Sorkin and Setoodeh: Why “Ally” Shouldn’t be a Shield Against Criticism.
A couple weeks back, television producer Aaron Sorkin came to the defense of theater critic Ramin Setoodeh, after Setoodeh took some heat for a Newsweek article in which he claimed gay actors can’t play straight roles. Sorkin argued that those criticizing Setoodeh’s position — including actress Kristin Chenoweth, who called the Newsweek article “horrendously homophobic” — had “missed the point.” To Sorkin’s credit, he suggested Setoodeh “missed the point” as well, and contended that the very notion that one can act “gay” or “straight” is fundamentally illogical, since “gay and straight aren’t actable things.”
In fact, there are plenty of renowned gender theorists who would argue that gay and straight are solely “actable” performances, but… I digress. After all, my primary interest in Sorkin’s Setoodeh-defense isn’t in his claim that “you can act effeminate and you can act macho […], but an actor can’t play gay or straight anymore than they can play Catholic.” That, I think, is a worthwhile reminder that our cultural representations of “gay” and “straight” are bizarrely and unnecessarily linked to the gender binary. (“Girly” men and “manly” women read as gay; girly-females and manly-males are “straight.” …Unless of course, they’re so over-the-top, we have to presume they’re compensating.)
No, what interests me most about Sorkin’s post is his suggestion that angry LGBT folks and their allies should “re-direct [our] energy away from Mr. Setoodeh” toward the “honest-to-God, no kidding around, small-minded, mean-spirited, hysterically frightened, pig-ignorant bigots” who don’t believe we should marry, parent, or enter the military. The Class-A Assholes in the Westboro Baptist Church. The Congresspeople filibustering our social justice efforts. These, according to Sorkin are “the real problem.” Not Setoodeh, who — we’re promised — “is one the side of the good guys.” One of our allies in the fight for social justice.
You can probably tell I take issue with this analysis. But let me be clear about why. I don’t necessarily doubt Setoodeh’s commitment to LGBT rights. Having never heard of him prior to this controversy, I can hardly claim some long-standing beef with his politics. I can claim that beef with some of the other targets Sorkin suggests, — blatant bigots like the Fred Phelps clan, or the state congresswoman who told a group of LGBT high-schoolers that they made her want to vomit all over her desk. I agree with Sorkin’s suggestion that we need to look at institutional issues, like the way we use the media to police sexuality (and life in general), or the rights we hand over to paparazzi and to tabloid journalists. I do not, however, agree that these actions are — or should be — substitutes for calling out Setoodeh, Newsweek, or any other “good guys.”
In fact, one of the main things I demand from my “good guys” is the willingness to admit when they’ve misstepped.
Identifying as an ally — or a “member of the community,” more generally — is not a get-out-of-jail-free card for those (inevitable) times when one screws up. “Ally” and “advocate” are not static identities; they’re ongoing processes that require a constant commitment to stay present in discussions about privilege and oppression. Even in those moments when the discussion shifts to one in which you’re being called you out on your own exposed privilege. Even in those times when you think there are bigger fish to fry. Being an ally requires your kneejerk response to constructive criticism — (“But I”m part of the solution!”) — to not be your final answer.
…Maybe Setoodeh’s article wasn’t homophobic. But it did support a system that privileges heterosexuality (and by extension heterosexuals) at the expense of gays. It did suggest that society can accept straight actors in gay roles, while calling the opposite a “trick” actors rarely “pull off.” It was — in short — heterosexist. And while it doesn’t call for the immediate execution of all LGBT persons or conflate us with sex offenders… it does warrant an outcry.
Bigots — like their God Hates Fags signs — are easily spotted. Systems of oppression aren’t always as easy to identify. And while we can — and often do — quickly exonerate ourselves from Fred Phelps’ Level bigotry, we are all much more complicit in the systems of privilege and oppression — (e.g. heterosexism, racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, etc) — than we’re generally comfortable admitting.
Yet, part of our role as allies, as “good guys” who support social justice, is to refuse to let ourselves off the hook, by pointing out how favorably we compare to the “real” villains, the easily identified bigots. Part of our role as allies is to expose how ingrained these systems are in all of us, and to work to dismantle them, even when we’ve meant — all along — to contribute solely to the solution.
And when we’re the ones being called out, part of our role is to step up, shut up, and listen. To rethink our presumptions, based on the feedback we receive from other advocates. To apologize, recommit to justice, and move that much closer to being as wise as we thought we already were.