The past year’s Women’s Marches, in conjunction with fallout hashtags MeToo and Time’s Up, have been almost entirely fronted by wealthy Hollywood actresses and music industry celebrities. A splash of above-the-line wealthy female producers and agents have been added to the mix. Color shouldn’t matter, unless you’re anointing yourself a civil rights movement, in which case it’s worth pointing out, the leadership team and headline speakers are almost all entirely white.
What do financially well-off white women based in New York and Los Angeles have to be peeved about regarding bias, discrimination, and oppression? Apparently a ton, as expressed through their many pins and logos and marches, and the bellicose rants of the likes of Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman, Ashley Judd, Gloria Allred and many others bundled in designer winter coats that cost more than most American’s rent. Minority women were provided opportunities to speak, and offered up perspectives from groups such as the Hispanic Female Farmworkers Unions which shares so very much in common with the upper crust of SAG. But much as with the wealthy white women toting women of color activists as accessories to the Golden Globes, the truly disenfranchised women play third fiddle to the real spectacle. That is, calling out James Franco for being too handsy and Aziz Ansari for missing the unspoken signs of diminished sexual interest. Can you imagine a greater concern for minimum wage and less lettuce pickers in the fields of our nation? Laugh now at their tuberculosis, lack of reasonable healthcare options to treat the illness, and a wretched early death.
The jury is out on whether privileged white women can plot a valid social movement in their Bikram yoga studios and cold pressed juice klatches. There is evidence that women on the lower half of the socioeconomic ladder felt taken for granted by the Hillary Clinton campaign and her regal celebrity friends insisting on female unity. Do women struggling to put food on the table care for the dignified handling of illegal immigrants, unisex bathrooms of choice for gender fluid discount store shopping males, and the right of women not to have their buttocks ogled in Lululemon pants out on the town? Perhaps. But check your Pyramid of Needs for how those might rank against past due rent, proper shoes for the kids, and a couple toys for Christmas.
The 1% calculus and related disparagement of wealthy people comes in handy when used entirely in “thee not me” rationalizations. You’ll never hear Jane Fonda or Madonna referred to as a one-percenter. Though they are. By many multiples over. The fact that wealthy entertainers haven’t landed in a plane between the coasts since her teens fills in the remainder of the disjointed view of the world. Being wealthy and living in and among rich and privileged enclaves doesn’t necessarily mean you are devoid of passion or concern. Despite years of training to fake emotions and manipulate audiences, these women may very well feel the yoke of oppression and concern for their fellow sisters in rightful quantity. The question remains whether or not branding themselves out front of their causes ultimately helps or hurts what they claim to be their movement goals.
Bill Gates and his foundation have done more to mitigate the deadly effects of Malaria in Africa more than any person who’s ever lived. You don’t see him fronting for African disease abatement often. He provides what rich altruistic people have provided helpfully through the years. Massive tax dollars and massive charitable donations through Foundations. When they can bring together their fellow economic elites behind a cause, they can create real impact. The mega-rich have established or heavily endowed a good measure of the charities, museums and parks, libraries, public colleges and other publicly supported communal institutions and organizations this nation and other nations count on for a better life. What they don’t do well is their own infomercials.
The general public and the regular Joe and Josephine inherently don’t feel connected to people who live entirely different lives than their own. They may fantasize that these people are their normal friends and neighbors and how they might do a Vegas road trip together someday, but when it comes to real world problems, they intuit that they and Bill Gates are not on the same page. They don’t want to hear a billionaire complain, even if his complaints are compassionately those speaking out for others. Gates is a smart guy. He lays low behind the scenes writing fat checks. Whatever you may say about the man as a predatory and occasionally vicious businessman, there’s no denying the millions of lives the man has helped to improve, if not save, during his off-work hours.
Oprah probably has a big heart. As does Ellen. Both led the recent awareness efforts for the fallout from the Santa Barbara area mudslides. They both have enormously upscale estates in the affected area. Surely they concerned. And generally concerned for their neighbors. But most of the dead were immigrant service workers, providing domestic work to the mansions of the likes of Oprah and Ellen. You’d be right in noting that fact was barely if at all reported. Oprah and Ellen may suffer damage to their brick-laid backyard estuaries, other people lost their homes, their meager fortunes and their lives. That doesn’t make Oprah and Ellen bad stock. Does it mean they should tone down the whoa-is-me lead on social media after natural disasters? Perhaps.
Clearly, there’s an upside to celebrity involvement in a cause. Kim Kardashian landing in pearls in Haiti after the earthquake for an eleven minute televised visit with the poor brown kids may be hugely cynical and disturbingly patronizing. Though it also brought in charitable contributions when she insisted her followers chip in to show they cared like she did. From darkness there is light. From crap, some flies may eat. Big names bring big crowds, big press coverage, and a sense that something big is happening. Were the truly suffering women among us to hold a rights march, and they alone, it would go largely uncovered. As evidence, every such march in the past. Conversely, if Rosa Parks had shown up for her fateful bus ride in a Town Car limousine with a personal assistant, hair and makeup artists, and a wardrobe consultant, would she have a statue in Washington D.C.? A balance seems ideal. Currently, there is no balance.
Much as when the Huffington Post clucked feverishly about its diverse editorial staff alongside of a photo of a dozen white Northeastern college education women in their 20’s, a bit of self-reflection seems necessary when crafting an effective message. Amy Schumer rants about the struggle of a Senator’s niece up and coming in Manhattan plays well to her fan base. But her fan base is certainly already on board with the women’s march message. They buy into every unsubstantiated claim of conspiratorial patriarchs, nefarious pay gaps, and how badly it looks for men when they offer a woman help in her career if she sleeps with him and she agrees. The point of a movement is to change the minds and hearts of others. Do rich women in fur at a ski resort in Utah help extend the message beyond the true believers or merely deepen the off-putting appearance of special treatment demands from special people? I hate to end on an unanswered question. Socrates was an asshole. By all practical measures, the answer is no.
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