Reese attempts to check her privilege

Kathleen Posted by Kathleen at September 8, 2017 18:04:14 September 8, 2017 18:04:14

Reese Witherspoon wrote an essay for Glamour’s October issue about ambition and women in Hollywood. In it, she addresses the gender pay gap, her production company’s goal to create female-driven projects and reveals a conversation she had with Mindy Kaling about women of colour in Hollywood that requires unpacking. This conversation is what most outlets are picking up on.

The headline on PEOPLE was, “Reese Witherspoon: How Mindy Kaling Helped Me See My White Privilege.” My knee-jerk reaction to that headline in isolation was to scoff and mutter to myself, cool, Reese Witherspoon. Welcome to 2017. You’re only now realizing your privilege? You’ve been America’s Sweetheart for 20 years. PLEASE.

White privilege is one of those buzz terms people love to scroll past or dismiss before hearing anything else. I’ve been in heated conversations with white friends and loved ones about how privilege works. These conversations are often uncomfortable and always exhausting but sometimes, they are necessary. The reality is that many white people don’t acknowledge their privilege unless they actually interact with a person of colour who can explain to them how much harder it can be for us. And that’s the point. The fact that Reese went this long in Hollywood before realizing what someone like Mindy Kaling goes through to get half as much of what she has is part of her privilege. Reese does not have to think about her race before every audition or every role she reads. Mindy does.

Here’s what Reese Witherspoon wrote about her conversation with Mindy Kaling in full:

Another thing I think about a lot is how it feels to be a minority woman in America, so rarely seeing yourself onscreen, and it’s unconscionable. When I asked Mindy Kaling, “Don’t you ever get exhausted by always having to create your own roles?” she said, “Reese, I’ve never had anything that I didn’t create for myself.” I thought, Wow, I feel like a jerk for asking that; I used to have parts that just showed up for me. I can’t imagine how hard it is to write your own parts and simultaneously have to change people’s perceptions of what a woman of color is in today’s society.

Points to Reese for acknowledging that she was a jerk for basically asking, “oh gosh Mindy, aren’t you tired? Have you tried just not writing everything for yourself?” but she doesn’t get a giant pat on the back for recognizing a problem women of colour have been yelling to the void for years. Again, Mindy Kaling has not been given the options that Reese Witherspoon has. Mindy is a successful showrunner, writer and actress in Hollywood in spite of an entire system working against her. She is the exception. When Reese writes, “I used to have parts that just showed up for me,” that is a luxury not afforded to women of colour. It does sound like through this conversation and through hanging out with the likes of Oprah and Ava DuVernay on A Wrinkle in Time, Reese may slowly be starting to get it. OK. Great. Now what?

Over the last few years, Lainey has repeatedly referred to Reese Witherspoon as an “industry power player.” She has produced some very successful female-led vehicles like Gone Girl and Big Little Lies. The essay goes to great lengths to humble brag about all the projects Reese has in the works that focus on women. She should be bragging about this. But when she cites stats about the improved state of gender diversity in Hollywood, like that 38% of major characters on TV are now women, how many of those characters are women of colour? Reese now has the power to create these characters. She has the power to do something about the “unconscionable” reality women of colour face in Hollywood. But will she? Reese is currently promoting a film called Home Again. After a quick IMDB scan, I can’t find a single person of colour in this movie.

In the Glamour essay, Reese writes that she has 23 upcoming projects, “driven by great female characters of different ages and races.” I hope this is true. I hope this eye-opening conversation with her new Friend of Colour actually pushes Reese to make a difference but honestly, I’m a little skeptical. Because in the same breath that Reese is preaching diversity and attempting to check her privilege, she says this:

I think there’s this fallacy that because I’ve been an actor, people are going to hand me stuff. Nobody hands me anything.

Wait, what? White privilege does not mean that white people don’t work hard. Of course, Reese Witherspoon works hard but she just said that roles just show up for her. That is a form of something getting handed to you. It’s now about what Reese Witherspoon does with the powerful and privileged hands she’s been dealt.

Also attached - Reese making the promotional rounds for Home Again in New York this week. 

James Devaney/ Gotham/ Getty Images

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