This is the Sunday edition of Culture Study — the newsletter from Anne Helen Petersen, which you can read about here. If you like it and want more like it in your inbox, consider subscribing.
I have a vivid memory of watching The Lone Ranger, co-starring Armie Hammer, in the bedroom built for FLDS polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs. I was in Short Creek, the little of pocket of land that served as the center of the FLDS universe on the border between Utah and Arizona, reporting a story on the women who’d left the religion behind and returned to the area to try and remake their lives. There aren’t any hotels in Short Creek. But there is an Airbnb made out of the compound built for Warren Jeffs’ use upon his release from prison. I didn’t realize until days after I’d already been given my room that it was part of a suite intended for Jeffs and whichever of his many wives were living in close proximity to him at the moment. The walls, the ex-FLDS man who ran the Airbnb told me, were built incredibly thick, with good reason: no one could hear a thing that went on inside.
There was a small grocery store in town and not much else, and every night I’d get some Triscuits, some Sabra hummus, some deli meat, and watch a new Armie Hammer movie in my FLDS Airbnb. I was the only person staying there, at least until the photographer showed up and asked “you’ve been here by yourself for five days?”
A week before, I’d been in Austin for a book event, had been called to cover the mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, where a physically and sexually abusive man took his rage out on his ex-mother-in-law’s church, killing 26 people, including several small children. I interviewed the uncle of three of those kids as he stood in the middle of the road, staring into nothing. It was fucking horrible. Then I got on my scheduled flight to St. George, Utah, drove two hours to Short Creek, and spent the week interviewing the survivors of unspeakable polygamous abuse during the day and watching Armie Hammer movies at night.
That was my headspace as I read dozens of profiles and interviews of this man who, at that point, was on his fourth, five, sixth attempt to achieve Hollywood stardom. His story was not novel; any student of Classic Hollywood knows how studios often experimented with stars’ images for years until they figured out what clicked. (Most famously: Cary Grant and Clark Gable). But the history of the studio system is littered with talent the studio didn’t know what to do with, stars who were framed as “box office poison,” or, in the case of the vast majority of black and brown actors, who the studios didn’t believe they could “sell” in the first place. Since the disintegration of the studio system, this scenario has shifted, but slowly: women, especially women of color, usually get one “underperformance,” maybe two, before they become box office poison, blackballed, relegated to television (this used to be a much more dire fate than it is now), or treated as if their last fuckable day had come and gone.
Hammer’s trajectory struck me as particularly egregious as Hollywood as a whole continued to come to terms with #MeToo. Yes, Weinstein and other abusers were being named. But Hammer’s resilience made it clear that the system itself, and the sort of talent it protected and championed, was still very much in place. This was just as true in Short Creek, where a small cadre of remaining FLDS still made life difficult for the remaining FLDS to own property or even register a business with the local city council, as it was in Hollywood. It doesn’t matter if you remove a few bad actors if the integrity of the system itself remains in place.
Fast forward to the end of November, 2017. My piece, entitled “Ten Long Years of Trying to Make Armie Hammer Happen,” goes up. To research the piece, I’d spent long hours in the Hammer archive, bought a dozen old magazines off eBay, scoured LexisNexis and ProQuest for old interviews — done what I always do for these star image analyses. I have a PhD in media studies and wrote my dissertation on the history of the celebrity gossip industry, so doing this sort of work is not new to me. But, at least in my pieces for BuzzFeed, I had often chosen to concentrate on stars that I found enduringly interesting, or particularly savvy, or attempting to negotiate a scandal, or embodying a particular ideological contradiction. The Hammer piece was probably the most legibly critical piece of star image analysis I’d written for the site.
I invite you to read the piece in full, because there’s some pretty fascinating bits of image formation and strategy in there, especially all the stuff about the ringworm, but here’s an excerpt of the conclusion:
Looking back at Hammer’s career, it’s fascinating to see just how much agency and independence he claimed for himself growing up, contrasted with how little he says he has had over his working life. He made the decision to drop out of high school; he made the decision to go into acting; he made the decision to not take money from his parents. Hammer liberated himself from his history and the duty that might accompany it, attempting to forge a path for himself the same way that any other actor would in Hollywood.
And yet, for all that personal volition, Hammer’s inability to make himself happen — until now — has never, at least according to him, been his own fault. To blame: the blockbusters he agreed to star in, the critics who panned his films, the activists who doomed his indie breakthrough. Not to blame: an industry calibrated to produce films for men who look like him, or his own judgment in choosing the films that he did, or the director against whom those claims were levied. Armie Hammer didn’t happen for 10 long years because, according to his logic, the system was stacked against him.
Well, of course it was: The “system,” whether Hollywood or American capitalism in general, is stacked against basically everyone. But a small few, including Hammer’s own grandfather, figure out how to manipulate and survive it. What seems to annoy Hammer, then, is that he struggled the same way everyone else — the way women and actors of color in particular — struggle: with shitty options, with publicity that pigeonholes you, with people who only care about your looks, with machinations beyond your control.
Countless stars have fallen into Hammer-like career trajectories and never recovered. Many of those women, spit out by mainstream Hollywood, have crafted nuanced second acts on television, or figured out how to monetize their lifestyles. But none have been afforded the sort of second, and third, and fourth chances that Hammer has been. That’s a privilege afforded men like Hammer’s costar Johnny Depp, or Matt Damon, or Ben Affleck, or Michael Fassbender, or Bradley Cooper, or Ryan Reynolds — or even, in a slightly different way, Mel Gibson. No one gets second chances in Hollywood the way straight white men do.
I think the piece would’ve been a blip if Hammer hadn’t responded to a tweet of it, calling “my perspective bitter AF.” That set off an extensive harassment campaign that culminating in threats to cut (my dog) Peggy’s throat and Hammer (temporarily) leaving Twitter. (This campaign was fanned by industry publications like IndieWire publishing entire articles with headlines like “Armie Hammer Slams Anti-Armie Hammer Buzzfeed Article.”)
[I note that not because I couldn’t handle it (I’m a writer on the internet, the calluses have been built up, for better and likely for worse, and also I deal with less shit because I’m white) but because it’s important to note how this style of “industry” reporting can direct further harassment to entertainment journalists, especially those who report on media objects with robust and/or toxic fan communities. (See especially: DC Comics.)]
If your response to all this is I didn’t know there was an Armie Hammer fandom, you would not be alone. There wasn’t really an Armie Hammer fandom until this point in his career, when his performance in Call Me By Your Name sparked a robust (but ultimately short-lived) devotion. But even outside of people with CMBYN avatars swarming my replies on Twitter, the feedback on the piece was largely negative, and usually framed in the language of “I usually like her pieces on stars, but this is [off the mark, too mean, ungenerous, etc.]
Star image analysis is not the same as a “take down” — it’s not about the person behind the star image so much as it is about the ideological environment that serves as fertile or hostile ground for a particular image in a particular moment. For this piece, I had tried to shape the piece to communicate that this wasn’t really about Hammer, and it certainly wasn’t about Call Me By Your Name. It was ultimately about the system at large, and the privileges that were still a fundamental component of its construction. But I increasingly felt that I had failed at that task.
The reception, if I’m honest, shook my confidence. It didn’t help when Hammer, having rejoined Twitter after awards season, criticized me for, well, criticizing a banal Jennifer Lawrence profile in Vanity Fair. (Fox News headline: “Armie Hammer says BuzzFeed writer should try ‘medicating’ after critique of Jennifer Lawrence profile) I remember talking about the piece to some college students a few months later, and saying that I had done a poor job with it, and that I hadn’t adequately foregrounded that I was doing a rhetorical analysis. (I wouldn’t do another piece in that vein for six months — this time on Gwen Stefani. As you might imagine, readers are somehow a lot more receptive to analysis of female stars than (white) male ones.)
I didn’t think my conclusions were wrong, but I thought I had done a poor job of framing them in a way that would be legible to a larger audience. That might still be true, had not Hammer himself made them incredibly legible.
The best run-down I’ve seen of the recent Hammer revelations comes from Hunter Harris’s Substack Hung Up and Lainey Gossip. I’ll let you read them there if you’re unfamiliar. The point I hope you take away is not the more titillating details, but that Hammer has been involved in non-consensual, abusive relationships with women. (I also wish that otherwise solid industry reporting on the future of his career would stop talking about the evidence of these relationships as “unconfirmed” and start trying to report them out.)
Have I felt vindicated as people write tweets like this?
(Yes, I do know who this is, and no, I will never tell)
I mean, yes and no? I’m writing this today because Hammer was dropped by his publicist and his agent earlier this week, and there are rumors ricocheting off the corners of the internet of a story, about to drop, that will mark the indubitable end of his career.
But I have no faith in the end of any white male star or his enduring chances in Hollywood, and neither should you. So long as our attachment to individual stars makes us resistant to questioning the existing dynamics of power, this is the scenario we are going to reproduce. In the recent tweets of my piece, people mention “lots of red flags here” and “it was all spelled out here.” I could never predict this specific trajectory, but somehow, even with discussion of hypothetical fantasy cannibalism, it is not surprising, because nothing about the end game of unfettered white masculinity is surprising. The leeway afforded these men is unceasingly astounding.
Hammer could’ve just as easily have become an Academy Award winner and a demi-celebrated actor for the ages. That scenario was very much his for the taking, because until very recently, his behavior could and would’ve been covered up. Celebrities have used social media to wrest control of their images back from the gossip press, but in so doing, they have embraced the liability of permanent records of their own dumb actions.
Still, I don’t think that means we’ve entered a new age of accountability. It just means that celebrities (and their handlers) are getting smarter about the traces of bad behavior. Hammer was sloppy with the receipts the way someone accustomed to getting away with shit is sloppy, the way someone with a massive family fortune to fall back on is sloppy. Publicists will learn from this but it will teach him nothing.
So I don’t need to be told I was prescient about Hammer. I need you to listen to the people who are telling you as much about others in Hollywood today, and remain ever cognizant of who you, yourself, are giving fifth, sixth, seventh chances to — and who, by your casual viewing choices, your casual comments, your unexamined understanding of your own “tastes,” you’ve never let happen at all.
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Things I Read and Loved This Week:
I loved Nicole’s answer to the mom who found her teen’s sexy fanfic
The sub-minimum wage is a racist and sexist and has to go
On the myth of “we only hire the top 1% of talent”
I’d read a ten hour transcript of an interview with Michelle Pfeiffer
A really sharp piece on teacher demoralization vs. teacher burnout
“AOC isn’t looking forward to her next election; she is earnestly gauging her legacy on how many people she can welcome into a lifelong struggle for justice.”
This week’s just trust me
If You’re Looking For a New Soup in Your Life, here’s a new Melissa Clark favorite.
And here’s one from the Culture Study archive: Is Everything an MLM?
If you’re reading this in your inbox, you can find a shareable version online here. You can follow me on Twitter here, and Instagram here. Feel free to comment below — and you can always reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
AHP, one of the many reasons I really love your work is that you always interrogate the 2 questions that I think of as my guiding ethos - "What is at stake?" and "Who gets to decide?" (can you tell I studied anthropology in college lol)
I think about your Armie Hammer piece all the time (not quite rent-free, but close), because he is one of the actors out there I constantly find to be miscast in...everything he's done (most noticeably CMBYN, in my opinion). Thanks for sniffing him out early.
I have taught your brilliant, scene-altering 2017 piece several times. It shows how criticism can flip a switch in the public culture. This kind of work inspires more work; for me this is the highest compliment to a piece of writing can get. After reading it, students nominate celebrities whose reading, positively or negatively, could produce similar upending ends. The publicists may not get it, but the accountability comes differently now, dangerously and powerfully, from critics in the (virtual and literal) streets. Here's to helping them with their placards.