Rihab Attioui, MA Postcolonial Studies
“‘You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything. You know nothing of the real world’ applied to everyone in that room the night of the Golden Globes – including Ricky Gervais.”
By now, you will have all heard about the melodramatically controversial opening monologue given at the 2020 Golden Globes Awards by one, Ricky Gervais. Remember him? The British comedian notorious for flirting with the boundaries of offensive comedy, the one who inaugurated a brand-new era of television comedy with The Office and had been among the first to really bridge the trans-Atlantic comedy gap between Britain and the US in the early 2000s. It is, of course, perfectly acceptable if you do not remember Gervais, after all, for all his success there is something to be said for the decidedly unremarkable comedic ‘legacy’ (if you can call it that) he seems to have left behind. (The Office doesn’t count. The fact that, for once, everyone seems to prefer the American version of something is incredibly telling.) On the star-studded evening of January 5th, however, Gervais’ caustic wit was weaponised for something more than his signature (but at this point: tired and played-out) attack on religion. On the night of the Golden Globes, Gervais proclaimed that he “[doesn’t] care anymore” and that “he never did”, and it was for this reason that he was about to treat his affluent audience of celebrities and industry moguls to a slew of scathing and well-deserved jokes at their expense. This piece, however, is about a broader culture of performative politics that Gervais’ monologue is merely symptomatic of.
First, as a brief overview for those who have yet to encounter his speech, I believe it is best encapsulated with the following snapshots:
“In this room are some of the most important TV and film executives in the world…They all have one thing in common: They’re all terrified of Ronan Farrow…Talking of all you perverts, it was a big year for pedophile movies.”
“Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, nearly three hours long. Leonardo DiCaprio attended the premiere and by the end his date was too old for him.”
“Apple roared into the TV game with The Morning Show, a superb drama about the importance of dignity and doing the right thing, made by a company that runs sweatshops in China. Well, you say you’re woke but the companies you work for in China – unbelievable. Apple, Amazon, Disney. If ISIS started a streaming service, you’d all call your agent, wouldn’t you?”
For me, the real kicker of the evening, however, is the joke he concludes with: “So if you do win an award tonight, don’t use it as a platform to make a political speech. You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything. You know nothing about the real world.” And what do you know of the “Real World”, Mr Gervais? Is your success not earned form the disproportionately distributed wealth of the very same morally tainted Hollywood money you made an unmissable spectacle of admonishing? Have you not worked on multiple projects distributed by The Weinstein Company, the founder of which (and his colluders) you so openly disparaged?
Despite the above, my aim in highlighting Gervais’ multiple hypocrisies is absolutely not to defend those he condemns, but rather to bring the conversation of (pseudo-)political celebrity rhetoric into a discourse that does not do the passively Liberal thing of privileging certain celebrity voices over others, but rather inspect and critique the corruptive qualities of the industry more broadly, and the dangers of unquestioningly consuming the seemingly relatable politics of the rich and famous.
We can take Hollywood as a bubble, or an eco-chamber of those on the highest socio-economic rungs of society. It is a space that distorts the boundaries of ‘conventional’ society and creates the conditions for a pernicious and toxic environment rooted in a collective sense of egomania and profit accumulation. It is a space where child actors to fall prey to powerful studio executives who weaponise their ability to ‘make careers’ into insidious tools of manipulation and assault. A space that does not simply blur but eradicates lines of appropriacy to the extent that a pre-18 year old Billie Eilish can party with severe substance abusers and subsequently write a hit song about the terminal effects of drug use because she doesn’t “want her friends to die anymore” – and no one questions why a minor was exposed to such poisonous environments in the first place. The machine of Hollywood is very much a concentrated space of inordinate wealth and stature in which such behaviour is simply commonplace. Unquestioned and expected. A space that effectively reproduces the structures of wealth disparity found in actual society and allows for the rich and famous to circumvent due punishment and continue to parade themselves behind a farcical veneer of ‘Liberal attitude’.
This is not to say, of course, that every public figure working in the industry is innately iniquitous, nothing so simplistic. In fact when discussing the political consciousness of celebrities it would do a disservice to many not to include the very tangible and substantive work of stars like Mark Ruffalo, whose political activism has spanned from the campaigning for anti-fracking and the protection of Native land agency, to the public condemnation of Israeli war crimes, the Bush administration’s neo-imperial Iraq invasion, and even to ideological denouncement of Capitalism. (He very Marxistly suggested the people mobilise into an “economic revolution” in a 2019 tweet). Even Gervais has been active in campaigning for causes such marriage equality and animal rights. This piece is not about the erasure of celebrity charity, or the complete effacement of their political rhetoric, but rather the understanding that “You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything. You know nothing of the real world” applied to everyone in that room the night of the Golden Globes – including Ricky Gervais. The stars of Hollywood and any figure with a public platform whose success relies on the continued support of the public occupy a unique position of affluence that is not necessarily shared by the rich and not-so-famous. They are famous. A single tweet from Kim Kardashian will disseminate far more ubiquitously than one from a private, independently wealthy citizen. If we can somewhat agree that the latter cannot speak of ‘the real world’, why do we not extend such critique to the former? The manipulation of openly political discourse has become all too frequent in recent years given the ‘trendiness’ afforded to the subject – to be conscious of the zeitgeist is to be woke. To tweet about climate change is to be well-informed and relatable. The impending doom of Planet Earth’s fiery end is a wonderful equalizer, makes us all feel that much closer to good old Kim when she tweets “climate change is real, ‘broken heart emoji’. Such profundity.
The problem of performative politics exists across all spheres of public and popular culture. This applies even to something as seemingly innocuous as Michelle Williams’ Golden Globes acceptance speech. In it she invokes the safe Feminist call to remember that “[women] are the largest voting body in this country. Let’s make it look more like us”. This is so very reminiscent of the kind of White Feminism that propelled the inclusion of Hilary Clinton into feminist iconography despite the fact that many of her policies would have disproportionately disadvantaged WOC and working-class women, the kind of White Feminism that forgets that it was white women who effectively voted Trump into power. Here, Williams addresses a sentiment that on the surface is righteous and innocent, but as her word choice indicates, lacks an imperative interlocuter of intersectionality and the history behind the suppression of WOC votes. This is not to disparage Williams for what I am sure was a very well-intended cry for electoral gender equality, but such comments are simply symptomatic of a larger issue of often misinformed and misguided political narratives that are very tangible for people “in the real world”, and can be co-opted by the privileged (and predominantly White) occupants of the Hollywood industry.
Ultimately, despite Gervais’ hypocrisy, we can commend him for delivering unflinching truths about the exploitative and manipulative actions of those in positions of power in Hollywood directly to their faces, not to mention the conversation he has instigated about the nature of the industry itself, and bringing into the question the legitimacy of celebrity political discourse. I have very evidently painted a bleak and insidious picture of Hollywood and its stars here, and you may wholeheartedly disagree. But at least consider that there may be a modicum of truth to the idea of being just a little suspect of the incredibly rich and the incredibly famous, especially when they claim to have your best interests at heart. On the stage of pretentiously prestigious nationally televised award ceremonies while adorned in multi-thousand-dollar attires.