rethinking (celebrity) allyship
As last year wrapped up, Emma Watson was named Feminist Celebrity of 2014 by Ms. Foundation For Women, in partnership with Cosmopolitan.com. With her UN speech last fall, she added her name to a growing list of celebrities who have either declared themselves feminists, had some kind of feminist epiphany, or have said something tangentially related to women’s rights.
While I’d like to believe this is emblematic of something good – acknowledgement of a movement that is still relevant and powerful – I’m skeptical. Not because I doubt their conviction. I think many people in Hollywood would acknowledge the injustices of the world whether they stood to benefit or not. I’m skeptical because performative allyship was on equal display in 2014.
Wildly successful strangers who adopt our politics (whatever they might be) are showered with praise. It’s not hard to see why: their platform and popularity means validation, in a small way. And given the invidious reaction to feminism in the general public, these statements carry extra weight. Still, titles like Feminist Celebrity are superficial.
Before getting excited about famous people embracing feminism, we need to challenge the kind of support that announces itself in interviews yet falls flat where it counts and when no one is watching.
On 26 October, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation announced it was ‘ending its relationship’ with Jian Ghomeshi. Within hours the Toronto Star published an investigation by freelancer Jesse Brown. Three women claimed the former radio host harassed and sexually assaulted them. Brown spoke to the women in the spring, but, explained the Star’s editor, the paper held off on publishing the story. It wasn’t until after Ghomeshi responded to the CBC’s announcement with a long and detailed Facebook post (since deleted) that the allegations went to print.
Ghomeshi was not leaving his employers on amicable terms – not by a long shot.
Since then, more than a dozen women have accused the once-celebrated media star of sexually assaulting them. Six women have pressed charges. Two have gone public with their names though they haven’t filed official complaints. A former producer for Q with Jian Ghomeshi (now simply, Q) Kathryn Borel wrote about her experience there for The Guardian.
Anne Kingston’s November Maclean’s profile was one of many pieces that attempted to understand how Ghomeshi managed to climb so high and fall so far in the eyes of his progressive fans. It detailed his time on student council at York University where he minored in Women’s Studies, and aimed to be – in the words of one source – ‘a champion of women’s issues.’
‘I feel duped,’ I told a friend only a week before Ghomeshi surrendered to police.
I went to the courthouse in downtown Toronto on 26 November, 2014. Ghomeshi was charged with four counts of sexual assault and one count overcoming resistance by choking before being released on $100,000 bail, ordered to surrender his passport and live with his mother.
Ghomeshi emerged from an elevator on the lower floor to the kind of media scrum I’d only ever seen on television. Standing between his lawyers, Ghomeshi made his way, robotically, through the flashes, shouts and jostling from former industry peers.
A year earlier I’d been front row at a live taping of Q. This spring I attended an event he hosted, Canada Reads. Relaxed, professional and unfazed by the attention around him, the Ghomeshi being hounded by journalists and onlookers seemed like a shell of the radio host I saw in his element at CBC headquarters.
It’s been as swift and dramatic a fall from grace as can be imagined in the Canadian media landscape. As far as Canadian media personalities go, Jian Ghomeshi was an A-lister. It was his proximity to Hollywood (he’d interviewed everyone from Angela Davis to Christopher Plummer) and his age. At 47, Ghomeshi represented a younger face of an old institution. He was also the child of Iranian immigrants, a fact that made him instantly relatable to his demographic.
The allegations are shocking but I wondered, later, if they should have been surprising. Ghomeshi’s opening essays (not written by him) and guests (pre-interviewed) and views skewed left. And while his lineup of famous interviewees included rock stars, cultural zeitgeists, movie stars and famed directors, there were activists and writers too.
As his persona is dissected and the workings of ‘Q’ exposed, it’s become clearer that he was, more than anything else, a great performer.
The rumors about Bill Cosby, like Ghomeshi, were considered open secrets. The allegations didn’t come out of nowhere; they just came all at once and with real consequences. But Cosby has been the quintessential TV dad in America for decades.
The Cosby Show was important, too, for the image of black people on television and black families. I don’t remember Bill Cosby, the standup comedian. I do remember Dr. Heathcliffe Huxtable, the tough but fair father of five. The Huxtables epitomised black excellence on television at a time when family shows were entirely white. Bill Cosby became a large and respected part of black entertainment, which is why so many – despite, as Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, his black conservatism and years of respectability politicking – couldn’t reconcile the allegations with the man on their TV screens.
In her essay for Vanity Fair, former model Beverly Johnson accused the comedian of drugging and sexually assaulting her in the ’80s. She writes, ‘As I thought of going public with what follows, a voice in my head kept whispering, “Black men have enough enemies out there already, they certainly don’t need someone like you, an African American with a familiar face and a famous name, fanning the flames.”’
How sad that a victim of sexual assault should have to carry the burden of her rapist’s reputation. Even sadder that Cosby’s portrayal of a successful black man and father was so precious that, even after more than 20 accusations (at the time of writing), many will still find a reason to defend him.
As we roll into January 2015, Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting has added her name to a different list, telling Redbook that she doesn’t consider herself a feminist since (among other reasons) she enjoys cooking for her husband. Predictably, she’s responded to criticism with an “apology”. Anti-feminist statements from celebrities were once annoying. Now they’re PR emergencies.
Challenging pop culture figures to address social justice might be refreshing but I’ll withhold my respect for the newly reformed and vocal. That’s not to say I’m waiting for Watson, Beyoncé, John Legend, or Taylor Swift to screw up, nor do I think a misstep is proof of insincerity. Most often, it’s proof of learning and that’s much harder to do under scrutiny. There is, after all, no such thing as a perfect activist.
2014 might have been the year that celebrities were nudged into making their stance on social issues clear. In 2015, let’s save our admiration for the people we know and grassroots community leaders we don’t. It’s okay not to settle for mere acknowledgement.