Wednesday, February 9, 2011

How is Natalie Portman a starlet?

Slate's home page today promos an article about Natalie Portman's career, in which the writer argues that Portman has made unconventional choices, but which typify the attitude many people in her generation (she'll be 30 in June) take toward their careers.


My question is, why is Slate calling Portman -- a well-known, accomplished actor, nominated for this year's Academy Award for Best Actress for playing the complex and demanding lead in a film nominated for Best Picture -- a "starlet"?

The dictionary defines starlet in neutral terms: "A young movie actress being coached and publicized for starring roles" (merriam-webster.com). That's inaccurate in Portman's case; as Slate's article itself points out, she's been starring in movies since the mid-'90s.

Maybe it's just me, but I think of the word "starlet" as at least faintly condescending. It conjures an image of a pretty but insubstantial young thing who might have managed to land a small film part or two but hasn't really -- may never -- hit the big time.

In my book, being nominated for Best Actress is pretty inarguable evidence that you've already hit the big time.

Look, I'm not even a huge Natalie Portman fan, thought "Black Swan" was only OK. And I rarely take umbrage at anything I read in Slate. But I can't help bristle a bit at this. What if Slate's story were about one of the young actors nominated for Best Actor? I don't know about you, but I find it hard to imagine Slate calling Jesse Eisenberg or James Franco a "starlet."

Oh, but of course they wouldn't, because "starlet" is gender-specific. There is no male equivalent.

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