Hollywood is ruthlessly efficient at assessing the stars in his firmament and distributing wages and personal latitude accordingly. Some artists are consumable: the actress Kathy Griffin was ubiquitous, but hardly essential, when she posed with a cut off Trumps prop, her head bloodied for a photoshoot. The pictures were in terrible taste and Griffin was easy to pull off due to his relatively marginal place in the entertainment industry ecosystem. In contrast, director Joss Whedons’ success on franchises such as The Avengers and his reputation as a feminist isolated him from allegations of abusive behavior in the workplace until the cast began to go public.
The result is a system that is better for pointing out untouchables than for establishing what is acceptable in the ideas market.
Take Justin Timberlake. Last week the singer and actor excuse to ex-girlfriend Britney Spears and former co-star Janet Jackson for times he failed and benefited from a system that tolerates misogyny and racism. Those moments happened almost two decades ago: first when Timberlake spoke rudely about his sex life with Spears, and later when he exposed the Jacksons’ chest during their half-time performance in the Super Bowl 2004. Spears was relentlessly harassed by the media in the years following their breakup as she suffered from mental health issues, and Jackson was literally blacklisted as a result of her so-called dysfunction. of her wardrobe. Timberlakes’ career continued.
The Timberlakes statement suggests that there has been a cultural shift such that a bit of light sexism from years past is no longer acceptable for a big star who wants sell yourself as a sensitive leader. But that tells us more about fame and branding than it does about broader values. This Timberlake only now felt the need to apologize shows that the highest echelons of the entertainment industry will not be the sources of social reform. It’s a place resistant to change when change happens.
It also doesn’t help that the conversation about what is allowed to be said in Hollywood and elsewhere is being challenged not just speaker by speaker, but scandal by scandal.
But even if Carano really was, as Jonathan Chait suggested from New York magazines, fired only for having standard Republican beliefs, the debate over her dismissal avoids a more vital question. What happens to public debate when the classic beliefs of a major political party incorporate ideas that are separate from reality and dangerous to democracy?
And that brings us back to the central problem. Nothing in Hollywood’s background suggests a willingness or ability to resolve the dilemmas that come with it. Not the industry’s reactive approach to social media scandals. It is not his long history of pampering sex criminals. And certainly not his willingness to accept censorship from China and other countries.
There probably isn’t one person or institution that could credibly define the range of acceptable public discourse and that may be healthy. But while Hollywood publicists are to respond to every controversy as it arises, the rest of us don’t. At least we can stop defining the public debate one bad tweet at a time and start trying to articulate the principles that determine the difference between a dismissal and a disagreement.
Fighting over Gina Caranos ‘current politics or Justin Timberlakes’ past impunity can provide enjoyable dramatic success, that’s what Hollywood does best. But if we are to have a serious conversation about the state of speech, we much need better examples and a broader perspective than more recent pop cultures.
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