At the 77th Golden Globe Awards, Ricky Gervais did another one of his headline-grabbing opening monologues. Gervais, ever self-aware, has slowly been ratcheting up the roast-like nature of his Golden Globes monologues since his first appearance, of which this is his fifth and—supposedly—final time. Gervais joked throughout the set repeatedly that it was his fifth time hosting, he didn’t know why they kept having him back when he continued to stir up controversy (something awards ceremonies typically try to steer clear of), and that because it was his last time, he just “didn’t care anymore” and was going to let everyone know what he thought of them.
While I usually roll my eyes at these faux-edgy monologues, which have a lot of recycled Hollywood jokes (you’re all vain, you’re all closet perverts, etc.) that have been a staple for some 50+ years (why is so much old material treated as edgy anyways?), this year the jokes seemed to sting a lot more. Gervais joked about “Cats” star Dame Judi Dench in a way that was brutally funny, but probably not safe to reprint here, employed the now-cringey “Epstein didn’t kill himself” meme to set up the audience for a much more vicious shutdown (they booed, to which he responded “Now, now, I know he was your friend, but come on…”), and perhaps most notably, closed his set with a scathing, direct critique of the performative/commodified wokeness of Hollywood.
Gervais criticized actors and executives for claiming to be allies of progressive causes while working with streaming services owned by Apple, Disney, and Amazon, who Gervais noted no doubt take advantage of disenfranchised and desperate laborers overseas. Gervais joked that if ISIS started a successful streaming platform, Hollywood actors would call their agents. He closed his monologue stating that Hollywood actors are detached from the experiences of the outside world and remain unaware of how their self-aggrandizing behavior and hypocrisy—speaking “truth to power” while heeling to mega-corporations and even covering up shady behavior to maintain their careers—reflect on the general public. That they aren’t as worldly and educated as they’d like to believe, and therefore have no place to lecture the public on any sort of nuanced political issues. Gervais’ rant summarized is essentially a reminder that actors are just actors, and that most of them “spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg,” calling the nominees to “Come up, accept your little award, thank your agent, thank your God, and f*ck off.”
Gervais’ monologue drew gasps, jeers, laughs and even blank, slightly perturbed stares from many of the stars present—Tom Hanks looked befuddled, probably because he’s far too nice and wholesome for this world—and the public reaction has been no different. While most people found Gervais speech to be pure entertaining spectacle, there have been some reactions from political mouthpieces regarding his speech. Notably, after watching his speech via YouTube—because who wants to watch the entire Golden Globes?—I was recommended Ben Shapiro’s response. Curious, I clicked and in his response Ben Shapiro seemed to agree with Gervais, as I had. Though, unsurprisingly, not for exactly the same reasons.
Shapiro, discussing both Gervais and Joaquin Phoenix’s speeches, seemed more inclined to simply bask in the schadenfreude of seeing self-important actors be reminded of their own faults and hypocrisies. I cannot deny, as a fallible human being myself, that schadenfreude—in some small part—is gratifying. It’s why the Fyre Fest catastrophe drew so much attention: seeing extremely wealthy, smarmy yuppies and influencers get conned into a pseudo-“Lord of the Flies” by an unscrupulous entrepreneur is, undeniably, a comical situation. However, I felt Gervais, perhaps unintentionally, tapped into the deeper core of why many people seem to resent this type of awards show speech, in a way people like Shapiro entirely miss.
The kind of performative wokeness seen at Hollywood awards shows comes across as disingenuine and calculated, much in the same way the Nike campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick did. It’s merely a corporation—or an entity like massive awards shows with corporate backers—taking advantage of popular social movements and adopting them for profit. Nike only had to release an ad with Kaepernick in it and they raised their stock, and Nike’s sold better—even when morons on Twitter burned them, they still bought them. Nike profits, no real social change is achieved, and people are pitted against each other in a fabricated, superficial controversy that fails to genuinely address the social issues the ad hints at. The debate becomes the ad itself, not police brutality. Capitalism once again subsumes all genuine attempts to subvert the system, ingratiating populist movements in a way that services the system while convincing people they’re somehow fighting it.
Awards show speeches are much the same. Speeches that address complex societal issues in the form of simplistic soundbites that provide no real solutions serve the speech-giver and those applauding from the audience, and no one else. It does not spark any real social change in the audience at home. Those who already agree will agree despite the lack of substance. Those who already disagree will simply disregard it because of the lack of substance. Any attempt to encourage genuine solutions, such as Joaquin Phoenix’s speech, is swept under the rug.
Phoenix, in his acceptance speech for his role in “Joker,” applauded the Hollywood Foreign Press for choosing to make the Golden Globes a vegan event, because of the correlation between animal agriculture and climate change. Phoenix himself is a vegan and animal rights activist. Phoenix finished with an assertion that voting for environmentalist legislation, while great, simply isn’t enough. Phoenix asserted that individuals must make sacrifices in their own lives to combat global climate change, suggesting the crowd of—mostly—millionaires sacrifice some of the comfort and luxury they’ve become accustomed to. Phoenix asked them to consider not taking “private jets from Palm Springs” to awards ceremonies, and very quickly he was played off. His speech was clocking in around three minutes, so it’s difficult to say if he was being censored or merely that his clock ran out, but the timing of the music as he challenges his peers is pretty humorous and a bit suspect.
It’s as though this entire Golden Globes was a peek inside a post-#MeToo Hollywood, whose sheen of respectability is crumbling before us—Gervais joked that half the attendees were terrified of journalist Ronan Farrow. The public has always been cynical about Hollywood, considering the plethora of horror stories dating back to its supposedly squeaky-clean Golden Era—just look up what studio executives did to Judy Garland. But after #MeToo, it’s as though the cynicism as escalated—justifiably so—and each of these moments at the Golden Globes points to the larger hypocrisy present in a lot of these major awards shows. These glitzy spectacles are tainted by the necessity to appease the big studios and executives. The rules for attendees are plain to see: be an ally, but only when it’s profitable, both for you and the studio. Speak on current issues in broad strokes, but don’t implicate yourselves or your employers when you do.
So we find ourselves back at Gervais’ speech. While I agree with much of his cynical perspective on the commodification of progressivism, I feel his monologue winds up having the same effect as the very speeches he is critiquing: nothing substantial. It’s fun to laugh along with his shocking jokes and skewering of the hypocrisies and grimmer sides of the entertainment industries, but this one speech will only serve to feed the schadenfreude of people who already dislike Hollywood. Whether that be people like Ben Shapiro who hate Hollywood because it’s liberal, or people like me who feel Hollywood isn’t truly progressive/liberal enough.
It will not lead to any meaningful changes to the capital machine of the entertainment industry, nor any major changes of opinion among those within the entertainment industry bubble, because it wasn’t specific enough. Limited by the guise of a comedy routine, Gervais never really delved into any of the critiques I just discussed, leaving it up to interpretation how much was a joke and how much was true critique, or even what viewpoint he was critiquing from. This is what leads people like me and guys like Ben Shapiro to having wildly different takes on his speech, because there wasn’t anything deeper than Gervais just roasting Hollywood. It was shocking, we laughed, it will soon be forgotten. But I guess that’s the world we live in now. Everything, even our debates, function like capitalist commodification: we merely subsume another’s viewpoint (if it’s vague enough) and spin it to reflect our own biases and viewpoints.
So is there anything positive we can take from this? How can you make any sort of meaningful statement or attempt to subvert the systemic issues in our world when they seem so impenetrable? Even to the point where their structures have infested our very speech and methods of dialogue? Well, it’s hard to say. But I think Joaquin Phoenix, better than anyone, touched upon it in his speech. The world is changing. Certain major organizations, such as the Hollywood Foreign Press (all their faults aside), are trying to make small but important changes in their own practices to set an example. Aside from voting for people that actually represent our interests—instead of merely settling for whoever is predicted to win—we need to practice good praxis in our own lives. Sacrifice some of our own comforts in order to make a better world. Hold our own peers accountable. Don’t simply pay lip service to a progressive ideology, but actually try to practically live it out in whatever small way you can. The reform of ingrained institutions is only possible with the reform of the individuals who comprise them.
Matt Cotter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @vincesagebrush.