They Risk Their Careers: Modern Day Actors as Activists

Representation matters. I’m not the first to make this announcement and I won’t be the last. The stories we tell have an impact on how we see ourselves. They glorify one form of behaviour and forbid another, using the disbursement of prizes at the end as a guideline for how we should act in our own lives.

For instance, many western fairy tales make it clear to young girls that, after they navigate certain challenges with their ‘niceness’ in tact, a man will arrive to save them. In these same fairy tales, young boys are taught they don’t even need a name, they just need to be good providers. Whether girl or boy, the perfect heteronormative marriage is often the sought after prize. Those tantalizing words and they lived happily ever after lure everyone into a false sense of security.

But what if you aren’t in the stories we’re telling? Reaching beyond fairy tales—you’re just not there. Not in books, not on TV, not in the movies. Or you’re a caricature, a two-dimensional side character, or a villain with no emotional range. You’re invisible. Either others don’t know you exist or they assume you have no value. Taking it a step further, your only value comes from how the visible people interact with you.

In other words, our society’s racism, sexism and homophobia presents itself fully in the stories we choose to tell. I wasn’t even aware of how much this affected my sense of self-worth, my friends’ sense of self-worth, until others started the discussion. Being a storyteller and a white woman, I was horrified to see my own internalized sexism and racism presented to me in my own stories, and also in the way I saw my characters in my mind.

As a result, I offered very few descriptions of the characters in my first book, The Line. I didn’t want to give anyone a certain skin colour because I was afraid of my own personal biases. People read the story, and I was intrigued to see how not offering descriptions brought out their assumptions, especially where the main character is concerned.

The entertainment industry has a lot of work to do. Our world is not made of one colour, or one gender, or one sexuality. Nor should it be. With this blog, I celebrate three women who are at the forefront of this issue in movies, television, and comedy. They have used their visibility and risked their careers to speak for those who have no voice. There were many to choose from, so I went with the ones who currently smack me over the head with all the right messages.

Viola Davis:

Viola Davis

Passionate and courageous, Viola Davis is a force to be reckoned with.

She fell in love with acting in High School. After studying at Juilliard, she was a successful actor in the New York theatre scene. She’s worked tirelessly, earning 30 nominations over her career. Of those, she received 14 awards in theatre, TV, and film.

In 2017, Viola became the first African-American to win the coveted Triple Crown of Acting. She received two Tonys for her roles in the plays King Hedley II and Fences, an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama series for How to Get Away With Murder, and an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in the movie Fences.

For years, she’s been an important voice for representation. Skin colour relegates talented actors into stereotyped roles. In her words from a 2018 interview with Porter: I could be seen the same way as Nicole Kidman, Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore. I actually came from the same sort of background; I went to Juilliard, I’ve done Broadway. I’ve worked with the Steven Spielbergs. I should be seen the same way.

Not only does she not flinch from vocalizing her frustrations with racism in the entertainment industry, she’s also a passionate activist for the voiceless and faceless victims of sexual assault. In her 2016 impassioned speech about racism and trafficking in the USA, she called for everyone to stand up for the rights of those who cannot stand for themselves, no matter the cost.

Viola Davis

Sandra Oh:

Sandra Oh

We all remember the talented and driven Sandra Oh from her role as Dr. Christina Yang, a ruthlessly ambitious medical intern from the hit show Grey’s Anatomy. But her passion and determination to become an actress started well before then.

In her senior year of high school, Sandra went against her Korean parents wishes and turned down an academic scholarship in favour of the National Theatre School of Canada. Since then, she’s defied racist and sexist attitudes to make her mark on the entertainment industry.

At the age of 23 she landed the title role in The Diary of Evelyn Lau and, after a few lean years, HBO cast her in Arli$. As a result, she moved to California, appearing in movies and TV before her performance on Grey’s Anatomy earned her many nominations and a Golden Globe Award.

Years after leaving the hit show, she returned to TV as Eve Polastri in the BBC America’s Killing Eve. But when her agent sent her the script she had no idea they wanted her for the title role. In her own words: I didn’t even assume when being offered something that I would be one of the central storytellers. Why? And this is me talking, right? After being told to see things a certain way for decades, you realize, ‘Oh my god! They brainwashed me!’

In July 2018, Sandra received and Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series, making her the first woman of Asian descent to be nominated in this category. She then hosted the 76th Golden Globe Awards and also won for Best Actress—Television Series Drama. This event also made history. It was the first time a woman of Asian descent hosted the show, won in that category, and won multiple awards.

After her success, Sandra continues to be an outspoken advocate for diversity in Hollywood, not just for actors of Asian descent but all ethnic backgrounds.

Hannah Gadsby:

Hannah Gadsby

Hannah Gadsby, an Australian comedian and writer, raised her voice to unmask internalized misogyny and homophobia. Her powerful message garnered international attention.

Raised in Tasmania, Gadsby received her Bachelor of Arts in Art History and Curatorship from the Australian National University in 2003. Her comedy career took off three years later when she won the national final of the Raw Comedy competition for new comedians. Afterward she was a regular on the Australian and British festival circuit, using what she calls “self-deprecating humour” to earn laughs. She also played the character ‘Hannah’ in the Australian series Please Like Me.

In 2018, Netflix released her comedy special ‘Nanette’. Her raw performance challenges the way we tell stories. Using her background in art history and her brilliant humour, she exposes the inherent misogyny in how we romanticize historical figures. But it is her heartbreaking and poignant analysis of her own life that inspires action.

“I don’t think even lesbian is the right identity for me … I identify as tired. I’m just tired.” She admits.

Her honesty, passion, and eloquence launched her into the forefront of the MeToo movement. Since then, she’s announced her book Ten Steps to Nanette. Her speech at The Hollywood Reporter’s Women in Entertainment 2018 challenged the way we see ourselves in this changing world.

Hannah Gadsby

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