Hollywood’s Liberalism in Crisis

From Matt Damon suggesting gay actors shouldn’t live out loud to HBO’s gross Westworld casting notice, it seems Tinseltown isn’t as progressive as it thinks it is.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

Hollywood’s progressive political credentials have gone undisputed for far too long.

From tearfully congratulating themselves on helping to elect Obama, to tearfully applauding their role in LGBT liberation, stars and studio producers embrace their roles as the much-mocked “liberal elite.” But just like Brad Pitt’s mission to rebuild post-Katrina New Orleans with eco-friendly houses, Hollywood’s attempt to salvage its image as a radically subversive liberal force is an uphill battle.

The film and television industry is far from an Edenic paradise of equality where diversity reigns supreme, Ruby Rose plays the harpsichord, and Shonda Rhimes lectures biracial hunks on the perils of toxic masculinity. In fact—and someone should probably give Breitbart a heads up on this one—Hollywood is as amorally capitalistic and irritatingly anachronistic as America itself.

At the end of the day, all the glitz and glamour of L.A. living boils down to little more than a pop culture industrial complex, run by major corporations in order to make the most bank. For every celebrity Bernie Sanders supporter there’s a proudly Republican Adam Sandler, and for every heart-flutteringly queer Freeheld there’s a jingoistic, pro-War on Terror action thriller (think The Dark Knight and American Sniper). Transparent is awesome, but no Amazon hit series is going to stop Hollywood from cashing in on Red State consumers with a hearty helping of white protagonists, heterosexual romances, and good old-fashioned conservative values. After a recent string of particularly shocking celebrity gaffes and industry missteps, it might be time to acknowledge that Hollywood’s “progressive” moniker is mightily misleading.

Remember when Ben Affleck tried to whitewash his family’s slave-owning history on PBS? Clearly, Matt Damon doesn’t. Batman’s BFF recently dug himself into fifty shades of shade after a series of comments on homosexuality and diversity in the film industry. Last month, Damon shared his thoughts on diversity on his HBO reality series Project Greenlight. When fellow producer Effie Brown, the only person of color in the group, tried to highlight what the diversity of one pair of contestants could bring to the project, Damon interrupted, musing, “I think on the surface, they might look like one thing, but they might end up giving us something that we don’t want. And when we’re talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show.”

Basically, Matt Damon was all like Imma let you finish, but I’m a white man interrupting a black woman to talk about diversity, and I just had the best mansplain OF ALL TIME. Because the universe is fair and good, a white dude named Jason Mann won the contest, and Damon moved on to bigger and better microagressions, like telling The Guardian that “Whether you’re straight or gay, people shouldn’t know anything about your sexuality because that’s one of the mysteries that you should be able to play... I think you’re a better actor the less people know about you period.”

Even when Matt Damon isn’t trying to shove you back into the closet, Hollywood can be a nightmare for gay performers, and LGBTQ visibility overall. Speaking to Stephen Colbert about her life before coming out, the amazing Ellen Page explained, “I was sad, it is toxic and I wish that no one would have to live that way.” While celebrities are often celebrated for their sexual identities, Hollywood has a complicated relationship to queerness. Films like The Dallas Buyers Club and The Normal Heart sweep awards show nominations and merit great reviews. But despite a stated appreciation for non-heteronormative narratives, the 2014 GLAAD report outlined that out of 102 films released by the six major studios in 2013, only 17 of them included queer characters—many of which were “outright defamatory representations.” And if being queer in Hollywood (or getting Hollywood to acknowledge LGBTQs) isn’t hard enough, imagine having the audacity to be gay, visible, and black, brown, or trans. As September’s release of a totally whitewashed Stonewall attested, Hollywood has no qualms about rewriting the history of trans and black activism, revisiting a crucial moment in queer history as a young white man’s gay coming of age story.

As a recent Guardian piece insists, “There has been no significant mainstreaming, inclusion or normalisation of women’s talent or non-white talent in any of the many roles behind or in front of the camera.” Minority leads are sorely underrepresented (PDF) on screen—in 2013, only 16.7 percent of lead actors were people of color, despite constituting 37.4 percent of the U.S. population. By this rubric, Hollywood isn’t just failing to promote diversity—it’s going out of its way to make America look a whole lot whiter than it needs to be. It’s a strange phenomenon, given that recent studies report that “diversity sells,” and that white male supremacy is simply unsustainable.

But while stars like Anne Hathaway, Lily Tomlin, and Jessica Chastain have spoken out about Hollywood’s rampant ageism and misogyny, other Hollywood heavyweights are more reticent to do so. Both Marion Cotillard and Meryl Streep came out as non-feminists this week. Cotillard, who is also a moon landing denier (make of that what you will), told Porter magazine that “We need to fight for women’s rights but I don’t want to separate women from men… Sometimes in the word feminism there’s too much separation.” Cotillard is one thing, but surely Meryl Streep, funder of The Writer’s Lab, which promotes the work of female screenwriters over 40, wouldn’t dare pull any of that “girls and boys should all work together” crap? No such luck—the legendary actress told Time Out London that “I am a humanist, I am for nice easy balance.” We love you, Meryl, but that’s some Taylor Swift-level inauthentic BS.

If hearing the star of the upcoming film Suffragette eschew the feminist label wasn’t heartbreaking enough, then HBO’s recent Westworld consent form scandal should do the trick. The explicit form detailed what background actors might expect at an upcoming shoot for the star-studded “dark odyssey”: specifically, “genital-to-genital touching, simulate oral sex with hand-to-genital touching, contort to form a table-like shape while being fully nude, pose on all fours while others who are fully nude ride on your back, [and] ride on someone’s back while you are both fully nude.” SAG-AFTRA went public with the terrifying form after HBO’s “direct refusal to remedy this”; of course, HBO is now insisting that the contract “was not requested, written or approved by HBO, Warner Bros. Television, or the producers, and contains situations that we do not require of any actor.” While background performers have the right to withdraw consent from a shoot at any time, this whole demeaning snafu is eerily reminiscent of the misogynistic Adam Sandler script notes that Rose McGowan tweeted in June—and was dropped by her agent for releasing.

So to summarize: powerful women refuse to associate with feminism, Matt Damon mansplains it all, and “liberal” Hollywood is a horrible place to be black, brown, female, queer, or just a background performer trying to make a few bucks without getting naked and ridden on all fours.

Yes we can?