Justice in 140 Characters or Less

Why social media is the most powerful weapon in the quest for diversity in film.

Twitter is less a way of connection and more a venue for thought. We dismantle. It’s both personal and political. In this Twitter is a great equalizer: everyone has a platform with which to enter collective discussion. When enough of us agree, the consensus can bring about change. A “democratization of justice,” as Jon Ronson calls it in his book So Now You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.

Good democratizations of justice can and do happen. Take #OscarsSoWhite, the hashtag created by Broadway.com Editor April Reign. Reign first used the hashtag in 2015. The hashtag caught steam in 2016 following another year of predominantly white nominees (including all 20 acting nominees). Further, the popularity of the hashtag started a conversation about the way in which individuals joined the Academy. Specifically, that the process skewed to favor a privileged few. The result was a wave of pithy Twitter responses and memes affirming the same. Not only are the Oscars not diverse, but we want them diverse. Social media users got the Academy to vow to be better and to do better. Big name stars and creators boycotted the 2016 ceremony, resulting in a bland Oscars with seats filled less with the “Who’s Who” of Hollywood and more with “Who’s That?” Flash forward to this year and the Academy’s list was not as white – though perhaps a tad too male.

Twitter and other social media has given us all a platform we never had prior. Twitter is the many governing the powerful few. No one can match Twitter’s immediacy, its relevancy – it’s “swarm-ability,” if you will. Perhaps I’m overly optimistic but I still believe that Twitter functions as a useful tool for diversity. Diversity is a good thing and more diversity in Hollywood is needed. We can’t keep telling the same stories from the same perspective ad nauseam. Storytelling from one perspective is dangerous. It creates a tunnel vision that narrows our perspectives. When we don’t tell multiple stories we run the risk of devaluing the lives and beliefs of others.

Jennifer Lawrence’s recent cultural insensitivity springs to mind. Lawrence behaved inappropriately at a sacred Hawaiian site, putting a crew members life in danger, and then joked about it on The Graham Norton Show. Her formal apology read like a standard issue PR white flag. An oldie and a supposed goodie, though I have yet to see evidence it works, the “I’m sorry you’re offended at my harmless joke.”

Lawrence’s attack struck me as personal – I’m Polynesian, specifically of mixed Hawaiian and Samoan heritage. Lawrence’s statements offended people. However, I do not think offend is the right word. “Offend” implies that one perceived an insult. Human beings perceive everything but the connotation of perception is intrinsically now one of accusal. It’s gaslighting at its finest: “You perceived the insult, I didn’t do a thing.” It is for this reason that the apology fell flat.

In truth, Lawrence’s real transgression statement was a dismantling of Polynesian identity. She attacked a cultural identity, then instead of taking responsibility for her transgression put the blame on the persons she insulted. What is interesting about the Twitter storm following her comments, and subsequent failure of an apology, is that for a few hours people were discussing the bounds of human decency and the need for cultural respect.

That is the notion at the center of movements like #OscarsSoWhite and the backlash to Jennifer Lawrence’s comments on Hawaii. They are attempts to carve out a space for alternate identities in a hegemonic landscape. A personalized attack on identity is one of the things that separates innocent comments from transgressions of civility. When people attack others on Twitter for being “snowflakes” what they are really doing is attacking them for protecting and reclaiming their identities. No one enjoys an attack on their identity. Many of our great narratives are about the search for and definition of identity.

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