The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Hollywood is horribly inconsistent. We should stop looking to it for moral leadership.

Gina Carano poses at the premiere for the television series “The Mandalorian” in Los Angeles in 2019. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Hollywood is usually great at telling stories. But the entertainment industry is making a mess of a drama in which it has become a main character: the debate over which ideas belong in the political mainstream. Setting boundaries for speech and behavior that everyone can agree on is a near-impossible task that Hollywood is uniquely unsuited to take on.

Donald Trump wasn’t right about much, but he spoke an ugly truth when he declared, “When you’re a star, they let you do it.”

Hollywood is ruthlessly effective at valuing the stars in its firmament and doling out salaries and personal latitude accordingly. Some performers are expendable: Comedian Kathy Griffin was omnipresent, but hardly essential, when she posed with a prop of Trump’s severed, bloodied head for a photo shoot. The images were in terrible taste, and Griffin was easy to fire because of her relatively marginal place in the entertainment industry ecosystem. By contrast, director Joss Whedon’s success on franchises such as “The Avengers” and his reputation as a feminist insulated him from allegations of abusive workplace behavior until actors started going public.

The result is a system that’s better at signaling who’s untouchable than establishing what’s acceptable in the marketplace of ideas.

Take Justin Timberlake. Last week, the singer and actor apologized to former girlfriend Britney Spears and one-time co-star Janet Jackson for moments when he “fell short” and “benefited from a system that condones misogyny and racism.” Those “moments” happened almost two decades ago: first when Timberlake spoke crudely about his sexual life with Spears, and later when he exposed Jackson’s breast during their 2004 Super Bowl halftime performance. Spears was relentlessly harassed by the media in the years after their breakup as she experienced mental health issues, and Jackson was literally blacklisted following her so-called wardrobe malfunction. Timberlake’s career cruised on.

Timberlake’s statement suggests that there’s been a cultural shift such that a little light sexism from years past is no longer acceptable for a major star who wants to sell himself as a sensitive leading man. But that tells us more about stardom and branding than broader values. That Timberlake only now felt the need to apologize shows that the entertainment industry’s highest echelons will not be the headwaters of social reform. It is a place resistant to change — when change arrives at all.

It also doesn’t help that the conversation about what it’s permissible to say in Hollywood and elsewhere gets litigated not just speaker-by-speaker, but scandal-by-scandal.

An instructive example of this shortcoming came last week with the firing of Gina Carano, who played Cara Dune in Disney+’s hit Star Wars show “The Mandalorian.” Coming as it did after Carano posted a comparison between the plight of contemporary American conservatives and Jews in Nazi Germany, the announcement provoked a firestorm about whether she was being blacklisted for alleged antisemitism, for being conservative or simply for exasperating the notoriously controversy-averse corporate overlords at Disney.

Carano’s supporters have grounds to charge Disney with hypocrisy, or at least, inconsistency. If Carano’s flip approach to trans people and criticism of mask-wearing were part of the case for firing her, what about “Black Panther” star Letitia Wright’s tweet of an anti-vaccine video? Why, other than profit, is a Disney star able to voice support for China’s crackdown on Hong Kong without consequence, as “Mulan’s” Liu Yifei did in 2019?

But even if Carano really was, as New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait suggested, fired solely for having “a standard-issue Republican belief,” the debate over her firing dodges a more vital question. What happens to public debate when the standard-issue beliefs of a major political party incorporate ideas that are divorced from reality and dangerous to democracy?

And that leads us back to the core problem. Nothing in Hollywood’s track record suggests any willingness or ability to hash out dilemmas this consequential. Not the industry’s reactive approach to social media scandals. Not its long history of coddling sex criminals. And certainly not its willingness to accept censorship from China and other countries.

There’s probably not one person or institution who could credibly set the range of acceptable public discourse — and maybe that’s healthy. But if Hollywood publicists have to respond to every controversy as it comes along, the rest of us don’t. We, at least, can stop defining public debate one bad tweet at a time and start trying to articulate the principles that determine the difference between a firing offense and a disagreement.

Fighting over Gina Carano’s current politics or Justin Timberlake’s past impunity may provide a pleasant hit of drama — that’s what Hollywood does best. But if we want a serious conversation about the state of speech, we’ll need better examples and a wider lens than pop culture’s latest kerfuffles have to offer.

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