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From tweets to award show speeches in Hollywood

How much credit do stars deserve for their attempts at making a difference?

Lillie Wirth, Guest Writer
Originally published February 28, 2020

Cartoon by Sam Rainville

Cartoon by Sam Rainville

Prominent among the red carpet coverage of the Oscars was Natalie Portman, who shocked audiences by wearing a Dior cape embroidered with the names of snubbed female directors. In a video taken on the red carpet by Amy Kaufman for the LA Times, Portman said, “I wanted to recognize the women who were not recognized for their incredible work this year, in my subtle way.

 As someone who has been very vocal about the lack of recognition, I initially applauded Portman for her brave stance. But as I thought about it more and scrolled through the endless articles and tweets that questioned Portman’s decision, I began to wonder if “subtle” is enough.

Hollywood is full of A-list celebrities making bold statements championing causes. It gets a little old though, seeing Kim Kardashian tweet “Climate change is real” as she flies on her private jet to her mansion in Beverly Hills. 

Of course, not all Hollywood activism is as feeble as this. But so many of the statements these stars make feel like empty words. Portman, for example, has only worked with three female directors on feature films in the span of her nearly thirty-year career. 

“I guess [Portman’s cape] is middling activism,” says Ariana Williams, a student at Roosevelt High School. “But in the end, it’s not an active step.” 

Not all of the activism in Hollywood has been of the “middling” kind though. Perhaps the best example of this is the Time’s Up movement, which began in 2018 with an open letter to the New York Times. The letter was signed by over 300 women in the entertainment industry, including Portman. It contained a pledge of solidarity with the women in less high profile industries who had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, as well as a call for men in leadership positions to stand up to this injustice.

As promised in the letter, the women also launched the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which works to provide legal help to women who have experienced harassment in the workplace.

Also through Time’s Up, actress Tessa Thompson launched the 4% challenge in January 2019. The challenge got its name from a study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which found that “only four percent of the top 1,200 studio films from 2007-2018 were directed by women.” 

Thompson challenged creators and studios to work with one female director on a feature film within the next 18 months. Dozens of stars made this pledge, as well as several large studios including Paramount Pictures and Warner Bros. Entertainment. 

Working with just one female director over the course of 18 months is a low bar, but at least it is an example of Hollywood stars working to create concrete change within the industry.

Additionally, much of Hollywood activism happens out of the public eye according to senior Marley Rankin. 

“I know a lot of celebrities have donated tons of money to organizations, but it’s against their contracts to make controversial opinions in public for their safety,” said Rankin.

For example, Timothée Chalamet promised to donate his wages from Woody Allen’s “A Rainy Day in New York” to two different sexual assault charities, including Time’s Up, and one LGBTQ+ rights charity. Chalamet said that due to “contractual obligations” he was unable to give any more information on the subject. 

Rankin adds that those who do speak publicly about social justice are actually doing a lot just by speaking out.

“By using their platform they’re already making a bigger statement than an individual without such a big following,” Rankin said.

Movements like the 4% challenge show that speaking out can make a difference. The wave of activism has definitely made more filmmakers conscious of creating equity within their work. Senior Sebastian Zufelt agrees with this sentiment.

“While actions are stronger than words, this activism is helping the next generation of filmmakers go into the industry with a new mindset,” said Zufelt.

As a filmmaker himself, Zufelt says the level of activism has made him much more conscious on his own projects of “the ratio of guys to girls on set, both cast and crew” and “[making] sure everyone’s comfortable when the balance isn’t there.”

If Hollywood activism is influencing young filmmakers like Zufelt, then it’s definitely doing something right. Its true actions speak louder than words, but maybe words are enough on a celebrity’s part if they spark others into action.

Whether or not Hollywood activism is done “correctly” depends entirely on what a star is saying and how they are saying it. It’s hard to define which of these statements made by celebrities are genuine and which are self-righteous attempts to seem “woke.” At the end of the day though, I think there needs to be more positive acknowledgment of the courage to say anything at all. Each time a celebrity speaks out against injustice they are taking a step in the right direction.

If it is true that words lead to action, then I think the words of a few celebrities with such huge followings are a pretty good place to start.

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From tweets to award show speeches in Hollywood