— Golden Globe Awards (@goldenglobes) January 8, 2018
I was once a young progressive on the internet, eager to position myself as Most Left with every hot take. I confidently dismissed everything as neoliberal faux-activism, not truly progressive, and certainly never good enough. It’s not difficult to do this, as these days political movements and activism, more broadly, have been co-opted by capitalist forces in many ways, and often what passes as “activism” or even as “political” is little more than narcissism, individualism, marketing, or fashion. That said, it is possible to take these critiques too far, to hunt for ways to destroy rather than to build, and too many young progressives online have learned that s/he who attacks first and most vehemently will be rewarded, regardless of the validity of the critique.
To be clear, I believe celebrity culture is a bad thing. I do not believe in turning wealthy celebrities into political leaders or political activists for no reason other than the fact they are visible, attractive, and famous. Most of these individuals are unqualified and unsuited for these positions. But I also don’t believe that every time a person who qualifies as a “celebrity” speaks, she is necessarily insincere or deserves to be dismissed. Within feminism, in particular, all women matter. Even the rich ones, even the actresses, even Oprah. Actually, especially Oprah.
On Sunday night at the Golden Globes — an evening undoubtedly usurped by female solidarity — Oprah Winfrey, media mogul, philanthropist, actress, talk show host, and yes, billionaire, was honoured with the Cecil B. DeMille Award for “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment.” She is the first black woman to receive the award. A long of list people I don’t find particularly interesting or important, but who are viewed as very interesting and important due to their ability to succeed in Hollywood, have been recipients of the Cecil B. DeMille Award over the past 75 years. I say this not as an insult to these individuals, most of whom I know little about (with the exception of Woody Allen, who deserves all the insults we can muster), but because I don’t generally find actors to be very interesting. In general, they are overly made up, very small, orange-tinted narcissists with plastic surgery that has become normalized on screen but looks creepy in real life. In general, these people are not people who tend to offer particularly brilliant or informed cultural, social, or political insights. Oprah, on the other hand, is interesting and important. Both as a woman and as a recipient of this particular award.
Oprah is not simply “a celebrity.” She is not just “a rich woman.” She is not a figurehead or a phony. Oprah, lest we forget, was born dirt poor to a teenage mother, and grew up in the inner city. She suffered sexual and physical abuse at the hands of men. She experienced oppression in the most acute, direct way, as a poor, black, woman, and has struggled with issues familiar to so many of us, as women living in a misogynist culture, as a result — from body image to depression. She is interested in people, in stories, in building a better world, and in the truth.
Her success story is not one I favour, mostly because I don’t believe billionaires should exist, and because I think the American Dream — that is, the notion that if an individual works hard enough, he or she can overcome systemic oppression (which really means, “become wealthy”) — exists as a means to distract people from effecting change that would make a difference in everyone’s lives, not just their own. But Oprah, as a woman, is our sister. And Oprah, as a woman who was presented an award at a ceremony that is generally reserved for celebrations of things that aren’t important, used this opportunity to speak for and highlight the plight of women like her mother, and like her, had she not gone on to become Oprah. In fact, despite her background and struggles, she did not speak about herself at all, but instead spoke about the women American media has historically relegated to the margins.
In her speech, which left so many of us, myself included, teary-eyed, she spoke about Recy Taylor, a black woman who was abducted and raped by six white men in Alabama who were never held to account for their actions. (Not only did these men escape punishment, claiming the rape was “consensual,” but Taylor was harassed and threatened, forced to move as a result.) She reminded us that Rosa Parks was not just a seamstress — too tired to give up her seat to a white man, that white America painted her as because this story was more digestible and comfortable than the truth — but a seasoned activist. (Indeed, Parks was the NAACP worker who became the lead investigator on Taylor’s case, and fought for justice on her behalf.) Oprah spoke about the importance of journalism and a free press. She spoke about the truth. And she spoke about all those women and girls around the world, here and gone, who have not been able to speak up for themselves. Who were not in a position to say, “Me too,” because they could not have done so and survived. Instead of thanking her colleagues in the industry, she said:
“I want tonight to express gratitude to all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue. They’re the women whose names we’ll never know. They are domestic workers and farm workers. They are working in factories and they work in restaurants and they’re in academia, engineering, medicine, and science. They’re part of the world of tech and politics and business. They’re our athletes in the Olympics and they’re our soldiers in the military.”
Oprah reminded the world that #MeToo is about all of us — about all women. There is no job or amount of money in the world that protects women from sexism and male violence, so actually the voices of wealthy actresses do matter in all of this. Importantly, there are millions of women the world doesn’t hear from, and that the world forgets, because they aren’t beautiful and famous. But divide and conquer is not a strategy that will achieve anything for women, as a whole. And women, as a whole, are who we are fighting for. Rape is not more tolerable inside Hollywood than out. And while we can — and must — talk about class and race divisions that make some women’s lives much harder than others’, we need not abandon anyone in the process.
Too many self-righteous leftists have dismissed the feminist movement throughout history. Women’s issues are never important enough and women’s politics are somehow always derided as misguided — a distraction from the real issues. Unless we are attacking one another, we seem to always be doing it wrong. The right, of course, pushes this narrative as well. Just last month, a Trump-supporting “street artist” put posters of Meryl Streep up around Los Angeles with the words “she knew” on them, in an effort to blame her for Harvey Weinstein’s abuses. Conditioned to choose solidarity with men, women fall too easily and too often into this trap, going after sisters rather than perpetrators.
That the left continues to play this game today is not only disappointing, but counterproductive. Every movement, every action, every woman who speaks is dismissed as too privileged, too rich, too middle class, too educated, too white, too employed, too “cis,” too politically flawed, too pretty, too old, too something — too anything — to speak and to be worth listening to. This case is no different. Time’s Up, which dominated the Golden Globes, saw a number of actresses bring activist women as their “dates,” and speak about sexism on the red carpet instead of designers. This was still, according to many, shallow and purposeless. Despite the focus on working class women (Oprah herself made clear the movement was explicitly intended to go beyond “women of Hollywood,”) Time’s Up was criticized as being “privileged” and not doing enough. The #MeToo movement, which saw thousands upon thousands of women around the world boldly come forward with a truth that had previously been suppressed, ignored, and dismissed — has been written off countless times, by those who apparently can do better (but have yet to offer an alternative as visible or as galvanizing), as being about nothing more than “rich white women.” Oprah — a victim of abuse herself — was immediately subjected to an online smear campaign, as people tut tutted those celebrating her speech by sharing photos of Oprah and Weinstein, intended to make her appear both hypocritical and culpable in the man’s abuse. (As though all of us haven’t been in rooms with, shaken hands with, kissed, loved, been friends with, been neighbours, sisters, daughters, and wives to — and surely been photographed with — rapists.) She has been written off as a neoliberal, a billionaire, and a celebrity. And while she may indeed be these things (don’t get me wrong, these positions and the systems behind them deserve critique), she is also a woman who has suffered as a woman and who has bravely told the truth and used her position to galvanize people.
I don’t want a celebrity-driven, Hollywood-centric movement. I don’t want a movement that fails to address race and class. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want women who are actresses, who have money, or who are “celebrities” to speak out and to declare solidarity with other women. It certainly doesn’t mean I don’t want a woman like Oprah, who is powerful, who has changed lives, and who, on Sunday, used that power to speak about real women and real women’s lives — women who have historically been silenced. This was — and is — an important moment. Not everything needs to be torn apart in order to advertise progressive credibility. Sometimes good things and powerful moments can be celebrated — and this is one of those times.