In the last decade or so, the American actor Paul Rudd has become almost synonymous with his seemingly accidental, age-defying prowess. Between Time Magazine referring to the 51-year-old actor as an “ageless baby-faced adult man”’, BuzzFeed declaring they “finally have proof that Paul Rudd is immortal’ and PBS’ “Paul Rudd And The Science Behind Youthful Skin”, our adulation of the Ant-Man actor’s face knows no bounds. His notoriety as an age-defying superhuman is so mired in pop culture he was cleverly slated to star in a public health PSA for the state of New York City, urging his “fellow millennials” to wear face masks and curb the spread of COVID-19.
Now, I usually never comment on the details of celebrities’ faces, but for the sake of this discussion, we’re going to have to take a quick look. Having perused a few current photos of Paul Rudd’s face sourced from Getty Images, I can reliably say the actor’s face shows some clear – heaven forbid! – signs of ageing. The actor looks to have some pretty standard middle-aged white man crows feet, frown lines and forehead wrinkles. The sort of lines he didn’t have in Clueless, when he was in his 20s. Whew, sorry everyone. Sorry Paul Rudd. That actually felt horrible.
Just to be clear, I am definitely not having a go at Paul Rudd for having lines on his face, which would be ridiculous. And I’m not saying he doesn’t look great. What I want to understand is our unwillingness to see that Paul Rudd, while still obviously very good-looking, does in fact look significantly older than he did in 1995. I mean, it’s fair to say he looks ‘good for his age’, or ‘younger than he is’. But at best, he looks like he’s in his 40s (which he very recently was). But I mean, come on. Baby-faced? No offence, but if I saw a baby with crows feet, I would freak the fuck out. So what exactly is behind our dedicated worship of actor Paul Rudd’s face? The decadent outpouring of praise? Our refusal to look closely, to really look?
I don’t want to alarm you, but could any of this be due to the fact that Paul Rudd is (dun dun dun)... a man? Let’s turn to Nicole Kidman for a sec, another famous actor who is also in their early 50s who also looks younger than she is. While Paul is routinely praised for his relatively youthful appearance, Kidman has been dragged through the mud for it, for as long as I can remember. UK media academic Kristy Fairclough says that while Kidman is an accomplished actress, she’s positioned by tabloids as ‘desperate’ in her apparent quest to ‘stay youthful’, and an ‘addiction’ to plastic surgery bordering on the grotesque. One 2019 article from New Idea reckons the actress’ plastic surgery is “spiralling out of control”, citing Kidman’s apparently “desperate bid to stay forever young”. Of course, Kidman, who is regularly asked if she has had cosmetic surgery, has said she hasn’t, which only adds to the gossip industry’s readiness to take her down. Has anyone, meanwhile, ever asked Paul Rudd if he’s ever had surgery? Does anyone even care?
Obviously, I’m not claiming Paul Rudd has had cosmetic surgery (but hey, it’s not outside the realm of possibility). The point is, as a white man, he’s cushioned by about a million benefits of the doubt, benefits that work hard to keep his dignity intact. Women, meanwhile, are diminished as their faces are pored over, scrutinised and surveilled. As Kayleigh Donaldson writes in Pajiba, “[Men] are allowed to age with less scrutiny than women and they’re also allowed to not age with a similar lack of focus.” The flipside of that is that female celebrities moving beyond their 30s are asked to tread an impossibly fine line. In the case of actresses whose faces have visibly changed as they’ve gotten older, say for example, Cameron Diaz, they’re positioned as fallen figures; having been lazy enough to ‘age badly’ and ‘let themselves go’. At the same time, women like Kidman are positioned as having ‘tried too hard’ to look younger, to the point of a kind of horrible addiction. Perhaps the most surefire way to escape the draconian scrutiny of being an ‘older’ woman in Hollywood is not to exist at all.
All of this may seem like an overreaction, after all, isn’t the Paul Rudd thing just harmless internet fodder? And overpaid Hollywood celebrities, regardless of the double standards they’re subjected to, feel like the last people anyone needs to go into bat for. But what we choose to see and not see tells us crucial things about the ideologies we inherit. Margaret Heffernen, who wrote a book about wilful blindness, writes that “ideology powerfully masks what, to the uncaptivated mind, is obvious”. And there’s perhaps no more enduring and entrenched an ideology than misogyny. Our readiness to congratulate Paul Rudd for achieving, what for a woman, would invite a barrage of gawks and derision (if indeed she was able to maintain a career in Hollywood at all), reveals just how far we’ll go to praise men for nothing. Our adulation of Paul Rudd’s appearance has a dark underbelly: that ageing is unnoticeable, acceptable, even worthy of praise, but only if it’s happening to a man.
Written by Reena Gupta, a Melbourne-based writer at MTV Australia. Follow her at @purpletank.