Salma Hayek and the Sexual Cost of Stardom

After two decades in Hollywood, actress Salma Hayek did an interview with The Orange County Register. She was asked if she realized being a sex symbol was the only way to open doors in the entertainment industry, or if she “found out later and had to accept.” She answered, “I did not know that in advance, but I saw that it was the only way to sneak in.”[1]

When she moved from Mexico to Los Angeles back in 1991, the only way for her to “sneak in” was through the use of her body as a bargaining chip. She discovered Latino actresses like her were “typecast as the mistress maid or local prostitute.” Being viewed primarily as a sexual object didn’t just last for a brief stint. It lasted for years.

In 1995, Hayek got a big break as a lead actor in Desperado, but this career advancement came at a high cost: having a sex scene sprung on her. Says Hayek, “[The scene] was not in the original script, I have to say. I think it was one of the notes that came after they showed the screen test, which made it harder for me. I was already like, ‘No, that was not in there the first time.’”

The producers, however, had their way, and on the day of filming, “I had great difficulty doing the [scene]. . . . I actually cried. I didn’t want to be naked in front of a camera and kept on thinking, ‘What will my mother and father think about this?’” 

Fast forward to the film’s premier: “I walked out…when they played [the sex scene] and I took my brother, father, and mother with me. I didn’t want any of them to see it. They were happy to walk out right away and then we came back again.” The success she wished to share with her family was tainted by an experience she decidedly did not wish to share with her family.

DESPERADO TIMES

Hayek recounts how, after submitting to over a decade of objectifying roles, “I had to do something if I was ever going to do the things I wanted to do in my career. I had to take control of my career.” She sought this control through the promotion of her passion project: a biopic of Frida Kahlo. It proved to be a hard sell, for numerous reasons. In spite of much opposition, she finally got approval to make the film, with Hayek in the starring role.

Had she finally broken free from Hollywood’s restraints? Tragically, no. During principal photography, the film’s producer, none other than Harvey Weinstein, allegedly threatened to shut down production on Frida and scrap the movie completely unless Hayek indulged a fetish of his. She recounts in her own words:

He offered me one option to continue. He would let me finish the film if I agreed to do a sex scene with another woman. And he demanded full-frontal nudity.

 

He had been constantly asking for more skin, for more sex. . . . But this time, it was clear to me he would never let me finish this movie without him having his fantasy one way or another. There was no room for negotiation.

At this point in her career, Hayek still wasn’t an A-list actor. She had no clout—nothing with which to bargain or argue. With her film and her career in jeopardy, she acquiesced to Weinstein’s demands.

When the day came for shooting the sex scene, Hayek suffered so badly from anxiety that “[My] body wouldn’t stop crying and convulsing. At that point, I started throwing up while a set frozen still waited to shoot. I had to take a tranquilizer.”

ARTISTIC, AWARD-WINNING ATROCITIES

Audiences and critics were oblivious to any of these goings on. Many of them praised the film for its artistry, which earned Frida six Oscar nominations (including Best Actress for Hayek’s performance). No one knew that included in their praise was the pornographic fantasy of a perverted Hollywood mogul.

And how could they have known? After all, nothing looked amiss on the surface. The sexually compromising scene Weinstein had orchestrated mirrored the quality, style, and explicitness of hundreds of scenes like it in other mainstream productions. Nothing appeared unusual about the scene. No one noticed or suspected anything unprofessional, much less coercive. Not until Salma Hayek finally broke her silence in 2017—fifteen years after the fact.

To quote a Sydney Morning Herald opinion piece,

Weinstein made every person who watched Frida a witness to his abuse. [Hayek’s] story is enough to make a viewer rethink how and why nudity ends up in movies – and whether those disrobing feel empowered to refuse a producer whose demands may have less to do with the quality of the finished product than his own fetishes. . . . He insisted on a gratuitous sex scene, she wrote, which was a power play over an actress he couldn’t have [she had often refused his sexual advances before], but also part of a pattern that normalised [sic] needless nudity.

Because scenes of “needless nudity” (and needless sexual scenes) have been normalized, few people bat an eye when such scenes appear onscreen. But while audience’s eyes are filled with images of erotic sensuality, they are blithely unaware that an actor in that scene may have had her eyes filled with tears.

NORMALIZING THE GRATUITOUS

Hayek’s revelations about her experience with Weinstein while filming Frida received major news coverage, and rightfully so. The overt manipulation involved in the movie’s production is despicable, and the gratuitous nude scene a blatant disregard for Hayek’s privacy, dignity, sexuality, and agency.

Still, we need not minimize, and certainly not dismiss, her earlier experience filming the sex scene in Desperado, during which she also did not want to appear naked in front of the camera, and ended up crying as a result. This experience was also was a violation of her privacy, dignity, sexuality, and agency.

Whether it’s a manipulative producer hovering over a reluctant actor’s shoulder, or simply a salivating society hovering over a willing actor’s shoulder, sexualized nudity and sex scenes are gratuitous. And they are gratuitous, not primarily because of their effect on audiences, but primarily because they represent the unjust treatment of human beings made in the image of God.


UPDATE: for a follow-up, please see On Actor Exploitation: Confessions of an Alleged Killjoy


photo credit: rocor via flickr, CC (cropped)



[1] Ironically enough, reporter Barry Koltnow objectified Hayek in the way he began his article:

I walked into Salma Hayek’s hotel room, and the sexy actress was lying on her bed.

“Do you mind if I stay in bed while we do this interview?” she asked.

Everything after that was a bit hazy. I may have fainted.

Fortunately, my tape recorder was running, so I have proof that an interview took place.

Did I mention that the Mexican-born actress looked beautiful? And just to keep the record straight, she was wearing a tight-fitting dress and kept a small blanket over her legs because she said she was cold from the air-conditioning.

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