Megan Fox knows you want her to shut up. At the height of her fame in the late 2000s, it often felt like major Fox interviews were mostly a chance for the press to rake through her quotes for faux pas. It was not at all uncommon for news outlets to call her “crazy,” sometimes right in the headline. Women’s media treated her with disdain, as the living embodiment of a plastic, synthetic, frat-boy-friendly beauty ideal: Jezebel crowned her “the patron saint of sexyface,” compiled a list of her "50 Best (& Worst) Bon Mots," and, when Fox joked about having “a powerful, confident vagina,” ran the story under the headline “But Can It Act?”
Combing through Megan Fox thinkpieces of the era — and there were many — turns up archaeological traces of an even more visceral hatred, like a post on “feminist” blog Zelda Lily entitled “Megan Fox is an Ungrateful B---h,” or a whole (now deleted) Tumblr, "F--k You Megan Fox."
The problem is, after years of being told that she should “keep her trap shut,” Fox evidently started taking the suggestion.
The problem is, after years of being told that she should “keep her trap shut,” Fox evidently started taking the suggestion. In a new interview with the New York Times, Fox says that she kept silent about her own experiences of sexual harassment during the #MeToo movement, specifically because of the treatment she’s gotten from other women.
“I just didn’t think based on how I’d been received by people, and by feminists, that I would be a sympathetic victim. And I thought if ever there were a time where the world would agree that it’s appropriate to victim-shame someone, it would be when I come forward with my story,” Fox told the Times. Reflecting on her time as Internet outrage bait, she now says that “[My] words were taken and used against me in a way that was — at that time in my life, at that age and dealing with that level of fame — really painful." She continued, "I was rejected because of qualities that are now being praised in other women coming forward. And because of my experience, I feel it’s likely that I will always be just out of the collective understanding. I don’t know if there will ever be a time where I’m considered normal or relatable or likable.”
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Ah, yes. Likable, the fatal "l-word." I, a feminist, have always liked Megan Fox; my second piece of published writing was an essay complaining about her harsh media coverage. For that matter, her treatment by feminists was always more nuanced than those brutal headlines (or Megan Fox’s memory) would seem to indicate. Even on Jezebel, the eye-rolls were interspersed with thoughtful essays about how “we should root for [Fox] to subvert the roles [she’s] positioned to fill, and to find a way to break out of the boxes that Hollywood always tends to place women in.”
Still, it’s true that for many years Megan Fox was evaluated not on her talent, but in terms of her likability — an impossible and unhealthy standard to apply to women. People who had no intention of watching the “Transformers” or “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movies (I have seen neither) had passionate opinions about her persona. It’s a vicious yet predictable pattern: The public and the media actively enjoys finding “unlikable” women to bash. Likability is designed to rule out women who utter inconvenient truths, or who behave, as Fox seems to have done, outside the mainstream and often ahead of the curve.
It’s not remotely hard to imagine what Fox’s #MeToo stories are like, because she’s already told some of them. They were her most controversial statements, in part because she veiled them as jokes. That “Ungrateful Bitch” headline, for example, is in reference to Fox insulting the cinematic oeuvre of Michael Bay: “You arrogant asswipe,” Zelda Lily wrote. “I’m no 'Transformers' fan but if someone deigned to select ME from hundreds of other gorgeous actresses to play a love interest role that catapulted me to fame, I would be praising the movie up and down and printing 'Transformers' tshirts on Café Press like it was going out of style.”
It may be relevant to note here that Bay “selected” Fox for “Transformers” after making her audition by washing his Ferrari while he filmed it. This was not the first time the two had met; when Fox was 15, she was cast as an extra for a party scene in “Bad Boys 2,”at which point Bay made her wear a bikini and six-inch heels on set.
“They said, ‘You know, Michael, she’s 15, so you can’t sit her at the bar and she can’t have a drink in her hand,’” Fox told Jimmy Kimmel in 2009. “So his solution to that problem was to then have me dancing underneath a waterfall getting soaking wet." She continued, "At 15 and I was in tenth grade. So that’s sort of a microcosm of how Bay’s mind works.”
Speaking of her acting, Fox also claimed that Bay’s only directions to her were “be hot” and “be sexy,” and said he was “like Hitler” on set. These are exactly the types of workplace stories #MeToo has trained us to keep a critical eye on. And yet, in this case, a very young girl was treated as a sex object by a much more powerful, older male boss — and then slammed by the press for being a talentless slut and called “ungrateful” when she tried to speak. By the standards of ten years ago, Megan Fox was just a mouthy actress, and Michael Bay was the generous man who’d allowed her to run around a desert in short-shorts.
It would have been easier to honor Fox’s stories, maybe, if she’d framed herself as a devastated victim. But she told her stories the way she told all the others.
It would have been easier to honor Fox’s stories, maybe, if she’d framed herself as a devastated victim. But she told her stories the way she told all the others: with confidence, as jokes. Fox’s legendary “unlikability” was not just the result of her criticizing powerful men, it also stemmed from the way she confounded then-popular ideas about womanhood. She threw people off because as much as she physically resembled the cheesy, lad-mag sex symbol, she was more interested in making fun of that ideal than living up to it. The story about muddling through an entire movie with the two-word direction “be sexy” is, yes, a story about sexist objectification, but it is also very funny. The “confident vagina” comment was clearly a joke along the same lines, as was the (notorious) time Fox showed the New York Times her silicone bra pads before heading to a rehearsal.
In 2018, celebrities like Chrissy Teigen have garnered mass adoration for being both very beautiful and very publicly sarcastic about the work it takes to be a publicly beautiful woman. And that’s a good thing. But it hasn’t always been this way. Men could be edgy truth-tellers, but women like Fox were loud, crude and “crazy.” Even women fell for this; the recurrent feminist complaint that Fox always said other women were terrible to her, for example, tended to ignore the fact that women were being really terrible to her.
Fox has made some objectively bad statements. I wish, for example, that she’d never used the words “retard” or “tranny.” (Those choices, too, were a lot less widely scrutinized ten years ago.) But when Megan Fox says she was ahead of her time, she’s not wrong. She challenged both feminine ideals and powerful men in a way that her era did not really know how to process. Challenges are inherently uncomfortable. When we impose likability as the gold standard for female existence, a woman cannot push us or question us or teach us — she can only fail to make us feel comfortable with our own behavior. It’s even sadder that the behavior that made Fox a figure of derision is now so widely validated by the culture. She came just a few years too early and missed her shot.
By demanding women make us like them before we will agree to listen to them, we create a system that is inherently rigged against some of the women whom we most need to hear. We also tell those women that the only way to regain our approval is through silence, leaving them alone with whatever violence and trauma they may experience. Megan Fox is just the latest casualty. Many women have fallen victim to the “likability” trap before her, and others will fall in the years to come. To break the cycle, we must stop worrying about whether we like the women in our lives, and start listening to what they have to say.
Sady Doyle is the author of "Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock and Fear... and Why" (Melville House, 2016). She founded the feminist blog Tiger Beatdown, and her work has appeared regularly in Elle, The Guardian, and In These Times, among others. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.