According to a study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, film criticism is a field overwhelmingly dominated by (surprise, surprise) white men. Not anymore. In Refinery29's series, Writing Critics' Wrongs, our woman movie critic will give fresh consideration to the movies we love, hate, or love to hate. It's time for a rewrite.
Megan Fox was filming her latest movie, Rogue, in South Africa when she saw herself on TV. A previous performance of hers— she prefers not to specify which one — that had been eviscerated by critics was playing on one of the local channels, and against all her better instincts, she decided to watch.
“This is not that bad,” she remembered thinking. “This isn’t Scorsese or a Francis Ford Coppola masterpiece, but it’s not bad. I’m not bad in it.”
The fact that this could very well apply to pretty much any Megan Fox movie is telling. Critics, audiences, and even the media have not been kind to her. She’s been dismissed as a sex symbol, a bad actress, and an airhead. Her attempts to advocate for herself were often met with scorn and derision by the very institutions who kept her in check. And yet, in the past couple of years, Fox has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance. Her now-cult performance in Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body has found a new audience in young women who appreciate the social critique of patriarchy and sexualization that had been mismarketed to teenage boys as sex appeal at the time of the film’s 2008 release. Her treatment at the hands of late night hosts like Jimmy Kimmel, who recently came under fire for some cringe-worthy jokes he made at her expense, is being reexamined. And finally, her fan-favourite relationship with Machine Gun Kelly has put her back in headlines in a more positive way.
Still, for Fox, the damage of the negative scrutiny that characterized her early career runs deep. “I started getting really angry,” she told Refinery29 over the phone about the night she was confronted with her performance in the aforementioned film. "I was like, Fuck that, why did I live for a decade thinking that I was shit at something when I was actually pretty decent at it? That led to this realization that I’d been in a self-imposed prison for so much of my life.”
Rogue, filmed before that fateful realization, is nonetheless an important piece of the puzzle. As an action film directed by M.J. Bassett, it straddles the two phases of Megan Fox’s life: her early days as an action star too often used as a prop for the male gaze, and her future as a woman taking charge of her own destiny. As Samantha O’Hara, the hardened leader of a team of mercenaries hired to rescue hostages in the African desert, she’s a far cry from Mikaela Banes, the short-short sporting heroine of Michael Bay’s Transformers, which catapulted her into the public eye.
Basset wrote the movie as a passion project with her daughter Isabel, and as a way to get out a message about the importance of conservation. While Rogue may start out as a film about a search and rescue, it quickly takes a turn when Samantha and her team find themselves stranded in the middle of nowhere, forced to fend off a very angry and determined lioness.
“[I wanted] to make Megan credible, rather than this sex object that’s she so frequently used for by male filmmakers,” Bassett said. “I said, There’s no romance in here, you’re not wearing skimpy T-shirts or short-shorts. You’re carrying full battle rattle, and I’m going to expect you to get dirty and bruised. She was quite excited by that, to be honest.”
As a trans woman, Bassett said she empathized with Fox’s struggle to carve out her identity in a male-dominated industry, and even wrote that feeling into her character. “I perceived a change in Megan as we shot in these tough conditions. I hope we made her see herself differently,” she said. “At the heart of the narrative is the notion that a lioness is doing exactly what she has to do to protect the things that are most important to her.”
With this film, Fox is doing just that. “I’m not living my life with fear anymore,” she said. “I’m changing everything that’s not right and moving forward with passion and confidence, and living with excitement for my life.”
Ahead, Fox looks back on her image and career, and offers advice for young women coming up in Hollywood.
Refinery29: Recently, a lot of people have been reexamining your career, and the way you were treated as a young star. Is that gratifying, or does it feel like too little, too late?
Megan Fox: “I think there’s always a little bit of that of course. At the time, I would have appreciated some support; I was just stranded in open water on my own for so long. However, that built up so much strength. To have to go through a challenge like that, the resiliency that I have and the ability to survive really negative things with no support from outside forces made me a better person. So, I don’t regret it. Of course I look back and think — it would have been nice if any of you had seen this at that time that there was a bandwagon of absolute toxicity being spewed at me for years. But I appreciate the reversal of it. The culture is changing and society is changing, and a movie like [Rogue] now has a place to shine and be appreciated.”
Do you have any regrets?
“Why did I let myself get shit on for something I knew wasn’t true? Why did I succumb to that? When you tell someone that they’re not good at something or that they’re deficient, they can absorb that and it can become their reality, and create a life that reflects that negative shit that you spoke about them! We have to be careful with our words — they’re powerful. That’s something I wish most people would understand. We live in a culture where it’s a game to be the most hateful to get the most attention. It’s not funny. You’re speaking words over real people, who are permeable, who have hearts. Your negativity can influence them. Especially the sensitive ones! I’ll call myself one of them. We’re the ones who are influenced by your negativity because we’re so open. I’m not closed off. Those things affect me really deeply.”
Has realizing all of this changed what kind of roles you gravitate towards?
“I don’t have to change how I look for roles. My vibration changed, so the roles that are coming to me are different. I sent out into the universe that I transcended to a new stage, so now all the scripts that are coming in for me are more elevated. They are different; they carry more gravity. I’m excited about that. I feel really comfortable with the space I’m in right now.”
“Why did I let myself get shit on for something I knew wasn’t true? Why did I succumb to that?"
What was the experience of working with M.J. Bassett like? Do you find that shooting action is different from a woman’s perspective?
“I don’t find that to be the case. Women who are directing at this level in Hollywood have really had to go through some shit to get where they are. MJ is really tough. I love her shooting style, everything is real, to the realest degree we can get away with. That makes it challenging and exciting. She’s also a really good actor’s director, where she wants to really sit with you and help you get to the place where you need to get to. She cuts really deep in a good way. But I don’t think there’s a difference in terms of gender when you’re doing action movies.”
Do you think that if you were to come into the industry today, you’d have more control over your own image?
“I don’t know. Because of social media, people have more control. They can put their own narrative out on their own pages, which I didn’t have. But outside of your own social media, today still, it does lie in the hands of the journalists. If we go back through my Rolling Stone interviews and anything I did for Vanity Fair — any of these big publications — I was always an eloquent speaker, I was always a thoughtful person, I had things to say. I wasn’t shallow, I wasn’t vapid, I wasn’t vain, I was none of those things, and still the image was manipulated by the people who were putting out the soundbites. To a degree, that’s still the same. There’s so much media, there’s so much news, constantly people are being bombarded with it. Who sits and reads an entire interview? People get their news off Twitter, and that’s all they know about that one thing. I would have to be really active on my own social media to be able to control my image.”
What I keep coming back to is whether people perceive things differently now. If that interview you gave about Michael Bay in Wonderland in which you described him as “a nightmare to work with,” came out today, do you think people might be more receptive to what you had to say?
“It’s tricky because yes, people are more receptive to the topic. But even how I was speaking about it then, the quote in its entirety, it was almost too flippant. Somehow, I would have been villainized in the telling of that story even today. I wasn’t telling it in a way where I was like, Look, I’ve been wounded by this and I need you to hear it. It was more like, This happens on-set, and I followed it up by saying he’s actually so charming outside of set, which I would also have been crucified for, because it’s like, why are you defending somebody that we perceive as abusing you? It’s a very complicated thing if we’re dealing with just what I said in that interview. I don’t know that it would hold up well. The idea yes, but I would have had to approach it and deliver it in a different way. Everybody’s looking for a reason to be offended. I would have pissed off a bunch of people [no matter what].”
"You cannot be on social media all the time, checking your likes and your comments. You have to trust in what you’re doing, and in your purpose, and move forward."
But could you have approached it in a different way? I feel like the thinking back then was that you were lucky to be in those movies. You were taking a huge risk by speaking out at all.
“That was how it was perceived. A publication wrote about me after that and said, Megan Fox should be thanking Michael Bay because otherwise she would be modeling for motorcycles and doing pornography. That was the response. I don’t think somebody would say that today, because people are more aware of how they speak, but it was savage. It was hard to live through some of that, honestly.”
What advice would you give to young women entering the industry today?
“[Laughs] It’s so tricky because I question what is the industry anymore? Everybody with an Instagram page is a celebrity. Back during the Transformers craze, there were only a handful of actors. Hollywood was small. Now, you go to a GQ Man of the Year party and there’s thousands of people there, I don’t even know who they are — they’re all influencers or have some kind of Instagram following, so now they’re famous. My advice, which is not great advice because it goes against what everyone else will tell you, is: you have to be removed to a certain degree. You cannot be on social media all the time, checking your likes and your comments. You have to trust in what you’re doing, and in your purpose, and move forward. You cannot be scrolling and go, Oh, people don’t like this, or, They don’t like this hair color, and then mold yourself to fit what a small group of people who have ever-changing opinions think about you. Don’t let that shit guide you. That’s not a north star. That’s the devil. “
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
"Rogue" will be available on VOD and virtual theaters August 28.