Five academic-types watch an award show and cultural commentary ensues
Back row, left to right: Activist Tarana Burke, Michelle Williams, America Ferrera, Jessica Chastain, Amy Poehler, Meryl Streep, and Kerry Washington; front row, left to right: Natalie Portman, activist Ai-jen Poo, and activist Saru Jayaraman. Image credit: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images
Stevie Seibert Desjarlais (SSD): Dear reader, I tell you that 2018 has had a rough start (depending on what U.S. map you look at, you probably have the flu, are frozen, or both). Last Sunday evening found me barely recovering from a lingering virus but eager to observe the televised gala that was the 75th annual Golden Globe Awards. As a consumer and scholar of pop culture, it was both pleasure and research to take in the headline-generating spectacle that this year’s show offered. Since consuming pop culture is frequently--and, in my opinion, most enjoyably--done in the company of others, I started a group chat with my esteemed friends and colleagues: Emily Dowdle (ED), Katie McWain (KM), Katie Henson (KH), and Ilana Masad (IM). What follows is a snapshot of our dialogue, complete with interruptions and lapses, including reproduced text conversations and screenshots interspersed. Some editing has been done for clarity, context provided for our situational comments (in italics), and afterthoughts added for the sake of (maybe) saying something. This dialogue revolves around a key question that was literally front and center at the 2018 Golden Globes: what can we learn (or unlearn) from celebrity feminism and awards show activism, especially during an era of greater "accountability" for sexual misconduct and gender discrimination in the workplace?
Sunday, 6:14 PM
During a red carpet, pre-show attendees of the event are interviewed as they enter the venue. As is typical for these types of award shows, fashion choices drive the conversations as much as the cultural products and performances up for recognition. Most notable about the red carpet for the 75th annual Golden Globes was that a large majority of attendees participated in a collective protest by wearing black. The blackout was lead by several Hollywood folks who also created accompanying social media campaigns: #WhyWeWearBlack and #TimesUp. Organizers of this protest and movement also started a legal fund in an effort to instigate broader change in industries where women with fewer economic resources can seek justice. As the image above illustrates, many celebrity attendees brought social activists as their guests to the award show.
ED: I just went on a whole thing about it
Feels like a very empty gesture in order to save face. Like a mission statement without any backing action.
SSD: I like that all these rich folks are starting a legal fund for the less rich. Seems like that might be a lasting gesture?
But yeah, Franco isn’t the only one playing both sides tonight.
KM: I have it on in the background and I agree that wearing black (or even a pin) is an incredibly easy move that doesn’t make anyone accountable for their actions. Debra Messing calling out E! for gender pay disparity was great though
I love her
ED: She plays a closeted bougie lesbian on SMILF I guess!??
How have I not heard of this show??
ED: It looks good! It’s got that hot podcast advertising!
KH: Hot pod advertising
IM: I don’t get the sweater. Like. Poverty is also racist? Very?
KM: Yeah I am also flummoxed by both the sweater and Carson Daly’s career trajectory.
SSD: I guess I was also curious to see if anyone would NOT wear black or a pin. You know, those assholes.
SSD: I don’t think celebrity activists are the worst, but I think they often reinvent the wheel rather than taking their lead from existing movements and folks who’ve had hands on the Work since the beginning. Still. Better that they use their platform and voice and money for these meaningful issues than utter apathy.
Plus I resent being told to buy something to partake in any “movement”
Tarana Burke on the red carpet! Nice!
Seth Meyers, this year’s Golden Globe host, peppered his opening monologue with jokes pointed directly at the “remaining gentlemen” of the industry who have been outed as chronic sexual harassers, including jabs at Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey.
KM: SETH MEYERS IS SAVAGE
I am loving it
While Meyers did a schtick from his late night show where he asks others to deliver punchlines that would not resonate as much if he gave them (as a cis-het-white-male), comedian Amy Pohler clapped back by calling attention to the fact that he was still a man in a position of power as host. Fast forward in Meyers’s monologue to the 9:15 mark to see Pohler tell him that she does not need his help with a punchline.
SSD: In the days following the Golden Globes, there has been plenty of commentary both congratulating the showing of support for women and critiquing the many facets of protest (or lack thereof). For me there is a bit of a parallel between the discussions circling around the performance of protest at the Golden Globes and critical theory: the separation between talk and action. Theory without practice fails to fully grapple with ongoing lived experience within systemic power differentials. One may be able to speak on the ideals of liberation, but what one does in the face of ongoing oppression cannot be jettisoned from the thinking process. This harkens back to Watershed’s powerful semester-long attention to praxis--theory and practice--in the fall (that was so artfully encapsulated by Katie McWain’s post here).
ED: I think the most striking backlash has been to both the win of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri for best picture (which is a whole other thing) and the Gary Oldman win for best actor. Gary Oldman, for those who are not constantly online mainlining celebrity gossip, allegedly abused his wife in 2001 and also wishes he could call Nancy Pelosi a “c*nt.” And yet, there Oldman appeared, clad in all black with his “Time’s Up” pin proudly shown. Oldman’s win, the lauding of James Franco (subject of some very cryptic Ally Sheedy tweets, and prolific writer of relationships between 14-year-old girls and grown men), and the overall ease for men to slip into the costume of esteemed ally to women and their causes is demonstrative of the tension between performance and practice for public figures. I’m often torn between expecting nothing from celebrities and expecting everything from celebrities, and I think most people are in the same place. How do we reconcile our love for the ~A*R*T*S~ with our moral understanding and criticisms of capitalism and exploitation (maybe that’s just me). I want all the men I love to be good, I would love love love to find out that JK Simmons reads bell hooks, Emma Goldman, Sarah Schulman and has a thoughtful understanding of the ties that entangle capital, race, gender, sexuality and the complex culture of celebrity that he exists within. Alas, the man whose beautiful butt is bared in a prison drama where he portrays a neo-Nazi is probably not, as the kids would say, woke.
Back in the group chat again… Thursday 7:13am
KM: I HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR HIM TO GET CALLED OUT FOR YEARS.
ED: You and me both
IM: Seriously. About time. And he had the nerve to wear that damned pin at the golden globes.
KM: So here’s a question for you smart women… I remember reading Franco’s short story collection, and there was one story that detailed a gang rape and was SO graphic and disturbing--and haunts me to this day--that I always wondered if he was writing from personal experience or interest or some twisted fantasy. Is that fair?? Can I judge an author for his gratuitous depiction of sexual violence, even if it’s “fiction”?
IM: Hmm. That’s tricky. I think that you get to judge him based on whatever you want, really, but also I worry about the slope that takes us down in terms of literary analysis. Like, Woody Allen’s diaries and notes are full of fantasies about younger women apparently but that’s not what I care about - a person’s fantasies are one thing, but it’s the fact that he has molested younger women and sexually assaulted and coerced them, that I care about. Same with Franco. I don’t really care about gets him off privately. It’s what he’s acted on and how he’s treated women that matters. You know?
KM: Absolutely. And of course I don’t want to shame anyone for their sexual fantasies… BUT… I think I will always wonder if there is a correlation between what problematic men like Franco write about and the way they actually treat women. Even if that’s not fair!
IM: Absolutely, I agree! They don’t really deserve fair in the public eye anymore.
KH: I think the text can be misogynist without having to be based in his own experiences, if that makes sense? Like I still eyeroll at famous men’s work if it can’t imagine women fully but I try to give writers the benefit of the doubt when it comes to whether or not something is fiction. But I would ask what purpose gang rape serves in a story--to me, that kind of extreme violence has to be wielded with great care, and no offense to Franco, but his writing is just not skillful enough for me to trust him handling that kind of material. Like I read those short stories in Esquire or GQ or whatever and they were baaaaaaaaaaaaaaad
KM: YES!!! It was misogynistic in its own right and completely lacked any nuance that would allow the reader to engage carefully and productively with a story like that. Instead it just felt cheap and voyeuristic. Very well-said.
Final Thoughts… But certainly not the end of our ongoing group chat
SSD: In Feminism and Pop Culture, culture critic and feminist scholar Andi Zeisler describes the tension most likely at work in the Golden Globes protest: “Pop culture has always been about commerce, and feminism and pop culture will always be uneasy bedfellows in a larger culture that remains conflicted (to say the very least) about how much power, agency, and autonomy women should have” (15). On one hand, there have been a lot of misgivings about such a public display of protest, with some concerns stemming from the top-down structure of privileged women speaking on behalf of women who experience far more political and economic subjugation. Some concerns have grown out of the obvious hypocrisies of ally support offered by those who have documented track records of acting totally opposite to ideals of women’s liberation.
However, in spite of--or because of--these ongoing conversations, the performance of protest at the Golden Globes has staying power. Because of its mainstream appeal, celebrity-driven causes have the potential to gain visibility and momentum for women’s issues, unlike traditional grassroots political movements. (Arguably these are not always entirely separate, but celebrity manifestations are not necessarily one and the same with the populace.) As Zeisler points out:
From the start of the modern women’s liberation movement (not to be confused with the so-called first wave of feminism, or the suffrage movement), its most successful members understood that activism doesn’t happen in a vacuum and that in order to make change, it’s often necessary to put idealism in the most understandable context. For many people, that context is the popular culture that’s consumed as entertainment. So, it’s probably no accident that some of the highest profile actions of the second wave [feminist] movement involved popular culture. There was the 1968 protest in Atlantic City of the Miss America Pageant; a 1970 sit-in at the offices of prescriptive women’s magazine Ladies’ Home Journal; a “nude-in” held at Grinnell College in 1969 to protest a speech by a representative of Playboy. Each of these demonstrations made the case that pop culture matters, and that dismantling such pop products--or remaking them to reflect real women’s lives--was an imperative part of women’s liberation. (9, 12)
For better or worse, the celebrity women who spoke out against sexual harassment at the 75th annual Golden Globes have spurred on a national conversation that appears to have fueled a fire, lengthening a cultural moment where those in power are being held accountable for their transgressions.
Perhaps the potential of the #metoo movement is that it has the accessibility necessary to bridge the differences of women’s lives. In her essay “Bad Feminist,” cultural critic and all-around badass Roxane Gay writes, “My favorite definition of a feminist is one offered by Su, an Australian woman who, when interviewed for Kathy Bail’s 1996 anthology DIY Feminism, described them simply as ‘women who don’t want to be treated like shit'” (88). Really, when each of the evening gown-clad actresses took the stage and said “time’s up,” weren’t they effectively saying: Stop treating women like shit? And this rallying cry applies beyond industry, beyond race, beyond class, beyond cis-gender status, and beyond nationality. Lena Waithe, the first black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series, demonstrated the expansiveness of “time’s up” on the Golden Globe red carpet during an interview with Good Morning America’s Lara Spencer, saying: “Time’s up on sexual harassment. Time’s up on homophobia. Time’s up on transphobia. Time’s up on racism. Time’s up on all of it.”
As a woman in academia, I couldn't agree more. As a participant in a group of strong, theoretically-minded women, each of us attempting to grapple with a celebrity feminism that often seems far removed from our day-to-day political and economic experiences, I offer our collective voice: Time's up, for all of us. It's not just a red carpet issue or a Hollywood issue; sexism and harrassment have infiltrated our workplace, our personal lives, our headspace. Time's up on thinking academia doesn't have any work to do in addressing these pressing concerns.
Works Cited by SSD:
Gay, Roxane. “Bad Feminist.” Virginia Quarterly Review, vol. 88, no. 4, 2012, pp. 88-95.
Zeisler, Andi. Feminism and Pop Culture. Seal, 2008.