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Jessica Chastain’s Failed Attempt at Social Awareness Leads to Criticism

On December 21st, 2017, The LA Times released an issue of their magazine, The Envelope, entitled “A Shift In Focus.” On the cover sat prominent actresses such as Margot Robbie, Saoirse Ronan, Diane Kruger, Annette Bening, Kate Winslet, and Jessica Chastain, a lineup that has received much criticism. Why might people find fault with a focus that highlights women’s contributions to film? Well, because all of the women featured on the cover are white women.

Jessica Chastain, who sat for the cover’s photo shoot herself, had been one of the only actresses featured in the issue to voice her disappointment with the lack of diversity in movies’ narratives, as well as in the praise of actresses of color who have made significant efforts.

Chastain took to Twitter to express her disappointment and said on the issue: “It’s a sad look that there’s no WOC in this pic of us promoting our female lead films. The industry needs to become more inclusive in its storytelling. What were your favorite WOC lead films this year? I LOVED @salmahayek in #BeatriceAtDinner.”

Writer and journalist Rebecca Carroll, a black woman, in response to Chastain’s tweets about the lack of diversity in this particular editorial as well as the general erasure of black women/women of color in the film industry, said, “Honestly @jes_chastain as an outspoken voice for equality how do you pose for a photo like this and not feel absolutely mortified by the blatant exclusion? How is it possible to not understand the msg this photo sends?”

Carroll’s response sheds light on an important detail in Chastain’s outspokenness of the all-white photo for which she ultimately posed: that the message of exclusion implied within the photoshoot was clear to those participating in it before it was actually released. Chastain, having spoken out against the message, still made an effort to participate, and received monetary compensation for participating, despite her later condemnation of the photo and editorial.

Many Twitter users criticized not only the publication itself, but the participants in it – especially Chastain – as the project as a whole aligns very much with ideal white feminism and the erasure of women of color from feminist narratives. Many find fault in Chastain’s outspokenness after the release of the issue because it appears to many as a de-escalation tactic, rather than genuine concern for the inclusion of women of color in film and media.

In the magazine interview with the women on the cover, led by LA Times film writers Amy Kaufman and Mark Olsen, Chastain had this to say when asked about her reflection of her peers’ portrayals in the films they led: Yeah, I had never seen 21 films in such a short amount of time, one after the other. And one of the things that I wouldn’t have noticed on its own, but when watching in that concentration became very clear to me was how the world viewed women. And how little stories talked from a woman’s point of view, from a female protagonist, a story about a woman who wasn’t victimized.”

The issue is that Chastain’s comments focus mainly on the portrayal and view of white women in film and in society. One can begin to wonder just how many, out of the 21 films watched, included a black, latinx, asian, or native woman lead? How about trans WOC? Just as the LA Times cover represented an overabundance of white actresses, the same phenomenon is happening in the films they star in, and other highly-acclaimed films of the year. There seems to be a problem of representation in all forms of media. Clearly, the “Shift In Focus” referred to in the issues’ title refers to a shift from “white men to white women,” a concept that is far from progressive.

Unfortunately, Jessica Chastain’s attempt at being a good ally fell short. But there is a lesson to be learned from all of this – when one notices a blatant exclusion of important figures and narratives in any space, speak up the first time.

Featured Image by Gage Skidmore on Flickr

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1 Comment

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    Janice Henshaw

    January 6, 2018 at 4:42 pm

    Very good article. It taught me a lot! You can’t always be the voice if you don’t join those you attempt to defend. Seems a bit hipocritical in a way.

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