Empty Words: The Politics of Performing Change

Anahit Behrooz | January 10, 2018

In an article for The Pool published the week before the 2018 Golden Globes ceremony, film critic Helen O’Hara questioned what a Hollywood awards ceremony would look like in a post-Weinstein world. O’Hara argued that although women only get 27% of the lines in the average Oscar-winning film, this year’s Golden Globes nominee list showed a progression towards a more equal awards ceremony, with numerous women and female-focused films up for consideration. As heartening as this may be, O’Hara did not delve into the question of how the mechanics of an awards ceremony in a post-Weinstein world would work, and what the optics would look like in an industry spending millions of dollars in self-congratulation during the same year that its ugly underbelly has been exposed.

The answer is: both different and exactly the same. Certainly the issues of women and to a lesser extent people of colour and LGBTQ members of the industry were put to the forefront. A campaign entitled Time’s Up, launched the week before and supported by leading women in Hollywood, seeks to counter the systemic sexism and harassment in the industry, and includes a $13 million legal fund for women who might otherwise not be able to afford – both financially and socially – to report and prosecute sexual misconduct. The campaign also encouraged Hollywood women to wear black to the Golden Globes, as a symbolic gesture of defiance. Almost all the women attending, and many of the men, did so. Sexual harassment and the position of women in the industry were the subjects of most red carpet interviews. Numerous women also brought activists as their dates: Meryl Streep came with Ai-Jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and Emma Watson brought Marai Larasi, co-chair of the End Violence Against Women Coalition.

All of this is a movement towards change. But the question is, is it enough? The awards ceremony, and all the others that follow, still exist within the glamourised, commodified, and objectifying machine that is Hollywood. Yes, it is important that these women are making a gesture of protest. But their protest involves the donning of extortionately priced gowns, and the parading of their bodies in a space that even this year judges them on their aesthetic value. Yes, it is important that women’s rights activists are adding to the conversation, but there is nevertheless something uncomfortable about their dependence on privileged white women’s ownership of these spaces, and their secondary position as their “date”. In a moment of painful irony that encapsulates all of these issues, Connie Britton turned up wearing a hand-sewn sweater with “poverty is sexist” embroidered across the front. The cost of this sweater? $380. Once again, a movement that professes to speak for the marginalised is swallowed within an exclusionary, capitalist structure.

Perhaps this is too cynical a reading of what is, at the end of the day, a movement started by women, for women. My fear, however, lies in the often empty, performative quality of these protests, protests built on real anger and a desperate need for change, but which nevertheless exist within the systems that they seek to fight, and thereby perpetuate them. And it is of course not just in Hollywood that this kind of systemic sexism exists. The pervasiveness of such problems in academia is well-documented – feminist critic Sara Ahmed famously resigned from her post at Goldsmiths over the negligence of the institute in addressing issues of sexual harassment, and medieval feminist scholar Dorothy Kim has frequently been the subject of racist and misogynist attack from members of her own community due to her outspoken defiance of white male supremacy within the academy. As the commodification of the university experience continues, and universities transition from institutes of learning to business models, we increasingly allow power to rest with those who benefit from such capitalist, neoliberal systems.

In the face of this, I am forced to ask: what can be done that isn’t ultimately performative, that isn’t a solidarity selfie or a sympathetic retweet. In the aftermath of the #MeToo campaign at my university, at the urging of women in the English Literature department, numerous men grouped together to discuss how they could be part of the conversation and the movement. It was a heartening moment, but one that has also led to frustration as the group struggled to make sense of what they could do. It was a lesson for me at the very least, that just because there’s interest in a cause, it does not mean everyone is on the same page, or that the system still isn’t against you, and it does not mean anything productive will be achieved. My question is a genuine one, for which I currently have no answer. How can we change these movements from performative gestures to real action and effect change? And how can we do this together, across the spectrum of our intersecting identities, without isolating, side-lining, or villainising certain groups?

About Anahit

I’m a third year PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh, by way of Oxford and St Andrews. My research explores representations of cartography and literary geographies in J.R.R. Tolkien’s works. When not in Middle-earth, I’m interested in depictions of the monstrous and supernatural in literature and art, from marginalia to Marvel and everything in between.

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