There are few things about which I care less than the fact that Shania Twain, who is Canadian, and who — as far as I can tell — hasn’t had any previous substantial involvement in American politics, said that had she cast a ballot in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, she would have voted for Donald Trump. I suppose the incident is a reminder to anyone who doesn’t already know it that just because someone is famous doesn’t mean they’ve thought carefully about every utterance that flows from their lips.
It’s what came after Twain said this that is more interesting. Her remark provoked a rather predictable outcry, and Twain quickly moved to apologize, saying that “I do not hold any common moral beliefs with the current President,” and explaining that “my limited understanding was that the President talked to a portion of America like an accessible person they could relate to.” It’s no more important to know that Twain actually dislikes President Trump than it was to find out that she gave him some credit in the first place. But taken as a whole, the incident illustrates how liberal power in the entertainment industry works. The picture isn’t encouraging — especially not for liberals.
I suppose if your standard is that no one of any station should ever express even a hint of approval for Trump, even grudging appreciation of his campaign strategy, then it makes sense to discourage even people whose words carry vaporously little weight on the subject from praising him. The alternative, which seems perfectly acceptable, is to ignore comments like Twain’s, and to file the remarks away as providing a fuller impression of celebrities’ character and substance as thinkers.
Beyond the question of whether extracting an apology from the Shania Twains of the world is a worthwhile use of liberals’ time, the swiftness of her mea culpa also risks giving a false idea of how liberal power functions in Hollywood.
It’s true that many of the celebrities who supported Trump during the 2016 election were generally already fairly marginal. Figures like “Clueless” star Stacey Dash, “Happy Days” alumn Scott Baio and “Cheers” veteran John Ratzenberger were not exactly at the height of their careers, and backing him didn’t reverse any of their fortunes. Roseanne Barr, who had occupied her recent years with a series of guest stints and a campaign for the Green Party’s presidential nomination, was the rare star who was able to leverage her support for Trump into a career revival, rebooting her titular sitcom as an exploration of white, working-class discontent.
But for all the public ideological conformity of Hollywood stars, the entertainment industry is also a place that has proven strikingly resistant to stated liberal priorities.
In Tony Kushner’s masterful play “Angels In America,” the character Roy Cohn, a riff on the real man who served as chief counsel to Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the Red Scare and as a mentor to Donald Trump, declares that “homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who in fifteen years of trying cannot pass a pissant antidiscrimination bill through City Council. Homosexuals are men who know nobody and who nobody knows. Who have zero clout.”
In the same way, Hollywood liberals may be people who can make stars afraid to say that they like Trump or to express their support for even more conventional Republicans. But their theoretical control of the industry has not had many practically progressive results. It certainly hasn’t produced a more equal workplace in any capacity, and as #MeToo made frighteningly clear, liberalism was no check on sexual predation in the entertainment industry. In the 2016-2017 television season, 62 percent of television episodes were directed by white men. Between 2007 and 2017, just 4 percent of the 1,100 top-grossing movies released in America were directed by women. Between 2007 and 2016, despite huge attention to this issue, the number of women who spoke in top-grossing films was fundamentally unchanged, and the picture gets worse when researchers look at representations of women of color.
I could go on. But why bother when the result is so clear?
Liberal pressure can make Shania Twain grovel to be sure that none of us thinks she actually likes Trump. What it cannot do is make the entertainment industry adopt any of the practices that an ostensibly progressive employer would have an interest in, or that progressives think should be the norm in American workplaces. Until it can, reports of liberal power in the entertainment industry will continue to be wildly exaggerated. The tired ritual of extracting performative apologies from celebrities who have veered, however meaninglessly, from liberal orthodoxies? In the words of Shania Twain herself: That don’t impress me much.