw her on Top Gear recently, and she proudly boasted about her Texan roots, her gun, her Ford Mustang and the fact that when she was young she read books by George Orwell and Salman Rushdie. The host reacted with astonishment to the last fact, and there was a hushed gasp from the audience. I know scores of women who have read Rushdie and Orwell (including all of those in my high school English class) so I don’t totally get why this is a big deal, except that she’s a sex object, and her intellectual pursuits are suddenly as fetishised as everything else about her. What really rubs me up the wrong way is how she capitalises on it.

  11. Occula says:

    I was utterly indifferent to her as just another vaguely trashy actress until I saw ‘Butter.’ Her comic timing is impeccable and she absolutely owns the ludicrous character she plays. I don’t think it’s a bold choice to play the hooker, but I do think it’s commendable to at least turn the hooker into someone aggressively funny and dangerous.

  12. Heather says:

    I think I’m turned off by her because in every interview I’ve read of her, she’s talked about her troubles with being beautiful, about how smart she is, and about how she is a princess (sorry, I haven’t read any recent interviews). Personally, I don’t find her to be beautiful, but beauty is subjective and I’m sure many people do, but I don’t need for someone to tell me if they are attractive or not when I can see them. She may or may not be smart, but again, it’s better to say intelligent things than to tell people you are intelligent. About the princess thing, technically she never was, and even if she was, it was by marriage, and even if she was born into it, it doesn’t make her a better person. I guess what I should have just said is that my problem with her is that she insists on telling everyone how great she is instead of just being great.

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