#MeToo, Time’s Up, and White Feminism: Issues of Representation and Cultural Change

Emma Stone has encountered a backlash for, in elevating Greta Gerwig as a female nominee and lumping together the male nominees for Best Director in her introduction, effectively minimizing the accomplishments of directors like Jordan Peele and Guillermo del Toro. This moment, as some see it, is an illustration of the divide between “white feminism” and “intersectional feminism.” (Photo Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Emma Stone made headlines at this year’s Oscars telecast when she introduced the nominees for the award for Best Director, saying, “These four men and Greta Gerwig created their own masterpieces this year.” Not merely because she echoed the sentiments of Natalie Portman, who took a shot at the powers-that-be behind the Golden Globes when she uttered the phrase, “And here are the all-male nominees.” While Stone definitely has her share of supporters for “keeping it 100,” as the kids say, there are a number of critics online who voiced their displeasure with her remarks, specifically in light of the notion that Jordan Peele and Guillermo del Toro, also nominated for the award, are people of color.

As these critics would have it, Peele’s and del Toro’s nods are an achievement in their own right, and shouldn’t be diminished by the likes of her. Furthermore, as April Reign, founder of the #OscarsSoWhite movement suggests, not only does Stone’s criticism ring hollow given that she has worked with Woody Allen, an alleged sexual abuser, and played a character of part-Asian descent in Aloha, a roundly-derided example of whitewashing, but her angst is an illustration of white feminism’s failure to appreciate intersectionality. Emma Stone’s elevation of Greta Gerwig, because it occurred at the expense of Jordan Peele and Guillermo del Toro—not to mention Paul Thomas Anderson and Christopher Nolan, two talented directors in their own right—led people to cry foul.

While this moment and stories of Emma Watson’s grammatically incorrect “Time’s Up” tattoo may prompt jeering from those who sneer at Hollywood’s elitist celebrations and limousine liberalism—oh, the perils of missed apostrophes!—the divide that can be identified between “white feminism” and “intersectional feminism” is a concern for #MeToo, Time’s Up, and all movements of a like spirit. Back in January in 2017, when Donald Trump was being sworn in, and women were full-throated in their outrage over how a lying pussy-grabber like him could become President of the United States, Alia Dastagir, culture writer for USA Today, authored a piece concerning the buzz around use of the term intersectional feminism and how it may be defined. Dastagir notes how the Women’s March on Washington, initially organized without much, if any, representation from women of color in leadership roles, helped spark conversations about how white privilege can blind some feminists to other concerns which especially affect women of color.

Intersectional feminism, in seeking to empower all women, strives to account for the differences among women so as to avoid marginalizing certain voices within feminist circles, including differences based on economic status, gender identification (i.e. cisgender or transgender), language, nationality, race, religion, sexuality, and whether or not a feminist can be identified as “radical.” This attention to various distinguishing characteristics, in theory, creates a more complete understanding of the underlying issues facing women in society today. Such that, for instance, a discussion about women breaking through the proverbial glass ceiling or earning equal pay might also include a discussion about raising the minimum wage, or addressing women’s reproductive rights might additionally touch upon the inability of some women to afford abortions or even contraception. Intersectional feminism, therefore, complicates the notion that “the liberation of women means the liberation of all.”

It is through this lens of intersectionality that we may start to more critically view the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements in terms of the big picture, and in saying this, I want to be very delicate with my words and views here. Broadly speaking, I support #MeToo and Time’s Up. That they encourage recognition of the pervasiveness of sexual abuse, harassment, and misconduct, as well as the destructive power these crimes can have on lives and how it is possible for victims to cope with them, notably through sharing their experiences, I believe, is a step forward. That both movements have not only demanded accountability for men who have taken advantage of women in some way, but have yielded real consequences for perpetrators of sexual violence also seems like progress. At the same time, however, and without wishing to appear sexist by invoking criticism, I feel it’s worthwhile to wonder where these initiatives are headed and what their intended purposes are.

First things first, let me speak to the idea thrown around by some high-profile men, notably film director Michael Haneke, that #MeToo et al. are some form of “witch hunt.” While this thinking perhaps bears more credence than Donald Trump’s claim that the investigation into his and his campaign’s dealings with Russia are a witch hunt—if you believe Trump, despite being given every opportunity to succeed, he is the most egregiously persecuted man in the history of the world—framing movements like these along these lines at best undermines the idea that victims should be believed and taken seriously at their word, as well as it belies the low percentage of falsely reported claims of rape and other forms of assault. At worst, it does all of the above and signifies that the person pointing to the irrationality of the angry mob with pitchforks and torches is himself a bad actor. The concept of there being “levels” of sexual misconduct—that not all violations of a sexual nature are created equal—should be similarly and deservedly downplayed. As many observers and experts on these matters have put forth, not every perpetrator is going to be a Harvey Weinstein. Rather, in all probability, they will be more like Al Franken or Louis C.K., ostensible “good guys” who are guilty of misdeeds, even if they don’t involve jail time or even if we like their work. A violation is a violation, no matter the size (I am being serious here, but feel free to conjure innuendo-laden imagery if you desire a humorous aside).

On that last note about how “good guys” can do bad things, even men who are presumably “woke”—a term I usually forgo owing to its ambiguity, if not its blatant disregard for grammatical correctness—one woman’s tale of a date gone wrong with comedian Aziz Ansari created quite a stir when it was published on Babe.net. Prompting its critics to declare that #MeToo had “gone too far” or “run amok,” it depicted an encounter in which the woman felt shocked by Ansari’s aggressive behavior, likening him to a horny teenage boy, a night that he thought was a great time, but that she obviously saw as a nightmare. For some, this is wrong behavior, pure and simple, and Ansari should be admonished for his actions. For others, even those who would identify as feminists and/or socially conscious, though, outing Ansari for something that isn’t a crime, but is related to differences in how men and women may view consent in sexual situations (not that this excuses Ansari, mind you) and something which probably should prompt a larger dialog on the dynamics of sex and male domination, strikes them as excessive, if not sensational or deliberately designed to start controversy. Accordingly, for all the good this cautionary tale might bring about by fostering a conversation, its logistics and naming of names arguably overshadow its merits.

In turn, and speaking to a problem seemingly faced by other activist-led movements concerned with social issues, critics of #MeToo and Time’s Up have suggested that it is not enough to merely name names and wag fingers in condemnation, but to provide a clear path to actionable goals. That is, while stories of sordid acts might entertain us, in the way car accidents may “entertain” us as we rubberneck our way across concrete landscapes, these accounts do not necessarily help us in our bid to reform boardrooms, workplaces, and the like, and need to be more forward-thinking and focused on the victims, as opposed to the due process of and fairness to suspected perpetrators. For all the hoopla about putting Aziz Ansari in the spotlight for poor sexual etiquette, realistically, he is not likely to lose much credibility over the long term (or sleep) in light of what could be recognized as sexual assault (I, not being there, don’t doubt both that Ansari believed the sex was consensual and that the woman believed she was being coerced).

To their credit, people like Tarana Burke who have been instrumental in creating and furthering these movements have identified potential avenues for change, including increased protections for victims, as well as training and vetting of candidates for service, whether in places of worships, schools, workplaces, or anywhere else. This includes Congress, not only as a supposed hotbed of sexual impropriety, but as a place where legislation has been introduced on the subject by Rep. Jackie Speier, and where additional, more far-reaching laws may be approached that more adequately serve the needs of constituents. Still, at a critical moment when change on so many issues seems possible—just look at how the conversation about gun control after the Parkland, FL school shooting has taken on a markedly different tone than it did following, for instance, the Orlando nightclub massacre—and this is not to suggest an onus be thrust on movement leaders, but care must be taken to avoid current and prospective supporters, women and men alike, becoming disenchanted by inaction or feeling alienated as irredeemable obstacles on the path to progress. Lest, at least on the part of the males, they take a cue from the words of Matt Damon and deny any wrongdoing, pushing the truth back into the darkness for fear of what it will do to them and their livelihood.

Returning to the backdrop of the film industry, author Lindy West, in a recent opinion piece for The New York Times, expresses admiration for Academy Award-nominated films like Call Me by Your Name, Get Out, and Lady Bird for challenging the reassertion of “white Christian masculinity as the tentpole of the universe” by Republicans and their ilk, and embraces the resolve and real-world power possessed by supporters of the #MeToo movement. At the same time, though, she insists we as a society need to leverage this newfound influence to address unfinished conversations already begun on related issues. From West’s op-ed:

In the rush of catharsis, it’s important not to lose track of some of those old conceptual conversations, because we never came close to finishing them. We are not done talking about why so many men feel entitled to space, power and other people’s bodies. We are not done talking about our culture’s hostility toward women’s sexual pleasure. We are not done talking about how to get justice for “imperfect” victims, and how to let go of perpetrators we love. We are not done talking about how to decide which abusers deserve a path to redemption, and what that path might look like. We are not done talking about the legal system. We are not done talking about sex. We are not done talking about race.

As we’ve noted, intersectional feminism has something to say about race and the fairness of the legal system on top of other institutions—or lack thereof. Nonetheless, other nuances of the #MeToo/Time’s Up discussion within West’s enumerated list do seem to get lost in the shuffle and kerfuffle of bringing down powerful men. With high-profile political figures like Mike Pence predicting abortion will become illegal in the United States in his lifetime, the sense of entitlement men in power feel to what women do with their bodies is an important area of exploration. Ditto for the double standards that exist for men and women in terms of expression of sexuality, which lends itself to the former being lauded for keeping in mind the biblical mandate to “be fruitful and multiply,” and the latter being called “sluts” and being told to “keep their legs closed.” Meanwhile, on the specific subject of redemption for abusers, while the depth of Harvey Weinstein’s misdeeds and his unrepentant defiance of violating consent would appear to negate any hope for reformation within the sphere of public opinion, for someone like Louis C.K. who admitted his faults and wrongs—albeit after his initial denial of the “rumors”—is the door closed on him as well? Does Aziz Ansari now make for an unwanted advocated for the Time’s Up movement? And how do we regard the work of those like Kevin Spacey or Jeffrey Tambor? That is, can we separate their craft from what they have done or allegedly done in real life, not to mention our enjoyment of it? These are conversations that many might agree are worth having, but don’t seem to be getting their due in light of the focus on specific perpetrators.

As Lindy West says in closing, “Unseating a couple (or a score, or even a generation) of powerful abusers is a start, but it’s not an end, unless we also radically change the power structure that selects their replacements and the shared values that remain even when the movement wanes.” This echoes her own sentiments expressed earlier in the piece that #MeToo can’t just disrupt a broken culture, but become the culture. It’s a goal that will likely take generations to realize, and thus, will need direction and commitment to survive over that duration. For West, that involves making art that reflects the values we seek to promote. For all of us, it requires a shared recognition that gender inequality is a problem which affects us all, and that women’s and men’s voices of all make and model will be needed if we are to advance the conversation.

Whitewashing: Hollywood’s “Great Wall”

According to Hollywood, only Matt Damon and a select few other white males can save the day. Sorry, people of color! Looks like you’ll have to wait to be represented in lead roles! (Photo retrieved from wsj.com.)

A new trailer was just released for the movie The Great Wall, and actress Constance Wu, for one, was not thrilled.

Wu, a Taiwanese-American actress and one of the stars of the show Fresh Off the Boat, took to—where else?—social media to voice her displeasure with the casting of Matt Damon in the main role of a movie about the Great Wall of China. Although I don’t know what her beef is, exactly. I mean, when you think about Chinese history and mythology, you think of Matt Damon, right? Seriously, though, here’s what Constance Wu had to say regarding the choices made by the producers of the film:

“We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that only a white man can save the world. It’s not based in actual fact. Our heroes don’t look like Matt Damon. They look like Malala. Ghandi. Mandela. Your big sister when she stood up for you to those bullies that one time. Money is the lamest excuse in the history of being human. So is blaming the Chinese investors (POC’s choices can be based on unconscious bias, too). Remember: it’s not about blaming individuals, which will only lead to soothing their lame ‘b-but I had good intentions! but…money!’ micro-aggressive excuses. Rather, it’s about pointing out the repeatedly implied racist notion that white people are superior to POC and POC need salvation from our own color via white strength. When you consistently make movies like this, you ARE saying that. YOU ARE. Yes, YOU ARE. YES YOU ARE. Yes dude, you f**king ARE. Whether you intend to or not. We don’t need salvation. We like our color and our culture and our own strengths and our own stories. (If we don’t, we should.) We don’t need you to save us from anything.”

This is just, like, the first half of Wu’s response, but already there’s a lot here to unpack regarding depictions and discussions of race in motion pictures today. Before we even confront the merits of what she has to say, Constance later in her rant of sorts acknowledges not all POC (people of color) care as deeply as she does about this issue, and furthermore, some of them think she’s “crazy” for going on this sort of tirade. So, she’s giving due context to her arguments.

With that said, let’s address what she has to say just in this opening salvo. Constance Wu speaks of a “white man sav[ing] the world,” but little is known about the actual storyline, as least as far as I could glean from a cursory Internet search. The Wikipedia page for the film, for instance, has this to say about the plot of The Great Wall: “Set in the Northern Song Dynasty, the story is about mysteries revolving around the Great Wall of China.” That’s it. Talk about mysterious. Details on the IMDB page for the movie are similarly sparing. Again, the description of the movie talks about a mystery surrounding the construction of the Great Wall, but that’s all, and most of the cast is not credited with a specific role.

Still, Wu is probably right. After all, the official poster for the film—further striving to promote a sense of mystery around it, it uses the tagline, “What were they trying to keep out?”—features Matt Damon front and center, with the Wall itself and amorphous explosions behind him. Besides this, despite having the Chinese-born Zhang Yimou at the helm, director of movies like Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower as well as other films most Americans don’t know, the screenplay is credited to Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro, and Tony Gilroy, with the story credited to Max Brooks, Edward Zwick and Marshall Hershovitz. Hmm, not a lot of Chinese representation in that crew of writers—not to mention a lack of female inclusion among them. It’s not out of bounds to suggest certain perspectives might be missed in the absent appeal to heterogeneity.

As for the idea of who or what is responsible for this trend, Constance Wu insists she is not trying to blame anyone specifically—not even Matt Damon himself or the Chinese investors in the bilateral movie project—but rather wants to illuminate that this form of prejudice exists. For all her thoughtfulness in laying out her viewpoints, though, Wu has had to defend herself against what people reacting to her reaction have characterized as pointing the finger. Putting her Tweets in proper sentence case, Wu’s first follow-up read thusly:

“Y’all sayin’ that I’m blaming people didn’t read. It’s not about blame—it’s about awareness. That way, we don’t get in tired fights about good intentions.”

That, however, apparently didn’t appease the trolls and other dissenters, leading to a second follow-up/explanatory remark:

“For the millionth time, it’s not about blame. Not blaming Damon, the studio, the Chinese financiers. It’s not about blame. It’s about awareness.”

In stressing her point, Constance Wu seems to be acknowledging that there are financial decisions and ramifications to be had within here. Matt Damon, of course, is not appearing in The Great Wall merely for the joy of acting—he gets paid for his role. The studio and the financiers, too, for their part, are making an investment in this artistic vehicle, and so they may be thinking that Damon’s star power is necessary to sell tickets, or at least mitigates their risk of a failure in Western markets, which presumably would be larger with a POC in the lead. These concerns aside, there are those people within American audiences who might scoff at the notion that any such bias exists, let alone anyone involved in the production of the film, hence Constance’s call for awareness. Not to mention that just because Wu understands it, it doesn’t mean she and like-minded individuals have to enjoy it.

The name’s Cho. John Cho. (Image retrieved from starringjohncho.com.)

Though the flap over The Great Wall is a particularly salient example of what is known as “whitewashing” because it is current, it’s not as if Hollywood hasn’t had a race problem with minority representation in lead roles over the years. The major award nominees for the past two Oscars have drawn the ire of many social critics for not featuring any people of color, prompting the widespread adoption of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. And I’m sure you can probably think of numerous examples throughout cinematic history of white people playing the part of a minority character instead of someone from an actual minority group. Jake Gyllenhaal starring as the eponymous character of the 2010 Prince of Persia movie adaptation (which was bound to suck anyhow, but the casting didn’t help matters). A bunch of white kids in prominent roles in the live-action version of The Last Airbender, based on the Asian-inspired animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. And there are less recent variations on the theme that get the benefit of the doubt, if you will, of hailing from an era less cognizant of political correctness, but instances that are salt in the proverbial wound nonetheless. Peter Sellers as Hrundi V. Bakshi in The Party. Elizabeth Taylor as the titular character in Cleopatra. Natalie Wood as the Puerto Rican Maria in West Side Story. Marlon Brando, Katharine Hepburn and Mickey Rooney as Asians. Shit, John Wayne played Genghis f**king Khan in The Conqueror. So to say Hollywood has been unkind to people of color over the years is somewhat of an understatement.

As Constance Wu has probably already identified and as others have recognized, as underrepresented as blacks and Latinos continue to be in American cinema among leading men and women, Asians have had it especially rough. According to the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, only 5% of speaking roles in Hollywood films go to Asians, and for leading roles, the figure dips to a paltry 1%. On the latter count, that’s a statistically lower percentage than the catch-all category “Other.” This phenomenon has gained attention, though, in part due to the #StarringJohnCho campaign, which among other things, has replaced the non-Asian leading men in various movie posters with John Cho, star of the Harold and Kumar movie series as well as a prominent cast member in the Star Trek movie series revival. It’s effective, I feel, because it engages the issue but does it in a creative and amusing way (not because Cho’s Asian, mind you, but because of how well he is Photoshopped into each of these posters). This, along with other humor-based approaches to confronting disparities in the representation of different races in popular media, helps to create awareness of a serious issue without bringing an undue sense of guilt to the person watching, and furthermore, outlines a manner by which he or she may communicate its prevalence in a practicable way—even if it’s something as small as sharing a hashtag. I firmly believe that meaningful change, in this regard, cannot occur unless a dialog is maintained and grows.

Going back to Wu’s recognition of the idea certain individuals (*cough,* white people, *cough*) will think her objections are an overreaction or are crazy, in closing, she provides a frame or reference for why casting Matt Damon as the lead in a movie about the Great Wall of China and why representations of Asians and other minorities in Hollywood and other media are kind of a big deal:

Excuse me for caring about the images that little girls see, and what that implies to them about their limitations or possibilities. If you know a kid, you should care too. Because we WERE those kids. Why do you think it was so nice to see a nerdy white kid have a girl fall in love with him? Because you WERE that nerdy white kid who felt unloved. And seeing pictures of it in Hollywood’s stories made it feel possible. That’s why it moved you; that’s why it was a great story. Hollywood is supposed to be about making great stories. So make them.

Constance Wu is absolutely right about the power of different media to help perpetuate stereotypes which are, in turn, internalized by members of those groups, and across every kind of demographic line (class, gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.). As Wu and others might argue, too, having a “bankable” star or a big budget doesn’t necessarily lead to success. Keeping with this logic, for all the major stars of a non-Asian persuasion to experience bombs at the box office (see also Johnny Depp, who has his own experience with whitewashing in the form of a particularly poorly-received turn at Tonto in The Lone Ranger), as well as the studios and financiers who have lost millions on film flops, it might merit green-lighting more movies with Asian, black and Latino leads, as well as other ethnic groups (Inuit, can I get a what-what?!?).

The big caveat for Constance, which she likely understands, is that appealing to movie producers’ sense of respect and artistry may only go so far. I mean, have you seen some of the movies they put out nowadays? Think about it—someone had to OK a sequel to Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Consideration of that fact alone is enough to make one shudder or lose sleep. This trend toward mediocrity is indicative, moreover, of an attitude toward the casual moviegoer from Hollywood that he or she will watch whatever crap it puts out there. They might be right, but then again, they might not. What if more people decide blowing money on tickets and concessions isn’t worth seeing the movie before it comes out on Blu-ray, DVD or through some digital format? What if some of us opt to spend more time watching TV, playing video games, reading books, or—gasp!—actually going outside and doing things? If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is really as out of touch as the #OscarsSoWhite controversy of the past few years suggests, they might be overplaying their hand with respect to how much they take and how little they give in terms of authentic representation.

So, do we smell a cultural revolution simmering for the silver screen? Or is that just the aroma of overpriced, over-salted popcorn from the Refreshments stand? I can’t tell for sure, but one thing I do know is that I can’t wait for The Great Wall starring John Cho. It’s gonna be lit.