Let’s talk about the cover first. In short, I like it. The topics Michelle Williams covers — the equal pay, for example; the equal treatment — are heavy, and serious, and if she’d been grinning from a swimming pool or skipping around with some summer flowers in her fist, it would’ve appeared to trivialize the subject matter, or make the profile seem like it was going to be very surface. Also, Michelle Williams often comes across on the red carpet as fragile, or easily startled, or timid even; Busy Philipps is quoted in the story as saying she always scratches her head at that perception, because of how tough and funny she knows Michelle to be, but I do think there’s a certain introversion in her event photos when she’s in them alone. This photo is the opposite of that. It sits here, stark and simple, with someone staring you square in the face and daring you to challenge her. It services the undercurrents of the story so well.
The inside photos aren’t as beguiling, on the whole. Smartly, Vanity Fair opens with one of her laughing and lit up, which reinforces the notion that the profile itself underscores: that Williams is very light, and witty, and a happy human. It’s just one photo but it does the job of bringing in a little joy to a piece that, overall, is nicely balanced between weighty and wise and hopeful. The rest each have a name, which you can read in the captions on the main piece, though I will link to the photos individually here, and some are terribly literal — like, “The Balancing Act,” which is her carrying a bunch of stuff while wearing roller skates and looking like a hipster, because she lives in Brooklyn and parenting is hard (no kidding, dude, and also… sigh). Naturally, there are combative ones of her in boxing garb, because, get it, she’s a fighter — but, in this one more than the other, there is a quizzical quality to the expression on her face that faintly undercuts idea of portraying her from a position of strength. We have two of her in a Speedo racing suit, one called “The Survivor” in which she’s sitting on the pool deck and glaring at someone (okay) and one called “Endurance” in which her back is to the camera and she is hunched over in what appears to be an attempt to catch her breath. While I understand the reference to the gauntlet she’s run in her life, it’s likewise not the most powerful image to associate with it. And then of course we have some of her in cowboy clothes, which probably reference Brokeback Mountain, one of which is melancholy, one of which is arresting but also comes off like she’s hiding something with her hat, and the last of which has a very androgynous feel. I think it’s fun to play with that, and I recognize and agree with the comments that womanhood and femininity come in all flavors and don’t have to involve all things traditionally “girly.” But it almost wipes away the question of gender altogether, and since her gender is not beside the point in this story — it is the beating heart of a piece about inequity in her industry and the efforts to fight it — that made me wonder about that choice. (I’m not being very articulate here, and I think earlier I caused some accidental offense with this, and I hate that. Rather than delete it altogether, I’m trying to see if there’s a way here I can communicate what I meant and what I didn’t mean. Maybe there is no good way, but I’d rather learn and grow from the conversation than pretend it didn’t happen; deleting the observation, even if ultimately it’s a bad one, feels like sweeping under the rug.)
The story itself teems with strong women, from Busy Philipps championing her best friend, to Jessica Chastain’s quotes — and her involvement in revving up the discourse about All The Money In The World, and the appalling fact of how little Williams got paid for reshoots compared with Mark Wahlberg — to Michelle discussing seeking advice from an activist she met through #TimesUp:
[S]he called her new friend, activist Mónica Ramírez, co-founder of the National Farmworker Women’s Alliance and head of the National Latina Equal Pay Day Campaign, whom she had gotten to know during the planning for the Golden Globes, to help coach her. They spoke on the phone, Williams says, “on breaks from work, after our kids went to bed, and before they woke up in the morning.”
After each call with WME, Williams would notice that her hands were shaking. “But I would think about what Mónica had told me. That if it was hard to negotiate on my own behalf, I should imagine myself negotiating for her. Or for my daughter.”
Oh, and she also got Surprise Married, which was announced in concert with the story coming out. She had declined to speak to the interviewer about her personal life, but then changed her mind before the wedding — which was a few weeks ago — for this reason:
“Obviously I’ve never once in my life talked about a relationship,” she says, “but Phil isn’t anyone else. And that’s worth something. Ultimately the way he loves me is the way I want to live my life on the whole. I work to be free inside of the moment. I parent to let Matilda feel free to be herself, and I am finally loved by someone who makes me feel free.”Williams decided to open up about her relationship, as she did about her income, on the chance that other women might find hope or instruction in her story. “I don’t really want to talk about any of it,” she says. “But there’s that tease, that lure, that’s like, What if this helps somebody? What if somebody who has always journeyed in this way, who has struggled as much as I struggled, and looked as much as I looked, finds something that helps them?” In the end, she says, what she’s learned is simple: “Don’t settle. Don’t settle for something that feels like a prison, or is hard, or hurts you,” she says. “If it doesn’t feel like love, it’s not love.”
Sniffle. The whole thing is a lovely little package about someone who wants to do good, and do it well, and who is rootable.
There is a weird little moment where Michelle and the writer talk about how great it is that the profile won’t fetishize her appearance, or what she’s wearing, or what she eats while they talk, as so often happens — but right before that, there’s a moment where the writer notes that Michelle woke up that morning fretting about her skin, editorializing, “like most women.” The writer is a woman, so she may have related and decided to come at it from a See, Michelle is all of us! point of view, but… I don’t wake up most mornings fretting about my skin, because there is more going on in my life than my face, and I’ll wager I am not the only one. It felt a little reductive? It’s an awkward little step back in an otherwise nice piece that’s well worth a read.