I have not trusted a celebrity activist since 2014, when I read the headline ‘Angelina Jolie and William Hague tackle Bosnia war rapes’.
They didn’t really tackle Bosnia war rapes — that is still pending — but Hague got to meet Jolie and Jolie got to meet the Queen and collect a damehood for the activism ‘I wish to dedicate my working life to’. It was a classic example of what the writer Paul Theroux calls ‘mythomania’, a condition that afflicts celebrity activists ‘who wish to convince the world of their worth’.
The obvious rebuttal is that such campaigning ‘raises awareness’. Victims of war rape are not interesting enough on their own, and need Angelina Jolie, who specialises in silly films where the cameras never leave her face, to make them so. But in the end, after the media campaign and the great stampede to meet her, it’s awareness of Angelina that’s mostly raised.
That seems a more innocent time. In 2018 there is #MeToo, the campaign to end sexual abuse of women, and its celebrity spin-off Time’s Up, which is preparing for the Academy Awards on Sunday. To quote my favourite film about Hollywood, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, which says, with complete conviction, that all actresses are mad — #MeToo is ready for its close-up.
Political speeches at the Oscars used to be derided. Vanessa Redgrave, whose documentary The Palestinian was boycotted by the Jewish Defence League, accepted her award for Julia in 1978 by congratulating the Academy for refusing ‘to be intimidated by the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums’. Paddy Chayefsky, who wrote Network, responded on stage: ‘I’m sick and tired of people exploiting the occasion of the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal political propaganda. I would like to suggest to Miss Redgrave that her winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation, and a simple thank you would have sufficed.’
He could not say that now, even though, as the producers of the Academy Awards hint, celebrity activists are a turn-off for viewers, who know vanity when they see it. The Golden Globes lost 5 per cent of its viewers from last year.
Channing Dungey, representing the Oscars broadcasters, said: ‘We certainly want to honour and respect Time’s Up… But I would love for every award recipient to not feel like they have to acknowledge it independently.’ That feels like a desperate plea.
But it’s #TooLate. Now every celebrity is an activist — or in rehab — and this awards season is the most active so far. The 2018 Oscars will be a vanity fair of Instagrammable feminism. They are calling it atonement for Weinstein, but crimes against females do not need to be channelled, or retold, or stolen, by actors. They are bad, and important enough, on their own.
Jordan Peele, nominated for Best Director for Get Out, said last week: ‘Today’s political climate… is facing and moving backward. It’s up to the artistic community to move it forward.’ Is it though?
At the Golden Globes, actresses walked the red carpet with activists, as if they were pets. Why not just abolish the red carpet, which exists to objectify women? If you want to stop sexism in cinema, shouldn’t you care less what women look like? But they seemed more glossy than ever. I wondered why an activist would even want to go to the Golden Globes, but apparently I was being stupid. I also wondered whether the actresses were standing in solidarity with the activists, as they told us, or in front of them.
Oprah Winfrey gave a speech at the Golden Globes, and was promptly asked to run for president. The calls were led by Meryl Streep. Is Hollywood’s cure for political alienation really Oprah Winfrey? The entertainment industry’s newly discovered interest in social justice ceases to look like good citizenship. It looks like a power grab by crazy people who are finding cinema increasingly too small for them and whose deepest beliefs are closer to feudal piety, and the laying on of hands, than genuinely progressive politics.
Actresses can do feminism, but they do it in their own way, and it is not the best way. The film Suffragette (2015) had a female director, a female writer and female producers. It also had Carey Mulligan as the most beautiful laundress in the history of female misery.
She was adequate, but why couldn’t the suffragette in Suffragette be an ugly — or at least a normal-looking — woman? Because, the female producers would say (if they were being honest), no one would want to watch it. So it’s not the producers’ fault, but us, the consumers. I disagree.
Cinema is a drug. Give people junk, and they want junk; stick Emma Goldman in an Avengers film and maybe I would be impressed, or at least hopeful. You can be anything you want to be in Hollywood now. But you can’t be ugly. The admittance of the activists as special guest stars being ushered on to the carpet at the Golden Globes is proof of that. They literally had to bus ugly people in. And that is not equality, or even a reach for it. It is another hierarchy, and all hierarchies have walls. There is the inequality of gender, and there is the inequality of class and, on class, they are silent.
Jennifer Lawrence’s advocacy for #MeToo didn’t stop her posing semi-topless in a couture gown with men wearing coats. Female columnists said she can wear what she wants, and indeed she can, but you should not agitate against sexual objectification while semi-topless, and if you do, you are either a fool or you don’t mean it.
Feminism has been heading this way for a long time: away from serious people using politics to make meaningful changes in women’s lives, to an accessory for women who are already powerful. Cinema is a trivial game, and the interventions of its stars are trivial. And so the movement — the cause — becomes trivial. If everyone is a feminist then no one is. It takes more than a pin to be a sister.