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How Margot Robbie Escaped The “Bombshell Trap”

Margot Robbie broke into the film industry as a bombshell – arguably, the bombshell of the 2010s era. Yet Robbie has somehow managed the impossible: sidestepping the bombshell trap that has long plagued Hollywood beauties from Marilyn Monroe to Megan Fox.

TRANSCRIPT

Margot Robbie: “I’ve [laughs] I always want to be better at my job.” - Margot Robbie on Good Morning America

Margot Robbie broke into the film industry as a bombshell — arguably, the bombshell of the 2010s era.

Host: “The Marilyn Monroe, the Grace Kelly of the modern era, the blonde bombshell of our times, [Robbie laughs] a Disney princess sprung to life.” - TV Host reading descriptions of Robbie in an interview

Yet Robbie has somehow managed the impossible: sidestepping the bombshell trap. Long plaguing Hollywood beauties from Marilyn Monroe to Megan Fox, the “bombshell trap” is essentially that actresses who get branded as bombshells enjoy a fast rise to extreme fame, but quickly find themselves pigeonholed and limited in their career options.

Megan Fox: “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being sexy, it’s just the problem that that part was so loud that it muted out the rest of who I was.” - Fox on Entertainment Tonight

But while Robbie’s looks launched her profile, that aspect of her hasn’t overshadowed her ability to shape her future and creative identity. So, how did she do it?

Robbie’s always managed to bring something extra to her early characters who fit the classic bombshell mold, but she became a master of her own destiny and widened the range of roles available to her by developing not just as an actor but as a producer. In 2014, she co-founded LuckyChap entertainment, which would go on to produce 2017’s I Tonya – whose starring role (a counter to the glamorous bombshell type) earned Robbie an Oscar nomination. Robbie’s also taken on numerous parts that own her looks but deconstruct or complicate our expectations of bombshells.

Now, LuckyChap is behind the Greta Gerwig directed Barbie, which star Robbie says will defy expectations and be “the thing you didn’t know you wanted.” Robbie’s success in breaking out of the “bombshell trap” closely mirrors a key shift in how female film professionals are being viewed since MeToo. Here’s our take on how Margot Robbie escaped the bombshell trap, and how she’s a signal and instigator of (hopefully lasting) progress in women obtaining the agency to dictate the shapes of their careers.

A Bombshell Takes Agency

Megan Fox: “We’re packaged and sold as sex.” - Fox on ABC News

The typical bombshell role emphasizes her beauty above all, and views her at a distance through an audience surrogate’s eyes, rather than as the point of view character with a fleshed-out inner life. Ever since her mainstream debut in Transformers, Megan Fox (the iconic signature bombshell of the 00s) has been a notorious victim of the bombshell trap, typecast in “hot” roles where her primary purpose is to “just be sexy,” as Fox famously said was director Michael Bay’s acting advice to her.

Robbie started off playing an archetypal blonde bombshell. Like an early Megan Fox character, at first, a Margot Robbie character was typically noticed primarily for her sex appeal. After roles on Australian soap Neighbors and the retro stewardess drama Pan AM, both of which certainly played on her beauty,

Miss Havemeyer: That’s quite a picture.”

Laura Cameron: “Thank you. Uh, I have a bit of a–”

Havemeyer: “Over a million copies sold.”

Cameron: “Oh I didn’t pose for it, I was only leaving the building.” - Pan Am 1x1

Her breakout came as Jordan Belfort’s second wife Naomi in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Magnetic Naomi is Jordan’s prize – the trophy that affirms what a rich and important man he is (described in Terence Winter’s screenplay as “the hottest blonde ever”). The role ties into a longer legacy of blonde bombshells in Scorsese’s work who are idealized, cinematic creations with undeniable charm and appeal – but mainly used as symbols of something the male character’s striving for and can’t quite possess. We see Naomi through Jordan’s eyes as a tantalizing sex object.

Naomi Lapaglia: “Mommy is just so sick and tired of wearing panties. But no touching.” - The Wolf of Wall Street

And when Jordan’s successful life falls apart, Naomi (who’s been hinted to be there for Jordan’s money) quickly leaves. It’s pretty easy to imagine why she’s lost all respect for him by this point but we don’t get much of a window into her interiority in this decision process.

Robbie’s roles immediately following The Wolf of Wall Street, likewise, had one thing in common – they were hot. Again like a classic Megan Fox character, an early Margot Robbie character always finds her looks commented on by the other characters in the story. So her beauty (and how her character responds to being “the beautiful one”) in part defines her.

Kim Baker: “What are you here, like a 15?”

Tanya Vanderpoel: “Yeah.”- Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

The main emphasis on Robbie’s character starring opposite Will Smith in Focus is her appearance. And the marketing of 2016’s Suicide Squad, again opposite Smith, leaned heavily on the sex appeal of Robbie’s Harley Quinn.

Still, even in all these explicitly “sexy” characters, Robbie’s performances found ways to bring depth and charisma going beyond the traditional, objectified purpose of the bombshell. As Lynn Hirschberg wrote for W Magazine in 2014, Naomi “could have been a walking cliché, but Robbie gave Naomi sharp edges beneath the smooth, lacquered exterior; she was not only fantastic-looking, but also canny and self-protective.”

Naomi Lapaglia: “That was the last time.”

Jordan Belfort: “What do you mean, baby?”

Lapaglia: “I mean that was the last time we ever have sex.” - The Wolf of Wall Street

Suicide Squad played up Harley Quinn’s role (and gave her a follow-up movie) because she was so winning to audience, projecting power, quirkiness, humor and infectious confidence along with all that sex appeal. And after The Wolf of Wall Street and Focus, Robbie consciously chose roles which contradicted the bombshell stereotype, like Jane Porter in The Legend of Tarzan.

She’s strategically combined big-budget mainstream movies that give her a global profile with more self-determined, smaller or independent projects that display her acting range and win critical praise. Most importantly, Robbie took control of her destiny through becoming a producer, taking ownership over making the projects she wanted materialize (knowing others likely wouldn’t offer her departures from the stereotypical bombshell role which would really transform or complicate her image).

By 2014, Robbie had developed enough industry clout to co-found her own production company, LuckyChap Entertainment, with her now-husband Tom Ackerlay as well as friends Josey McNamara and Sophie Kerr. In 2017, just as the MeToo movement was shifting so much of our dialogue around female characters, Robbie’s producing work also came to fruition with her against-type starring role as Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding in I, Tonya a black comedy that draws out the class conflict in how the media of the 90s treated patrician Nancy Kerrigan versus scrappy, working class Tonya.

Taking on this role, as Anne Helen Petersen points out, meant that Robbie had to “get ugly.” While this appearance-based transformation was what the media focused on at first, Robbie’s performance earned her Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, while her co-star Allison Janney won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.

Interviewer: “What’s been the most rewarding project thus far in your career?”

Margot Robbie: “I, Tonya.”

Interviewer: “Why?”

Robbie: “Because I got to be a part of all the aspects of making that film.” - 73 Questions with Margot Robbie

A Bombshell Takes Over Her Image

Robbie was lauded as an “overnight sensation” in the wake of The Wolf of Wall Street, but in reality, that level of fame came after years of work and strategic planning. In the LA Times, Robbie refuted claims of her instant success, saying, “I feel so fortunate that everything worked out according to plan. But it definitely was a plan.” Robbie also recognized that after The Wolf of Wall Street, she needed to redefine her image to break away from a stereotypical bombshell archetype. Robbie told The Hollywood Reporter, “I knew I needed to adjust people’s perception of me right then, because otherwise I was just going to be given [this one kind of thing].”

After The Wolf of Wall Street, Robbie was almost worshipped by journalists and media coverage – but most of it gushed over how gorgeous she looked and her sexual magnetism in the film.

Host: “Young, talented, genetically blessed. Margot Robbie has Hollywood at her feet.” - Interview with Margot Robbie

Her beauty was described as an otherworldly and almost destructive force: Photographer Bill Viola likened her to a “siren,” describing her as “an alluring goddess who might delight or destroy.” An LA Times review of the film said she was “deployed as sexual napalm.” In 2016, Robbie topped FHM’s Sexiest Women in the World List, and Rich Cohen’s bizarre Vanity Fair piece “Welcome to the Summer of Margot Robbie” wrote lines like “She is 26 and beautiful, not in that otherworldly, catwalk way but in a minor knock-around key, a blue mood, a slow dance… She can be sexy and composed even while naked but only in character.”

But the wider mood at that point was already changing, as evidenced by widespread backlash to the Vanity Fair piece – which actually surprised Robbie. And from there, public dialogue about Robbie noticeably transformed. It’s telling that the very next year, in 2017, she was featured in Forbes 30 Under 30 named as one of Time’s 100 most influential people in the world. In the wake of I, Tonya and LuckyChap’s success, articles focused more on her role as a producer.

Margot Robbie: “It’s so rewarding, I’m sure you find as well, but it’s also so hard and I never really gave producers the credit that they probably deserve.” - Variety Studio’s Actors on Actors

Her magazine covers shifted from bikini pictures to close-up headshots. Robbie’s Architectural Digest video, which usually tours celebrity homes, instead takes place at her office, LuckyChap’s headquarters. And in addition to being one of the highest-paid actresses in 2019, that year The Hollywood Reporter named her as one of the 100 most powerful people in entertainment, including her again in 2021 as one of entertainment’s 100 most influential women.

When The Wolf of Wall Street director Scorsese wrote her profile in the Time 100 feature, he compared her not to past bombshells but saw precedents for her in “the comedic genius of Carole Lombard, for her all-bets-off feistiness; Joan Crawford, for her grounded, hardscrabble toughness; Ida Lupino, for her emotional daring.”

Part of how Robbie orchestrated this shift was due to the strategic way she performed her public persona. The actor has always played the good sport, unruffled and laughing along in many interviews where someone discusses her looks in front of her.

Host: “Seemingly computer generated perfection of young womanhood.”

Margot Robbie: “Wow.”

Host: “Not bad, huh?”

Robbie: “Well they clearly haven’t met me in person.” - Margot Robbie and a host during an interview

But she’s also always been smart in her public appearances about defying expectations of the blonde bombshell as sweet, coy or deferential. And she’s regularly poked fun at herself and her looks, like in a parody video with Vogue of her American Psycho-esque beauty routine.

Scorsese wrote in Time that she has “a unique audacity that surprises and challenges and just burns like a brand into every character she plays. She clinched her part in The Wolf of Wall Street during our first meeting—by hauling off and giving Leonardo DiCaprio a thunderclap of a slap on the face, an improvisation that stunned us all.” By projecting confidence, asserting her wit and humor, and giving off an unintimidated aura of equality with the much older, established icons she’s working with, Robbie rejects our typical assumptions about the bombshell as someone who’s just embodying sex and will lose our interest if she diverges from a limited fantasy or doesn’t act “grateful” enough to the people who “gave” her a career (something Megan Fox was accused of after she criticized Michael Bay).

And at every turn, Robbie’s acting and producing choices since 2017 have all served to show the world that she’s more than a bombshell, or that the bombshell isn’t the limited person people assumed. The class aspect of I, Tonya also underlined how Robbie has often brought down-to-earth characteristics to her characters – channeling something of her own humble roots on the Gold Coast of Australia.

Margot Robbie: “I had snakes like literally in my house growing up.” - Robbie being interviewed by Chris Pratt

As Anne Helen Petersen writes for Buzzfeed News, “Most people saw the ‘real’ Robbie as overlapping with her characters: a working-class kid who used her beauty to help her make it big.” In The Wolf of Wall Street and Focus, each Robbie character is acutely aware of her beauty as a resource to be used in a world where she’s economically vulnerable. Since I, Tonya, Robbie has moved away from only playing traditionally beautiful roles in other examples like Mary Queen of Scots, which is focused on her characters’ personal story rather than her sex appeal. But she’s also taken a number of roles that embrace the bombshell image yet treat it with complexity, or include a level of dissection and critique.

In 2019’s Bombshell, Robbie’s character Kayla begins as a classic ingenue who receives attention for her looks – but when she finds herself the target of sexual harassment, the result is a window into how the larger culture that existed under Roger Ailes at Fox News may have made an individual young woman feel.

Kayla Pospisil: “I did it. I gave it to him.”-“[sobbing] I feel so filthy.”

Jess Carr: “No. Kayla. You didn’t do anything wrong.” - Bombshell (2019)

While Suicide Squad’s Harley Quinn was clearly a superhot male fantasy, without a lot of character development beyond Harley’s classic devotion to the Joker, in Birds of Prey – which Robbie produced under LuckyChap as part of a first-look deal with Warner Brothers – we see Harley away from the Joker.

Harley Quinn: “A Harlequin’s nothing without a master. And no one gives two f***s who we are beyond that.” - Birds of Prey

Harley is paired with a team of other women, and many even noticed the differences in Harley’s costuming in the two films. In Suicide Squad, she’s calculatingly presented to ooze sex appeal, whereas in Birds of Prey, her fashion feels more designed with a female audience in mind and as if it’s stemming from her character’s own wacky mind.

In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Robbie resurrects the iconic sex symbol Sharon Tate. And while critics pointed out she has little dialogue and is used as a symbol, the character still has subversive elements: the plot is undoing Tate’s horrific murder, presenting her as a normal, happy, healthy human and removing the salacious elements of Tate’s story that have long been exploited. Even in The Big Short where Robbie appears for a sexy cameo in a bathtub, it’s to explain the confusing, make-your-eyes-glaze-over topics of shorting and subprime loans – using her bombshell reputation for a good (and funny) cause.

Most interesting is Robbie’s taking on the role of Barbie, a project that promises to dig deeper into the iconic doll’s impact, which is more complicated than we tend to remember today when you consider that (before Barbie) the most popular toys marketed to girls were baby dolls emphasizing only the paths of domesticity and motherhood. The bombshell doll has long shared Robbie’s focus on career:

Amy Richards: “Barbie was a wildly revolutionary toy, Barbie became things real women hadn’t become.” - Tiny Shoulders: Rethinking Barbie

As the Barbie website points out, Barbie has “more than 200 careers on her resume,” “first broke the “plastic ceiling” in the 1960s when she went to the moon…four years before Neil Armstrong,” was a surgeon in the 70s, a “Day to Night” CEO Barbie in the 80s and “in the 1990’s, she ran for President, before any female candidate ever made it onto the presidential ballot.” So especially under Gerwig’s direction, this promises to be Robbie’s most complicated bombshell role yet.

Reshaping Hollywood

Robbie’s trajectory has also reflected the larger climate, and she’s skillfully tapped into a growing shift in Hollywood, which after the #MeToo movement has made (some) steps toward prioritizing more complex female-centered and female-created stories.

The actor-to-producer path has traditionally been reserved for white male stars, like George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Jake Gyllenhaal. While some female stars of the 1990s and 2000s – like Sandra Bullock, Julia Roberts, and Drew Barrymore – did manage to create their own production companies, they were still largely limited to producing films that they starred in. And compared to recent actresses-turned-producers, like Reese Witherspoon, Charlize Theron, or Viola Davis, Robbie is relatively young. It often took star actresses of earlier generations many painstaking years and bold choices before they “earned” the right to be “taken seriously” and got their pick of interesting roles (let alone got a seat at the table as creative producers).

As well as signaling larger change, Robbie’s LuckyChap is making it, through projects that aren’t just limited to Robbie’s own star vehicles. The company is also uplifting other female voices in front of and behind the camera.

Interviewer: “Who’s a voice in Hollywood that people should be listening to?”

Robbie: “Women. All of them.” - 73 Questions with Margot Robbie

LuckyChap has produced Emerald Fennell’s award-winning Promising Young Woman, the popular Netflix series adaptation of Stephanie Land’s Maid, and Hulu’s Dollface – all projects that center female stories and dig deeper into female perspectives on modern society. LuckyChap is also producing Boston Strangler, starring Kiera Knightly as the journalist who broke the story of the Boston Strangler and thereby confronted sexist attitudes of her time. And they’re developing Yorgos Lanthimos’ adaptation of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation and a reboot to the cult classic Tank Girl, as well as Gerwig’s take on Barbie. Meanwhile, Robbie and Birds of Prey writer Christina Hodson partnered up to launch the Lucky Exports Pitch Program, which selected six female screenwriters to pitch their projects for eventual production.

Today, others are increasingly using a similar model to get more daring and interesting material made. In 2017, Kaley Cuoco founded Yes, Norman Productions, which developed The Flight Attendant, starring Cuoco as a very messy bombshell character with fascinating complexity.

Conclusion

Above all, Robbie proves the priceless value of agency, and how taking control into your own hands will get you many multiples further than waiting for someone else to offer you the right opportunity. As a younger actress during a period of intense change within the entertainment industry, Robbie has modeled how female actors can avoid being defined by their looks, and how women in any field don’t have to accept the supposed rules of what’s available to them. And she’s supported her ideals by creating concrete opportunities for other, up-and-coming film professionals.

Notably, Robbie has managed to be “taken seriously” as both an actress and producer without toning down her looks. By continuing to play all kinds of roles while winning as a producer, she’s helping to break down the stereotype that women have to choose between being serious and smart, or being sexy. Margot Robbie may look like a bombshell – but she’s sending the message that she, and all women, are so much more than that.