The Performative Nature of Modern Activist Movements and Why It’s an Issue
Trigger Warning: rape, sexual assault, violence against women
James Franco stood on stage to receive his Golden Globe for his role in The Disaster Artist, proudly wearing black in solidarity with the women who came forward during the #MeToo movement and bearing a “Time’s Up” pin on his lapel, a picturesque ally to the recent wave of pushback against Hollywood’s sexual harassment problem. That is, until the next morning, when five women — four of whom were his former film school students — came forward to implicate him in multiple counts of sexual misconduct and exploitative sexual encounters. Franco also came under fire in 2014 for his social media interactions with an underage girl he’d met in New York.
Unfortunately, this is just one of a string of all-too-familiar incidents of women speaking up to expose men who we understood to be allies and supporters of the #MeToo movement. So why did James Franco opt to wear that “Time’s Up” pin? For that matter, why did Justin Timberlake, who starred in Woody Allen’s latest movie? Or Meryl Streep, who delivered an inspiring speech and wore black like many other actresses in Hollywood but is a longtime supporter of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski? The list of celebrities who denounce some abusers and support others is perhaps even longer than a list of the abusers themselves.
Hollywood’s housecleaning has been marked by a stunning inconsistency and perhaps even hypocrisy. There are things that celebrities are willing to do — wear black or a pin, deliver a speech, or perhaps even condemn a select few others — yet a completely honest, open examination of why certain powerful men in Hollywood continue to be protected has yet to actually occur. And that’s where my issue with the #MeToo movement, the feminist movement, and really nearly any modern social justice movement comes in: too much of it is for appearances.
Humans have a tendency to be performative with the things they care about. I know I certainly do. I make my feminism, progressivism, and animal rights beliefs very well known to those around me, sometimes irritatingly so. My ideologies are blazoned on t-shirts and stickers and alluded to in my Instagram bio. And, personally, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with that. Maybe there’s even a certain amount of merit to somebody standing up and announcing their support for women and minorities.
But that merit is worthless if it is not backed by actions. You can wear a feminist t-shirt all you want, but if you degrade, patronize, or judge women based on internalized gender roles, you are not a feminist. You can say you’re an LGBT+ ally and wave your pride flag around as much as you’d like, but if you treat gay or trans people as stereotypes and not actual human beings, you are not an ally. And the problem is that I’m starting to feel like we, as a society, care more about who sees our activism than what it really accomplishes.
I applaud all the women who have stood up to tell their stories in this cultural overhaul, and I genuinely appreciate those who have greeted these women’s stories with love and kindness. I certainly don’t mean to be divisive. The fact of the matter is, however, that if your activism doesn’t stand for people of color, for the LGBT+ community, for the economically underprivileged, for people you disagree with or who aren’t of your group or community — at least to me, that doesn’t seem like activism at all.
I’m not asking you to get rid of your pride flag or your Women’s March posters. Those are good things, and you ought to go ahead and display your beliefs proudly. But the next time someone makes a homophobic or sexist “joke,” or you see an instance of sexual harassment in your school or workplace, or you sense any of the injustice you so proudly stand against, actually do something about it.