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A White Guy's Measured Explanation of Why What Matt Damon Said Was Wrong

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | September 29, 2015 | Comments ()

By Dustin Rowles | Think Pieces | September 29, 2015 |



Yesterday, Matt Damon made this statement to The Guardian:

“I think you’re a better actor the less people know about you period. And sexuality is a huge part of that. Whether you’re straight or gay, people shouldn’t know anything about your sexuality because that’s one of the mysteries that you should be able to play.”

This is how some blogs characterized that statement.

Screen Shot 2015-09-28 at 1.18.37 PM-thumb-550x75-138025.jpg

That felt like an unfair characterization to me, and yesterday, I wrote a post saying as much. The headline was this.

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 11.17.29 AM.jpg

The comments were all over the place, ranging from outrage to pity to complaints that all of this was being blown way out of proportion to suggestions that Matt Damon is a lesser person for his comment.

Here’s the comment, however, that I want to focus on:

Screen Shot 2015-09-29 at 11.20.02 AM.jpg

This comment, initially, felt baffling to me, because I re-read that statement several times and nowhere does it say explicitly that gay actors should stay in the closet. He didn’t say what we thought he said!

However, I am also a straight, white male, and like Matt Damon, even when our intentions are earnest, we do not realize that we are speaking from a place of privilege because we are defensive and that word feels shameful and when we hear it we sometimes shut down because we are human. The comment that Matt Damon made seemed completely benign to me. In fact, in an ongoing discussion with the other writers yesterday, I came to Matt Damon’s defense, writing:

He didn’t say that gay people should stay in the closet! He didn’t say that you’re a better person if you hide your sexuality. He simply said that the less that is known about you the better actor you are. I don’t disagree with that. I don’t know a damn thing about Michael Shannon or Ben Mendelsohn, and that not knowing adds to the mystique, because none of their choices are being informed by our opinions of them as people. The more we know about someone, the more our opinions of their acting is informed by it. See: Tom Cruise or Lindsay Lohan. It’s not that it can’t be overcome, but it certainly informs our perceptions, and the more blank the slate is, I think, the easier it is for an actor. In Matt Damon’s case, we know he said something shitty on Project Greenlight two week ago, which is informing our perception of this quote. Had he not done that on Project Greenlight, I don’t think this is a story, which is to say: He has proven his point. (Italics added for emphasis)

I felt very good about that comment, and sat back and waited for the Likes to roll in on Facebook.

*crickets*

Because, you see, what I wrote? It was dumb, but I didn’t understand why it was dumb until my wife took me aside, patted me on the head, and explained it to me using small words that a privileged white guy like myself could understand.

She got the point across, and the point is one that I think many straight, white dudes like myself and Matt Damon — progressive though we may be — don’t instinctually understand. We need a little hand-holding in this regard, and I don’t mind professing ignorance if it furthers a point.

The problem with the statement is that by suggesting that actors should keep their private lives and their sexuality private, he’s advocating for a blank slate. “You’re a better actor if no one knows anything about you.” If they don’t know anything about you, what do they assume?What is the blank slate? What is our default understanding of who an actor is or looks like?

A straight white male, of course.

For instance, if you see this headline — “Actor Signs On to Action Franchise” — and someone asked you to describe the actor based only what you know from the headline, your default answer is probably going to be a straight-white male. If you had to guess, the actor you’d assume based on that headline is probably a Matt Damon type, or a Channing Tatum type or Bruce Willis.

We don’t think instinctually think Gina Carano or Laverne Cox or even Neil Patrick Harris, because we have been conditioned by decades of history to assume that “Action Franchise Actor” is going to be some straight white guy with a little stubble and pearly white teeth. Or the Rock.

In other words, whether Matt Damon meant to or not (and I’d argue he didn’t even realize what he’d done), he was advocating for the blank slate. The “less” we know about an actor, the more we assume the default: Straight, white male. By suggesting that it remain that way, Matt Damon is unconsciously saying that “actors are better off if everyone just assumes they’re straight.”

OH, I see now!

giphy,gif.gif

So yesterday, when Matt Damon went on Ellen to defend his statement, he didn’t really fix anything. He basically said what I said, which was: “The Internet misinterpreted what I said.”

But maybe SpaceManAndy was right: The Internet understood exactly what he said, and it’s Matt Damon who doesn’t understand the implications of his own words.

Does it warrant the level of outrage that the statement has fostered on some parts of the Internet? I don’t think so. Should you think less of Matt Damon for making the statement? I hope not, because that also means you should probably think less of me for not instinctually understanding the stupid words that come out of my mouth. Sometimes, straight white guys just need someone to pull them aside, pat them on the head, and say, “Listen up, dum dum. This is why people are upset. Yes, the outrage may be dialed up way too loud, but if you cut through the clutter and the insults, there’s a nugget of truth beneath it.”

See also: Jon Stewart, White Male Privilege, and the Power of Liberal Denial


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