Sean Penn doesn’t have great form when it comes to standing up for the sisterhood. Following an unnerving number of “yikes” moments over the years, the Hollywood heavyweight’s latest misfire comes in the shape of comments made to The Independent concerning his rather rigid views on gender. “I think that men have, in my view, become quite feminised,” said Penn while promoting his new film, Flag Day. In Penn’s eyes, this is definitely not a good thing. “I have these very strong women in my life who do not take masculinity as a sign of oppression toward them,” continued Penn, coming on like a pumped-up Jordan Peterson fanboy or an incel in a Saint Laurent leather jacket. “There are a lot of, I think, cowardly genes that lead to people surrendering their jeans and putting on a skirt.”
Doubling down on a similar statement made earlier this month (“I don’t think that [in order] to be fair to women, we should become them,” he told The i), Penn seemed to imply that there’s something wrong with the concept of fluidity between traditionally male and female traits. It’s something that smacks of old-school misogyny more suited to the ageing movie star he plays in recent cinema smash Licorice Pizza. In Paul Thomas Anderson’s glossy vintage-styled flick, Penn’s 60-something actor puts his charmless moves onto Alana Haim’s wide-eyed Alana Kane, a 20-something woman young enough to be his daughter, who he assumes is there for little more than his enjoyment. So far, so 1970s, but almost 50 years later, you’d have hoped that the real-life Penn would be a little more enlightened.
Penn’s latest comments are problematic in a whole host of ways, from the suggestion that wearing a skirt is a defining female characteristic – Sean, buddy, I’m literally wearing jeans right now! – to the idea that “surrendering” masculinity equates in any way to cowardliness. What’s wrong with a little ambiguity, Sean? Why not take a little skip across the spectrum between the increasingly dated notions of what is supposed to define women and men? You might even like it.
With his insistence that men are being bullied by feminism into becoming more like women in some kind of fabulous lady-led coup, what Penn fails to consider is that perhaps a little less butchness in the modern man might actually be a good thing. The classically male traits of aggression, assertiveness and the failure to pull together a decent coordinating outfit are all things that could do well to be imbued with the supposedly female attributes of empathy, sensitivity and humility. Less flagrant dick-swinging from our global leaders and maybe the world wouldn’t currently be in such a mess. Just a thought.
That Penn’s comments were made in front of his daughter – 30-year-old Dylan Penn stars alongside her dad in Flag Day and was also part of the interview – adds another layer of ickiness to his position. The fact that Penn is currently being divorced by a woman a year younger than Dylan, 29-year-old Leila George, we’ll just leave here.
Let’s also look at Penn’s less-than-great history with feminism, which includes a 2018 slagging off of #MeToo, which he branded “not intellectually honest” while airing suspicions of unfounded accusations within the movement. The same year also saw the publication of a dodgy poem that defended alleged abusers, including talk show host Charlie Rose, who was fired from his job at CBS after a string of sexual harassment allegations, as well as comedian and public masturbator Louis CK. The poem featured as an epilogue in Penn’s debut novel, the satirical Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff, which scored a whopping 2.1 out of 5 on GoodReads, where the top-rated reader review kicked off with the immortal line: “One of the worst things I have ever seen in my life; and I work as a paramedic.” Rather than offer his support as an ally, like fellow actor George Clooney, Penn’s response to #MeToo was to defend the men who were called out and accuse the movement of being “led by mania”.
But despite all of this, Penn also has a history of using his platform progressively, throwing his weight behind gay marriage in his 2009 Academy Award acceptance speech as well as staging a number of Hemingway-esque attempts at humanitarian aid: helping out with rescue missions in earthquake-hit Haiti and in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. All of which he could have done just as well in a fetching skirt.