Hollywood Insularism Takes Aim at Hollywood Feminism
At the Oscars the other night, Natalie Portman wore a cape with names stitched on it of female directors she felt should have been nominated for Best Director. Rose McGowan, the actress and activist, took offense, posting on Facebook (my bolding):
Some thoughts on Natalie Portman and her Oscar ‘protest.’ The kind of protest that gets rave reviews from the mainstream media for its bravery. Brave? No, not by a long shot. More like an actress acting the part of someone who cares. As so many of them do.
I find Portman’s type of activism deeply offensive to those of us who actually do the work. I’m not writing this out of bitterness, I am writing out of disgust.
I just want her and other actresses to walk the walk.
Natalie, you have worked with two female directors in your very long career- one of them was you. You have a production company that has hired exactly one female director- you.
What is it with actresses of your ilk? You ‘A-listers’ (🤮) could change the world if you’d take a stand instead of being the problem. Yes, you, Natalie. You are the problem. Lip service is the problem. Fake support of other women is the problem.
As I wrote in my book Brave, what goes on behind the screen, goes onscreen, goes into the world. And it’s a pervasive sickness that needs its own medicine.
What you do affects the world, Natalie. As does what you do not do.
I am singling you out because you are the latest in a long line of actresses who are acting the part of a woman who cares about other women. Actresses who supposedly stand for women, but in reality do not do much at all. Of course women in the world will keep buying the perfumes you promote, the movies you make, and think they’re buying into who you are. But who are you?
I was at a Women in Film event that you spoke at once, Natalie. You reeled off depressing statistics and then we all went back to our salads. I quickly realized you and the other women speakers (and that joke of an organization) are just… frauds. You say nothing, you do nothing.
There is no law that says you need to hire women, work with women, or support women. By all means, you do you. But I am saying stop pretending you’re some kind of champion for anything other than yourself.
As for me, I’ll be over here raising my voice and fighting for change without any compensation. That is activism.
Until you and your fellow actresses get real, do us all a favor and hang up your embroidered activist cloak, it doesn’t hang right.
While I believe that McGowan’s criticism was well-intentioned (from her perspective), it is, unfortunately, just as shallow as the ‘fashion protest’ she purported to criticize.
Note how McGowan focuses solely on Portman’s lack of hiring or working with female directors as indicative of the heights of Portman’s feminism (or lack thereof). Nowhere does McGowan acknowledge the reality that only Hollywood insiders know about — or care about — the careers of Hollywood directors. Most non-Hollywood insiders can barely name a single director, let alone tell you who directed the films they like.
They key point that McGowan misses, though it’s hiding in plain sight, is that it’s the films people make that contribute positively or negatively to the cultural zeitgeist. The question for stars like Portman, etc. who claim to be feminists should be: “Are your films patriarchal? Are you trying to make non-patriarchal (or less patriarchal) films? Are you using whatever power and influence you have to ensure that the messages you put into the world are empowering to women, men, and children as human beings, and do not commodify them as objects in what bell hooks calls an ‘imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchal’ culture?”
It does not matter whether McGowan has read bell hooks, nor if she cares about intersectional feminist theory. I don’t intend to denounce McGowan in any way. I just want to point out that McGowan’s offense to Portman’s platitudinous protest is itself toothless, the product of a similar Hollywood insularism.
The actress and filmmaker Brit Marling just wrote a much deeper — in fact, stunning — discourse on the future of anti-patriarchal film and TV-making (and storytelling in general) in The New York Times. In it, she avoids coming off as a disgruntled Hollywood insider. She actually considers the effect her work has on real people, not just the handful of female Hollywood directors she may have deliberately or inadvertently not hired or worked with (my bolding):
When we kill women in our stories, we aren’t just annihilating female gendered bodies. We are annihilating the feminine as a force wherever it resides — in women, in men, of the natural world. Because what we really mean when we say we want strong female leads is: “Give me a man but in the body of a woman I still want to see naked.”
But even in the silence I dream of answers. I imagine new structures and mythologies born from the choreography of female bodies, non-gendered bodies, bodies of color, disabled bodies. I imagine excavating my own desires, wants and needs, which I have buried so deeply to meet the desires, wants and needs of men around me that I’m not yet sure how my own desire would power the protagonist of a narrative.
Now, compare Marling’s systemic insight to McGowan’s didacticism: “you have worked with two female directors in your very long career- one of them was you.”
Then again, this isn’t really a fair comparison; an angry and inspired Facebook post can’t be compared to a carefully-thought out New York Times article. But I do hope that future criticism of ‘Hollywood hypocrisy’ will focus more on the products of its work (and how it affects millions of people, including the children, who view it) as opposed to its effect on the handful of people who make it.