The Dangers of a Panel Full of Rich White Women

I remember the day that Natalie Portman joined Instagram — one of the happiest in my adult life. She was my idol, and to an extent, she still is. I had been infatuated by her charm since middle school and have watched nearly every one of her films. I remember one of her first Instagram stories, a good natured video of her conversing with a group of other actresses, among whom was Reese Witherspoon. This made my day: watching a group of beautiful actresses sharing the same space. And yet, something felt off. Upon what whim had Natalie Portman decided to launch herself into the world of social media? Portman, a graduate of Harvard and an extremely morally bound individual, had just knowingly thrown herself into a whirlwind of superficiality and glossiness, a world that she had previously criticized multiple times. There must have been a reason for this sudden shift in mentality toward social media. Then, I saw her T-shirt. Written in bold white letters on a black background were the words TIME’S UP. She was not making an Instagram for the pleasure or the fame or the filters. She meant business.

“TIME’S UP” has since jumped from phone screens into the front lines of the modern feminist movement. After making an official statement in The New York Times on Jan. 1, 2018, the Time’s Up movement has dubbed itself synonymous with women’s rights. With the tagline “The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment, and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it,” the organization acts as indirect response to the sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein that emerged two years prior. Since its inception, Time’s Up has made major strides toward the awareness and eradication of sexism in the workplace. The Time’s Up legal defense fund, headed by lawyers Roberta Kaplan and Tina Tchen, has raised several million dollars to provide victims of sexual assault with access to over 700 lawyers. This response to crisis comes second however to Time’s Up impeccable branding, switching from one Hollywood scandal to another to demonstrate solidarity via social media. As the mosaic of gender inequality becomes increasingly clear, Time’s Up has been right on its heels with a new hashtag. The movement has morphed into a mechanism for awareness, using its expansive online presence to update the world on the constant discovery of new microaggressions against women that were previously kept in the shadows.

However, as the movement has grown, there seems to be a sort of gradual erasure of certain topics regarding race, orientation, ethnicity, and other marginalized identities. While Time’s Up has validated these identities, there does not seem to be a space for further discussion or collaboration on these individual experiences. The Time’s Up movement appears to have undergone a sort of social gentrification, a watering down of various topics that would paint the movement as messy due to non-white, non-rich, non-heteronormative qualities. Phrases such as #BelieveAllWomen discount for the plethora of cases, such as the relative recent Emmitt Till case, that falsely accuse black men of sexual assault for reasons charged by racism and prejudice. Counter-phrases such as #YesAllWomen paint sexual assault as one completely rooted in misogyny, which is an inadvertant dismissal of sexual assault committed within same-sex relationships. Each hashtag released by Time’s Up further closes the circle of whose experience is valid and whose experience is too complicated to bring attention to.

While bringing factors such as race and sexual orientation into the equation of feminism does complicate things, the combination of these factors is what defines intersectionality, or the individual experience of one who possesses multiple minority identities. This gentrification means that the organization largely benefits elite, upper class, straight, white women, while still appearing to open its arms to all female experiences. There seems to be a trend of topics only associated with the experience of an attractive female actress in Hollywood, sweeping the intersectionality of feminism under the rug.

For instance, the lineup of speakers at the California Women’s March in 2018 included both Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson, two very progressive Hollywood actresses who embody two sides of the same coin. Portman went on to describe the various ways in which she was oversexualized by the media at a young age, while Johansson detailed her early experiences with dating in the industry. While both stories are incredibly important to share, they fail to reach a wider female audience. They are too specific to the rich, white, straight, famous niche of women. It was as if the underlying thesis of each speech was something along the lines of “rich people struggle too.” This fails to apply to most women.

Oddly enough, the general public eats up stories like the ones told by Johansson and Portman. Every media and news outlet broadcasts these stories, which is vital to the success in increasing awareness for the movement. However, this overshadows the story of the common woman. These Hollywood stories are not any more important than the daily acts of gender violence against women who experience minority status for other identities. Sadly, these experiences do not receive the same coverage. The issue is that these celebrities believe their mass influence brings attention to the struggles of all women. This is not the case. Since the beginning of 2018, the year of Time’s Up’s inception, the rate of sexual assualt has nearly doubled from the rate of sexual assault in 2017. Aquittal of rape cases has not gone down. The system of flushing sexual abusers out of the lives of the common woman is still just as flawed. These actresses are actually drawing attention away from the experience of the average woman, making way for the struggles of female celebrities. They are subconsciously exercising their privilege in the name of eradicating privilege.

This is especially dangerous in a world that is already too eager to throw out any notion of intersectionality within a certain minority group. While legislation currently in place to protect women against gender violence is slim, it is very much tailored to the middle-class white woman. Much of the intersectionality within sexual assault cases is ignored, leading to many battered women’s shelters and sexual assault recovery clinics restricting resources for underresourced women, people of color, or immigrants. For instance, many immigrant women rely on their partner as a means for citizenship. Reporting an instance of sexual assault by that partner could mean deportation. Clinics providing asylum for sexual assault often glaze over this complication not out of spite but out of a loss for what to do about the issue. Factors such as these complicate the equation to a point that makes it feel almost impossible for lawmakers to work around. Thus, intersectionality is pushed to the sidelines.

Consequently, the media is in love with the Time’s Up movement. It is the perfect opportunity to comport themselves in a progressive manner while remaining off the hook for disregarding experiences other than those belonging to the rich and white. The gentrification issue of Time’s Up lies not within the organization’s motivation, but rather its execution.

The consequence of allowing a group of Hollywood actresses to champion this feminist movement is that their privilege distorts the reality of the gender violence that women experience. This creates a movement that is more performative than proactive in nature. While the creation of Time’s Up has led to the awareness of many issues and fundraising for certain projects, its true essence is that of an extended performance. The actresses will come forward, say their piece, garner respect and support, and then retreat to their private dressing rooms. The negative impact lies in the fact that these dressing rooms are not for poor women, or queer women, or women of color. These are for the rich, the straight, the white, and the famous.

I still love Natalie Portman. I think she is a fantastic individual, braced with incredible intellect and raw talent, but she does not represent my experience as a female. I am queer, I am middle class, and I have not acted in over sixty films. Therefore, the words of Natalie Portman — no doubt brilliant and moving — only resonate with me on an empathetic level. I feel devastated for her and the experiences she had as a young woman in Hollywood, but she is not relatable to me nor to the vast majority of women that are supposed to be represented by Time’s Up. Time’s Up stands as an illusion projected over the mountainous levels of intersectional complications experienced by each and every woman who possesses multiple cultural identities. It is an important illusion that has undoubtedly caused a great deal of awareness and support that has been needed for a long time. But it is still a performance tailored by the women of Hollywood for the consumption of the average woman.

Categories: Culture

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