Rose Byrne said that Phyllis Schlafly was a feminist. Okay, she didn’t exactly say that, but many people now believe that she did. Byrne is currently playing Gloria Steinem in the FX mini-series Mrs. America, which follows feminist activists’ attempt to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in the face of opposition led by the infamous conservative talking-head Schlafly, played by Cate Blanchett. The series has attracted rave reviews for its layered portrayal of the burgeoning era of feminism’s second wave, the backlash it faced in the pre-Reagan era, and the deep scars that misogyny that left across society.
In an interview with Variety, Byrne sat down with Marc Malkin for his podcast The Big Ticket and discussed the series. Malkin asks Byrne about Schlafly and, if she ever had the opportunity to talk to the notorious anti-feminist, what she would talk about. Byrne dryly laughs that she probably wouldn’t be able to get a word in edgeways and jokes about a moment in the series where someone points out to Schlafly that, as a woman with six kids, a full-time job, and a front-line activist position, she was certainly taking advantages of the liberating power of the same cause she opposed. Byrne laughs, ‘She was a first-rate feminist. Absolutely. Talk about an independent woman.’ In the abridged version of this conversation included with the podcast, Byrne’s statement is written in a way that cuts out a lot of the context and entirely excludes her tone. Add to that a highly controversial tweet claiming that Rose Byrne definitely said that Phyllis Schlafly was a feminist and you can see the issues forming a mile away.
Rose Byrne says conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly was a feminist: “Six kids, a law degree, a marriage, an activist to the anti-fems. She was a first-rate feminist. Absolutely. Talk about an independent woman” #MrsAmerica https://t.co/jqo4g4FC6X— Variety (@Variety) May 2, 2020
It didn’t take long for Twitter to jump all over this and slam Byrne for her supposed claim. Even I jumped straight to shock and disappointment upon reading the headline before I even listened to the podcast. I imagine a whole lot of people didn’t make it as far as the audio at the bottom of the deeply condensed text. Hear her talk and it’s clear that she’s being sarcastic. Byrne’s sense of humor shines throughout. Of course, it’s hard to convey that in a tweet, a fact that Variety clearly knew.
We know why they posted that out-of-context line as the bait for their tweet. They wanted those clicks and they were wholly unconcerned with how they got them. This is hardly unique to Variety — in an increasingly tough business like journalism, with ad rates tumbling at a disheartening rate, one can hardly be clueless about such tactics — but Variety is supposed to know better than this.
Variety is one of the true legendary trades of Hollywood journalism. Founded in 1905 as a newspaper focused on New York’s theater scene, the magazine moved into covering the motion-picture industry in the 1930s and, alongside The Hollywood Reporter, became one of the go-to sources for news on the entertainment business. On top of news, reviews, and industry deep-dives, Variety does in-depth interviews and launched their Actors on Actors series, a format that has won them Emmys and become a crucial part of awards season for many stars. They remain a key part of the industry, even with increased competition and the proliferation of internet coverage. To this day, if I’m reporting on, say, the announcement of a new movie, I don’t believe it as true until I see Variety or The Hollywood Reporter confirm it. They’re supposed to be above this sort of insidious and shamelessly callous clickbait.
Imagine you’re Rose Byrne and you call in to do an interview with a publication during lockdown. Your publicist has probably set this up and, knowing the legitimacy of the magazine, you feel comfortable taking time out of your quarantine with Bobby Cannavale to go through with it. Things seem to go well and you’re happy with the result, but then you check social media, and all of a sudden there are swaths of people calling you anti-feminist and a whole heap of other insults. You see that thing you said, that joke you made, turned into the outrage of the day. Wouldn’t you feel slighted? I certainly would if I were in that position. Indeed, if I were Byrne’s agent or publicist, I would seriously second-guess sending my clients to Variety for interviews. Why go through that whole rigmarole if there’s a solid chance the publication in question will twist your own words and willingly hang you out to dry for the sake of web traffic?
Things aren’t great right now in the journalism world. Hell, they weren’t exactly thriving even before there was a literal pandemic. Countless writers have been furloughed or outright sacked over the past few weeks and some sites simply won’t survive this. Everyone is doing what they can to stay afloat. I’ve seen the data on such clickbait and it’s a strategy that, unfortunately, works. I’m sure that the abridged interview with Byrne got more attention than if it were simply advertised as is. That’s no excuse, of course, and integrity must come first, but it’s worth understanding why the current business model is so twisted. This is what happens when the work of journalism, especially in the pop culture world, is undervalued by capitalism and forced to adhere to the whims of ad rates, clueless investors, and a broken algorithm. Nobody is immune to this, not even the historic Variety, and isn’t that depressing as all hell?