Susan Sarandon, “Bernie Bro” Politics, and White Privilege
In the age of social media, the political views and comments of celebrities are often dissected to death, whether by critics or defenders. Celebrities are often held to higher, unrealistic standards, even though they, too, are human and imperfect. Talent, whether of the creative or simply self-promoting variety, does not preclude one’s ability to make a mistake or say something harmful or offensive. Nonetheless, celebrities have much bigger, more influential platforms than the rest of us, and the trade-off for this is taking a lot more heat for the impact of their words. More than ever in our incredibly divisive national context, celebrity faves are getting kicked off (or jumping off) the pedestals we have built for them.
Exhibit A: Susan Sarandon.
Sarandon has long been one of Hollywood’s most progressive voices, consistently portraying strong women that flip the script on traditional notions of femininity. Her most well-known roles are iconic for their bold feminism, whether as the brazenly sex-positive and self-assured Annie Savoy in Bull Durham (1988), the badass, world-weary rape survivor Louise Sawyer in Thelma and Louise (1991), or the fearless and empathetic nun Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking (1995). She’s long been one of my favorite actresses.
Sarandon is currently in the spotlight thanks to her role in the recently aired Ryan Murphy FX show Feud: Bette and Joan, playing the ballsy, outspoken Bette Davis to Jessica Lange’s (comparably pathetic) Joan Crawford. Both deliver incredible portrayals, and I would hazard a guess that both actresses are shoo-ins for Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. I wouldn’t necessarily say that Sarandon has the meatier role—Lange has probably logged more screen time—but that, rather, the role she plays is much more sympathetic and legible to a contemporary audience: Crawford’s neediness, penchant for manipulation, and passive-aggressiveness is a throwback, and is juxtaposed with Davis’s independence and candid manner. Assuming the general accuracy of the show, Davis was a woman who clearly prioritized her career and craft over her personal life. She is also portrayed as a woman who can engage in sex (with her director, Robert Aldrich) seemingly with little emotional investment. In short, this is one of Sarandon’s best, most nuanced performances in years, perhaps even decades.
Sadly, I can’t stand what Sarandon has been doing off-camera. She was an outspoken Bernie Sanders supporter during the Democratic primaries leading up to the November election, which, in itself, is completely understandable—Bernie electrified millions of progressives and disaffected Americans of all ages with his incredibly important campaign focusing on economic inequality, the need for campaign finance reform, and affordable healthcare for all. However, during the Democratic primary race, I found myself struck by the vicious attacks of Hillary Clinton assaulting my social media timelines by Bernie supporters—the “Bernie Bros,” as they came to be known. Almost invariably, they were educated, white, cis-het men with a fondness for mansplaining. Their favorite topic to “educate” on? The evils of Hillary Clinton.
Despite not fitting the profile of a Bernie Bro, Susan Sarandon was one of their chief exemplars. In March 2016, in an interview with CNBC’s Chris Hayes, she suggested that a Tr*mp win might be in the country’s best interests, as it would hasten a desperately needed revolution and disrupt the status quo, which would continue with a Clinton win: “Some people feel that Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately, if he gets in. Then things will really, you know, explode.” Sarandon also refused to commit to voting for Clinton should she be the Democratic candidate, notwithstanding Sanders’s vocal support of Hillary following the primary. This was the same type of #NeverHillary rhetoric I was seeing from Bernie Bros on Facebook and Twitter. And, as many people of color were emphasizing at the time, this stance was intimately linked to their privilege as white people.
As election results came in on that fateful night last November I was feeling deeply despondent and hopeless, and the only thing I could think of to say on Facebook was to admonish my male friends to not dare say that Bernie would have won the election, to check their male privilege and realize what a loss this was for their women friends/partners/family members before inserting their mansplainy voices. I knew the “Bernie Bros” were licking their chops and getting ready to say, “I told you so.”
Six months later, they’re still at it. Still mooning over Bernie and wasting their energy talking about what could have been, still raking Hillary over the coals… and not focusing on the threat at hand. And Sarandon has been first in line. First, she doubled down on her earlier statements to Chris Hayes, questioning his credibility as a journalist in the process. Then, on March 31, she made an appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” in which she seemed to feel vindicated in her decision not to support Hillary, noting how “energized” and “awake” people have become in their opposition to Tr*mp. She seemed to be blissfully unaware of the absolute disaster this administration has been for the country since it stepped foot in the White House. Or the fact that this revived civic engagement is the result of an unprecedented threat to the lives of millions of marginalized people.
As a longtime fan, it pains me to say it, but Sarandon is everything that’s wrong with mainstream, non-intersectional white feminism. Like Bernie Bros, she doesn’t realize her privilege as a rich white woman, and doesn’t give a thought to the harm she is doing when she goes on national television and proclaims her excitement at how energized people have become since Tr*mp took office. Or when she tweets less than a week after the election, with the country still reeling, that progressives should “reach out in dialogue to those who voted 4 him.” I will always love Debra Messing for her infamous Twitter clap-back to Sarandon: “JESUS CHRIST. NOW she wants to give racist, islamophobic, homophobic, sexist, misogynists a chance! ‘Pure’ 4 Bernie. FUCK everyone else.”
And this is precisely the point: at what price does this white liberal energy, this “revolution” come? At the safety and very humanity of Muslims, immigrants, trans people, #BlackLivesMatter activists (Jeff Sessions has signaled that he’s coming for them), and a host of other marginalized groups. At the health and well-being of 24 million people (myself included) who will lose their healthcare if the Republicans eventually succeed in repealing the ACA. At the subsistence of poor seniors and sick people who rely on programs like Meals on Wheels. At the safety of our air and water quality, and the future of entire nations if sea levels keep rising. At the funding of arts and humanities, which feed our weary souls—not because these funds make a damn bit of difference in a trillion-dollar budget, but just because Tr*mp is petty and spiteful like that.
Republicans have taken the first steps toward repealing the ACA and replacing it with a plan that not only will be fatal for some Americans because it allows insurance companies to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions, but also includes the following within that category: C-sections, postpartum depression, sexual assault, and domestic violence. Let this specific act of cruelty and victim-blaming sink in for a minute, and consider that these conditions apply almost exclusively to women.
This is the reign of racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and willful ignorance that has been unleashed by the current administration. And while I’m not a big believer in the idea that there is one overarching reason why Hillary Clinton lost—there were so many intersecting factors—Bernie Bros’ and Sarandon’s refusal to shelve their ideological problems with Hillary for the sake of the greater good, their refusal to see that there is actually an enormous difference between a Clinton and Tr*mp presidency, might have made a difference in the outcome of the election. Maybe twenty-four million Americans wouldn’t be at risk of losing their health coverage, which for many, amounts to a death sentence. Maybe families would not be torn apart by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Maybe mothers would not have to admit to their daughters that sexual predators often aren’t held accountable for their assaults. Maybe I wouldn’t feel so ashamed of being a white woman if my voting bloc hadn’t chosen their whiteness over their femaleness, and voted 53% for the misogynist-in-chief instead of the most qualified candidate in history.
Unlike Sarandon, I’m not celebrating the birth of a resistance movement. I know it’s necessary, but the damage this administration will do in four years is unfathomable. Also unlike Sarandon, I am well aware that as a white woman, I will not bear the brunt of this damage, although the emotional toll does not feel insignificant. If I could give Sarandon one piece of advice, it would be to log some time on #BlackTwitter, and more specifically, to follow black women. There are thousands of black female public intellectuals—among them, Roxane Gay, Luvvie Ajayi, DiDi Delgado, Feminista Jones, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Ijeoma Oluo—schooling people on recognizing and checking white privilege and on how to be a better ally.
Our favorite celebrities aren’t perfect. They may have long histories of making incisive political commentaries, and still fuck up and/or have blind spots on certain issues. Sarandon isn’t alone, of course. Dave Chappelle, an incredible comic talent who effectively reinvented racial satire with The Chappelle Show, is coming under well-deserved fire for his tone-deaf, transphobic jokes on his recently released Netflix comedy specials. Like Chappelle, Sarandon needs to be held accountable for her disturbing optimism with respect to Tr*mp’s election. She may see the destruction of marginalized people’s lives (both at home and abroad) as collateral damage for the building of a revolution, but that isn’t a revolutionary or progressive view. It’s a perspective born of privilege, and it’s toxic.
Image credits: feature image, image 1, image 2.