#162: Can knock the hustle
On the pleasant irony of the Hollywood strikes
The first Drew Barrymore critique I read last week came from the writer Amanda Fortini on Twitter, who wrote: “Sadly I have had to learn this lesson repeatedly in my own life, but anyone whose identity or personal brand rests on how nice, kind, warm, lovable, or friendly they are is probably not a great person when you scratch the surface. Sorry but it’s true.”
When I read it, I hadn’t yet heard the news, so I assumed this was another Ellen-Fallon-style scandal whereby some gossip had gotten out about a secretly toxic work environment on the set of Barrymore’s talk show. (I’d have believed it—you can’t trust this level of cope!) Instead, I learned that she’s scabbing. In a saccharine IG post last Sunday, she wrote that she was bringing back her show in violation of the WGA writers’ strike. Below that: thousands of people protesting her choice. The fun twist is that this did kind of reveal a “toxic” work environment, only by way of a caption that claimed the opposite. “[T]his is bigger than just me,” she wrote, correctly, but applied to the wrong context. (Bill Maher also announced that his show would be returning last week, to a bit less fanfare, although I’m sure he’ll get picketed too.)
If you don’t know and are curious, this breakdown from WGA board member David Slack explains how, exactly, Barrymore is violating the strike. Essentially it’s due to the fact that bringing her show back on air without writers requires someone else (non-writers, presumably, and possibly her) to “write” the show in their stead. This is a fairly straight-forward definition of a scab (see: “a worker who accepts employment or replaces a union worker during a strike”—thereby undermining the strike). If you want to read about the concurrent Hollywood strikes more generally, here’s a Jacobin write-up. We’re clearly in the midst of a labor movement in America—just this past Friday, over 10,000 auto workers announced a strike for better wages—and it’s fascinating to watch, because while the logic of collective bargaining seems to defy almost every mainstream national value, we’re coming around to it anyway.
There are plenty of popular (mostly bad faith) anti-union talking points that still get passed around, but support for unions is at an all-time high: 71% of Americans approve of them, the highest number since 1965. This is exciting, but also curious. I’m so used to seeing Americans advocate for self-preservation and personal ambition that it’s almost disorienting to see so many stress the philosophical importance of solidarity and throw their weight behind the idea that what’s advantageous for one group of people might actually harm the common good. And it’s especially disorienting for that conversation to be inspired by the goings-on in Hollywood, one of the biggest, shiniest peddlers of individualism we have.
In the case of Drew Barrymore, the pushback stands out because she’s so well-liked. And because she attempted to frame her choice as moral and upstanding (and even posted a teary apology yesterday that changed nothing), which tends to be a winning combination in PR. But unions are the rare institution in this country where people fundamentally understand and respect the power of the collective. Strikes simply don’t work when people prioritize self-interest. It’s literally written into the contracts. Of course, a lot of society doesn’t work when people act solely of self-interest, but most of the time, we forget that. Social contracts are more vaporous, easier to wriggle out of.
I’ve been thinking about this, my apologies, in regards to another cultural battle: the Barbie discourse, which is thankfully petering out. (A kindness of my cat to pass on the same day I saw the movie, thus saving me from weighing in.) One thing I will say about it, though, is that my least favorite argument in favor of the movie is the suggestion that its commercial success somehow justified its existence. There was the argument that Greta Gerwig’s career ambitions were more important than her not shilling for a corporation looking to clean up its spotty reputation and increase shareholder value; or that one “has to respect” Margot Robbie for making $50M dollars on the project; or that it’s politically important, in an ambient kind of way, that a movie made “for women” was such a box-office success. I think of these kinds of arguments as falling in the camp of “can’t knock the hustle,” one of America’s favorite sentiments, stolen from a Jay-Z song about selling drugs to escape poverty and reappropriated as a defense of basically anyone doing whatever they want to get ahead.
It occurred to me, reading the wave of Drew Barrymore criticism, how absurd it would be for someone to defend her by saying, “Can’t knock the hustle!”—which is nice. It’s satisfying that the logic of a strike lays bare the flaw in applying that notion at scale. To argue against the strike because it hinders someone’s hustle is to misunderstand the point of a strike: It’s supposed to hurt pockets, to cause inconvenience, to halt the flow of business—not just for the powers that be, but for everyone involved. The more pressure applied to the system, the more likely the system will have to change. This requires a lot of sacrifice from everyone involved, which is why strikers deserve our support and respect.
I wonder if this turn toward collectivist thinking will start flowing into other areas of modern life. When it comes to debating anything from how we engage with tech, fashion, or beauty, to how we address the debt crisis or the climate, to how we get ahead at work or in life generally, we run over and over into the conversation-ender that is individual needs and desires. (We’ve even constructed an entire moral framework, via self-empowerment and self-care, around defending our right to tend to them at the expense of basically anyone else.) There’s nothing more American than the idea that change happens through the power of good personal choices, and there’s nothing Americans seem to find more heartwarming than the overcoming of personal struggle.
These ideas are basically the bedrock of Hollywood, too, both in the stories it tells and the fervor it builds around its main characters. Which is why it’s nice, if a little ironic, to see a counterpoint gaining so much traction there. The historical effectiveness of collective bargaining power is well-documented, so while it may seem logical, in the American sense, for anyone struggling because of it to go their own way, to do their own thing, that only preserves the status quo that made everything a struggle in the first place. This ouroboros applies to so many aspects of our lives beyond work. If we start to see real progress from the labor movement, maybe we'll feel inspired to imagine where else we can apply it.
My favorite article I read last week was “Two Strip Clubs, Paris and New Hampshire,” by Lisa Carver for The Paris Review. Loved it, the best I’ve felt reading an essay in a while. Last Friday’s 15 things also included new sneakers, the hypocrisy of tradwives, one of the best dogs of our time (lol), and more. The rec of the week was fall dressing inspiration, starting with some of my own.
My podcast last week was a vulnerable, 1.5-hour conversation with my friend Michelle, inspired by NYMag’s cover story “Adorable Little Detonators,” which I found myself deeply troubled by. Thank you for over 150 genuinely insightful comments under this episode, I’ve been reading them all week!
Hope you have a nice Sunday,