For decades, Hollywood liberals have tussled with the Far Right over what’s the acceptable role of celebrities and other public figures when commenting on politics. Conservatives point out the hypocrisy of actors and musicians who claim to espouse “progressive” ideals – but who then turn right around and violate those ideals. Sean Penn making racial slurs about Latin Americans. Vivica Fox trying to exclude gay men from her company’s strip shows. Gwyneth Paltrow whining about how hard it is to be a working parent in Entertainment Industry. Or pretty much anything that comes out of Dan Savage’s mouth!
And, predictably, many of these same sharpshooters who take aim at “Liberal Hollywood” seem to have no problem with the verbal diarrhea of Bill O’Reilly, Erin Burnett, Jesse Watters, Brian Kilmeade, or Sean Hannity
These long-brewing tensions came to a head on Jan. 8, when actress Meryl Streep gave her headline-grabbing Lifetime Achievement Award speech at the 74th Annual Golden Globe Awards. She began her prewritten remarks by joking how Hollywood, immigrants, and the press were currently the three most vilified segments of the population – so, for that reason, she was proud to receive accolades from the Hollywood Foreign Press.
Get it? Hollywood! Foreigners! The Press! Teehee.
Streep broadly praised her Hollywood colleagues who come from a variety of diverse backgrounds – a statement with which I happen to agree. But the venerated actress then spent the remainder of her nearly-six-minute monologue taking veiled potshots at Donald Trump. She passive-aggressively referred to Trump’s inanity over birth certificates, deportation, and bullying. Her emphasis was punctuated by a not-so-subtle reference to Trump having mocked the disability of reporter Serge Kovaleski – how it broke her heart, and haunts her to this day.
And what was her call-to-action? Streep implored the free press to call out Trump’s lies and utilize its First Amendment rights. She then asked the rest of us to consider donating to the Committee to Protect Journalists, as they will supposedly be our last line of defense against the Trump regime. Yes, the very same journalists who gave Donald Trump all of the free publicity and copious airtime that led to his ascendancy in the first place.
My problem was not that Meryl Streep chose to speak out against Trump. I have no problem with celebrities sharing passionate beliefs in public spaces – as long as they are informed, purposeful, and communicate an effective message.
The problem I had with Streep’s speech was how it ended up being totally redundant. She spent a majority of her time on-stage giving Hollywood a hearty pat on the back while taking implicit digs at Trump without actually mentioning him by name. It came off as rather pompous. But, more significantly: Streep brought nothing new to the table. Her speech essentially boiled down to “Trump is a bully” (as if we all didn’t already realize that). “So let’s put our faith in journalists to stop him.” (or, maybe if those journalists had actually been doing their jobs, we wouldn’t have ended up stuck with him?)
When I posted an expanded soliloquy on my own Facebook wall – expressing my dubious reaction to the Meryl Streep speech – the backlash I received was savage. Many people agreed with me. But just as many others proceeded to give me a nice little tongue-lashing. Oh, how dare I criticize the content of Meryl Streep’s speech! I’m trying to control what she says or doesn’t say! I’m being “whiny” because I didn’t approve of what she said! I’m an enemy of free speech! I don’t support a democratic society! “Oh, at least she’s saying SOMETHING.” (yet, if the messenger overshadows the message, then how effective is that actual message?)
And, a few days later, when I posted an original op-ed I’d written about saving the world’s food supply…not one peep from anyone in that same peanut gallery. So I guess people don’t really care about clean water and healthy food…but I utter one mildly critical breath about Meryl Streep, and they’re all over me.
I didn’t back down. And I still won’t. Let’s be clear: I never said that Streep – or anyone else in Hollywood – should remain silent about their political beliefs. What I’m saying is that I feel she squandered an opportunity, here. Streep could have interwoven any one or two additional items into her speech, out of a laundry list of other topics that have been neglected by the mainstream media. Standing Rock. Potential fraud from electronic voting machines. TSA abuses. Climate change. The Pentagon turning a blind eye to rape and sexual assault. Pollution and degradation of our public water supply. Potential privatization of Medicare. Food insecurity and agricultural diversification. The public safety net. “Court-packing” from the Far Right. Water shortages. Outsourcing. Citizens United and the prevalence of dark money in political campaigns. Our society’s propensity to demonize the working poor.
And she didn’t have to get “wonky” about any of these issues, either. Streep is a creative mind. She could have worked in references to some of those issues in an organic way that flowed well within the context of her overall speech.
Instead, Streep chose to state the obvious. She wasted a visible platform, as one of the most recognizable and admired voices within the Hollywood community. What’s even more bothersome to me is the fact that she had ample time to prepare her speech beforehand, seeing how she knew she’d be receiving the award. It wasn’t as though Streep was suddenly trying to figure out what to say, off-the-cuff, after just finding out she’d won a category. On top of that, Streep herself has engaged in plentiful activism during her own career: she founded Mothers and Others, an environmental group that raises awareness of chemicals and toxins in food. She also has a passion for sustainability, using geothermal power to cool and heat her Connecticut home. But you wouldn’t have known that just from listening to her controlled rant against Trump.
Meryl Streep is only one example of the perceived snobbery and tone-deafness that right-wingers allege comes out of “Liberal Hollywood.” Weeks later, Saturday Night Live writer Katie Rich came under fire after tweeting about Donald Trump’s ten-year-old son, on Inauguration Day: “Barron will be this country’s first homeschool shooter.”
Although Rich took down her offensive tweet and apologized almost immediately, she violated the most cardinal common sense rule-of-thumb in politics: any politician is fair game, especially once they’ve been elected to office – but leave their kids alone! For her transgression, NBC suspended Rich indefinitely. I’ll be surprised if she ever works in Hollywood, again.
Just one day after the Katie Rich fiasco, pop/rock singer Madonna made a series of fiery comments at the Jan. 21 Women’s March in Washington D.C. From atop her literal podium, Madonna opined how she has “thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House.” Moments later, she amended her statement to clarify that she knows such a literal act wouldn’t actually fix the problem, and that there are much more proactive ways in which we, as society, can respond.
But the damage was already done. Although, in later interviews, Madonna attempted to write off her rhetoric as being a metaphor, “Flyover Country” wasn’t buying it. One conservative pundit after another pointed to Madonna as Exhibit A when making the case that Hollywoodians are “elitists,” grossly out-of-touch with “the average American,” and completely unreasonable in terms of any willingness to give Trump a chance.
In the months since his inauguration, Trump has found himself as the target of many other actors’ and musicians’ understandable ire. Some have engaged in questionable methods when expressing themselves. Earlier this month, rapper Snoop Dogg released a music video, which, at one point, showcases him shooting a Donald Trump doll while dressed like a clown. Biting back against the entertainer in his bombastic way, President Trump insinuated that Snoop Dogg was being given a free pass on this behavior due to Snoop Dogg’s race. Meanwhile, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) expressed “concern” that it could inspire some nutcase out there to actually carry out an assassination.
During a January interview, comedienne Chelsea Handler had glibly remarked how she wouldn’t even consider interviewing Melania Trump because, according to Handler, the Slovenian-born First Lady “can barely speak English.” Handler herself may have just been posturing for cheap laughs. But there was also some implicit hypocrisy beneath Handler’s words: if she had made those same comments about a Democratic politician’s foreign-born spouse, would we be so forgiving of her?
One thing I find very telling is that a parallel Red State / Blue State divide regularly exposed its ugly fangs during George W. Bush’s presidency. However, in hindsight, we tend to forget that (or minimize its historical significance) due to how mild-mannered and homespun Bush’s own personality is when compared to Trump’s. Remember all of the heat that the Dixie Chicks took when lead singer Natalie Maines criticized then-President Bush during a March 2003 concert? Or, a year later, when The Aladdin (now Planet Hollywood Hotel & Casino) in Las Vegas booted Linda Ronstadt from its venue after she’d praised the documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 by filmmaker Michael Moore while she was on-stage? Security personnel promptly escorted the multi-genre singer off the property, putting the kibosh on all of her future performances there.
Other celebrities may find themselves in a Lose/Lose scenario. Host/comedian Steve Harvey met with President-elect Trump, shortly before the inauguration, to discuss strategies for affordable housing and urban issues. Harvey was asked by both the Obama and Trump camps to do this during the presidential transition period; however, upon being photographed and videotaped emerging from the meeting, Harvey almost immediately received massive Internet backlash. It probably didn’t help that, just several weeks earlier, Harvey had also been caught making a racial slur against Asian males.
More than a month earlier, heartthrob actor Leonardo DiCaprio also engaged President-elect Trump in a meeting to discuss climate change. His own nonprofit, The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, had been striving to link economic growth and infrastructure investments to sustainability and opening new markets for green jobs. Again, while many who oppose Trump were riled up over the notion that the young actor would even give Trump the time of day, DiCaprio responded to them by pointing out how climate change transcends partisan lines. It’s an issue, he said, that he would have lobbied any U.S. President to discuss – regardless of that president’s ideology or party affiliation.
Rather than accusing celebrities of collaborating with the Left or the Right, we must look at the context of the sentiments each of them chooses to express. When Brothers & Sisters lead actress Sally Field used her September 2007 acceptance speech at the 59th Primetime Emmy Awards to speak out against the Iraq War, any spectator could see that she was visibly flustered amid knowing she had less than two minutes to spit out her words. Field ultimately recovered from her tongue-tied hiccup, declaring how there would be no “goddamned wars” if mothers ruled the world. Fox Broadcasting Company censored that part of Sally Field’s speech by using a time delay to cut it out; but once the uncensored version went viral, that genie was out of its bottle.
I’m not saying that Sally Field single-handedly mobilized Americans to oppose the Iraq War. Obviously, millions of Americans had been protesting the war for the past four years, at that point in time. But it doesn’t change the reality of how Field used her bully pulpit (however haphazardly) to send our public officials a very heartfelt wake-up call about a very real and timely conflict.
In more recent years, other celebrities have utilized their platforms at award shows to employ the Sally Field approach of making noise and getting specific – as opposed to the Meryl Streep approach of eking out their rage in broad strokes or coded platitudes.
At the 23rd Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards on Jan. 29, Mahershala Ali spent his two-and-a-half minutes emphasizing the importance of the big and small screens when translating human persecution into a vivid moving picture. Ali highlighted how his own character from Moonlight encouraged others to persevere in the face of adversity by accepting themselves. He tied that up nicely by articulating how we have the choice of using our differences to either celebrate uniqueness or superficially pull people apart.
At the June 2016 Black Entertainment Television Awards, Grey’s Anatomy costar Jesse Williams used his humanitarian award acceptance speech as an opportunity to remind us that bringing unspoken history (especially as it relates to behind-the-scenes players who were never household names) to the surface has enabled our society to appreciate contributions from people of color, community activists, and civil rights attorneys – while resisting systemic oppression. Williams, in less than five minutes, managed to deliver a comprehensive message in a manner that Streep took an entire six minutes to only dip her toe into. He packed in references to Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and Darrien Hunt, as well as imploring us to direct criticism at the oppressors rather than the oppressed. Williams finished it off by referencing the cultural racism of “whiteness” for profit and corporatism, and alluded to the cultural appropriation from Hollywood’s own earliest days.
When accepting her 2017 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress at the 89th Annual Academy Awards, Viola Davis gave her own three-and-a-half-minute speech where she praised the art of storytelling on behalf of those who’ve died and built human history – including the untold stories of those who never got to realize the worlds they’d hoped to create. She folded into this message a shout-out to the late playwright August Wilson, while also recognizing the other producers and actors from Fences along with members of her family and friends who taught her compassion, love, and creativity. Two years earlier, at the 67th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, Davis had concentrated another message into a two-minute timeframe…stressing the need for women of color and diverse content within Hollywood’s collective tapestry. She name-dropped examples of ten different artists who’d helped to redefine the image of black women in film and television.
Writing for Ebony magazine, Tonja Renée Stidhum takes issue with commentators who refer to Davis as “the black Meryl Streep.” Such an act, according to Stidhum, diminishes Davis’s own distinct accomplishments and only advances the stigma of “othering” people of color. She exposes another unspoken reality: aside from their differing racial backgrounds while growing up, Streep also enjoyed immense class privilege to which Davis herself never had access.
Actor/musician John Legend, in a National Public Radio interview from February, acknowledged having ruffled feathers earlier this year when he called Donald Trump an “asshole” and a “shithead” while chatting with paparazzi on the red carpet. But in Legend’s eyes, the solution is very simple: if someone doesn’t agree with his views or political positions, they can decline to follow him on social media or avoid listening to his music. If fans hold every celebrity to that standard, he adds, then people will very quickly see their music and DVD collections dwindle. Legend believes the reason why Hollywood is generally more liberal than other segments of society is because people from all different walks of life gravitate toward the Entertainment and Music Industries out of an intense desire to express themselves. In a separate Newsweek interview, he clarifies that artists often speak out because they care; some of his own efforts in this vein have included holding concerts and benefits for Hurricane Katrina victims, supporting The Earth Institute, and engaging people in the fight against poverty. Legend doesn’t just pay lip service to helping others in need; he’s been actively involved with Teach For America and The Education Equality Project.
George Clooney is another actor who has used his proverbial bullhorn to call out Donald Trump – in Clooney’s case, he did it to challenge Trump for exploiting fear worldwide. He believes it’s hypocritical for Trump supporters to decry so-called “Hollywood elitism” when Trump himself is the epitome of a Hollywood elitist. Although Clooney has long sided with liberals through being outspoken against the Iraq War and as an ally to LGBT people, he also works tirelessly to raise both money and awareness for a wide range of causes: poverty, cancer, famine, humane treatment of animals, nonviolent activism, AIDS research, disability rights, kidney research, and diabetes. Some of his pet projects include co-founding the Not On Our Watch Project to forge positive relations between the U.S. and other members of the international community, as well as working with the Satellite Sentinel Project to confront atrocities in Darfur.
At the Jan. 30 Screen Actors Guild Awards, Scandal star Kerry Washington wore a safety pin as a symbolic gesture of solidarity with groups that are still marginalized and disenfranchised. After being criticized for her gesture, she admitted that we all must indeed do more than just wearing safety pins. But she does: Washington is a supporter of both GLSEN and the Entertainment Industry Foundation (the latter of which supports a national network of charities that fund cancer research). She’s an ardent supporter of bringing greater self-esteem and self-worth to women and girls through inspirational organizations such as Step Up, 10×10, and V-Day.
Progressive actress Susan Sarandon has been accused of enabling Donald Trump based on her past support for “anti-establishment” candidates such as Ralph Nader, Bernie Sanders, and Jill Stein (the latter two of which led her into a notorious Twitter war with Debra Messing). Sarandon went above and beyond merely opposing the Iraq War during the Bush Administration…she got out there and joined the protestors who exposed Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s anti-worker agenda. She also speaks out about issues that are often “uncool” for even Hollywood celebrities to delve into: capital punishment, transgender rights, and the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Another lightning rod for right-wing fury has been Ashley Judd. Last month, the Divergent star was quoted as saying that living under Trump’s presidency feels worse than her own traumatic experience having been raped as a child. Judd alleged that a Trump supporter baited and intimidated her at a recent NCAA basketball game after requesting a photograph. Conservatives seem to love holding her up as a pariah for “limousine liberalism,” but they would be wise to take note of Judd’s extensive humanitarian work fighting AIDS in Africa and Asia while working to solve the problems of female inequality and poverty.
One of the most popular celebrities in the country, NCIS costar Pauley Perrette, is also one of the least partisan Hollywoodians whom you’ll find when it comes to activism. Yet, she even waded into the fray on Twitter in late-January, accusing Trump of having a god complex due to his travel bans. To challenge the stigma against celebrity outspokenness, Perrette points to having toiled in multiple working-class jobs herself before she finally found success; throughout her life, she attained three different educational degrees (in Sociology, Psychology, and Criminal Justice). She reminds her critics that celebrities deal with tragic deaths in their lives, too – and many have Republican family members (such as her own father) whom they love…even when they don’t see eye-to-eye on things.
Perrette additionally emphasizes that a lack of compassion for others isn’t in line with her personal subscription to Christianity, nor does it mesh with her view of a loving omnipotent deity. Prior to Trump’s victory, Perrette boasted a phenomenal track record of her own: working with America’s Most Wanted to raise money for the families of murder victims Shannon Paulk and Tammy Vincent; her philanthropic efforts on behalf of Hurricane Katrina victims and animal rescue endeavors; and even putting her engagement with fiancé Thomas Arklie on hold until marriage equality became legal in all fifty states.
Empire star Jussie Smollett wrote and starred in a music video this month where he integrated multiple hot-button issues – including election integrity, the Flint Water crisis, the Standing Rock standoff, and bathroom usage by transgender people – into a passionate musical narrative. Smollett cites, as his motivation for producing this piece, a desire to break out of the habit of only standing up for those things that directly affect us as individuals. If we’re going to end the cycles of oppression, he says, we cannot let fascism spread throughout our society.
Many of these actors would praise Meryl Streep’s speech, and, indeed, many of them have! That’s not the point. My request is that we each dissect and examine the specific message that every public figure chooses to deliver, regardless of the venue. We must also realize that not every celebrity has the time or resources to be involved with umpteen different active endeavors – but, for me, the dialogue from those who do invest their time and energy in purposeful causes holds a lot more weight than the ones who shoot their mouths off. What has Meryl Streep – or many others who emulate her rhetoric – actually done in the past three months to significantly advance such altruistic goals?
Even if Donald Trump goes to prison tomorrow – and then Mike Pence dies of a heart attack, the day after that – there will still be civil unrest in the United States. There will still be institutional problems and gross inequalities throughout people’s lives. The damage was done a long time ago. Trump has been a major catalyst for waking people up – but our chances for prosperity won’t live or die based solely on his mere existence.
So don’t pigeonhole all celebrities into the same amoeba-like cluster. Jussie Smollett would have made a groundbreaking music video regardless of whether Meryl Streep gave a catty anti-Trump speech. George Clooney will keep on supporting philanthropic causes regardless of whether Katie Rich had put her neofeminist foot in her mouth. And Kerry Washington is sure to continue promoting healthy female empowerment regardless of whether Madonna decides to invest in nine-hundred tons of dynamite
Individual celebrities – just like individual politicians – need to be praised, or, alternately, called out, for their own specific words and actions. Not turned into virtual voodoo dolls solely based on their field of occupation.
Featured image by Melanie McDermott via Flickr.