Last week Serena Williams made waves for publishing a letter to her mom on Reddit.
You are one of the strongest women I know. I was looking at my daughter (OMG, yes, I have a daughter 😳) and she has my arms and legs! My exact same strong, muscular, powerful, sensational arms and body. I don’t know how I would react if she has to go through what I’ve gone through since I was a 15 year old and even to this day.
I’ve been called man because I appeared outwardly strong. It has been said that that I use drugs (No, I have always had far too much integrity to behave dishonestly in order to gain an advantage). It has been said I don’t belong in Women’s sports — that I belong in Men’s — because I look stronger than many other women do. (No, I just work hard and I was born with this badass body and proud of it).
But mom, I’m not sure how you did not go off on every single reporter, person, announcer and quite frankly, hater, who was too ignorant to understand the power of a black woman.
I am proud we were able to show them what some women look like. We don’t all look the same. We are curvy, strong, muscular, tall, small, just to name a few, and all the same: we are women and proud!
You are so classy, I only wish I could take your lead. I am trying, though, and God is not done with me yet. I have a LONG way to go, but thank you.
Thank you for being the role model I needed to endure all the hardships that I now regard as a challenges–ones that I enjoy. I hope to teach my baby Alexis Olympia the same, and have the same fortitude you have had.
Promise me, Mom, that you will continue to help. I’m not sure if I am as meek and strong as you are yet. I hope to get there one day. I love you dearly.
Your youngest of five,
In doing so, she participated in a trend that’s fairly new — one that subverts a system built to speak for celebrities, instead of letting them speak for themselves.
“I have been afraid of speaking out or asking things of men in positions of power for years,” wrote Amber Tamblyn in her New York Times essay published the same week. “What I have experienced as an actress working in a business whose business is to objectify women is frightening. It is the deep end of a pool where I cannot swim.”
The piece, titled “I’m Done With Not Being Believed,” was published on the heels of Tamblyn’s Teen Vogue open letter, which indicted actor James Woods for first preying upon her when she was a teenager, and then calling her a liar for accusing him 20 years later. People around the world chimed in with their support and solidarity, and women in the industry echoed her sentiments.
Your strength gives strength to all. I honor you. It may seem easier to be silent but it’s compassionate to be ear-splittingly truthful. https://t.co/XgxWOJuXLr
— Jessica Chastain (@jes_chastain) September 14, 2017
As a young actress I had drinks with James Woods-he didn’t listen to the word no. I always blamed myself until I realized who was to blame.
— julie brown (@missjuliebrown) September 14, 2017
— Anna Paquin (@AnnaPaquin) September 13, 2017
There is plenty to criticize about a society sustained on celebrity worship, but the ripple effects of Tamblyn’s story are proof that celebrity first-person narratives are effective forms of activism. In 2012, even if we’d heard Tamblyn’s story, it probably wouldn’t have been told her own way, under her own byline. For victims and other oft-marginalized groups, being handed control over the story is critically important.
When Angelina Jolie wrote “My Medical Choice”, a personal essay about her experience undergoing a double mastectomy for the New York Times in May 2013, it was a huge deal. I remember it felt like the 24-hour news cycle paused in deference. Several follow-up pieces were published by women who also carried the BRCA1 gene, who had either made the same decision or wished they had. Tests for the gene shot up 64% in the U.S., which a Harvard Medical study dubbed “the Angelina Jolie effect.” It’s hard to imagine a profile on Jolie’s decision having the same effect.
It’s not that the celebrity essay is unheard of: In 2002, Steve Martin wrote “The Death of My Father,” a personal piece for The New Yorker that people still reference today. In 2004, Jack Nicholson wrote “Remembering Marlon Brando” for Rolling Stone. In 2013, Matt Damon wrote a personal essay for the Boston Globe. But if you notice a pattern among those writers, so do I. After Jolie’s “My Medical Choice,” though, the celebrity byline with an activist tilt gained unprecedented traction.
There was Lena Dunham’s “Why I Chose to Speak Out” for BuzzFeed about her experience with sexual assault in December of 2014. Soon after that, Michael B. Jordan’s “Why I’m Torching the Color Line” for Entertainment Weekly, on playing a comic book character who was written white. Then came Meghan Markle’s “I’m More Than Other” for ELLE UK on being mixed race in Hollywood; Jennifer Lawrence’s “Why Do I Make Less Than My Male Costars?”; Alicia Keys’ “It’s Time to Uncover”; Kristen Bell’s “I’m Over Staying Silent About Depression”; Jennifer Aniston’s “For the Record”; Mila Kunis’ “You’ll Never Work in This town Again”; Lady Gaga’s “Portrait of a Lady”; Kesha’s “What’s Left of My Heart is Fucking Pure Gold & No One Can Touch That.”
And then there are the self-published blog posts and vignettes — a dialed-up older cousin of the Instagram essay: Beyoncé’s “Freedom”, Laverne Cox’s response to Caitlyn Jenner’s cover debut, Solange’s “And Do You Belong? I Do,” and most recently, Serena Williams’ “Letter to My Mom.”
We may be sick of our screens, of personal essays, of over-exposure of the rich and famous, but celebrity op-eds are a prime example of how to wield those powers effectively. And they’re further proof that the best way to tell the stories of women, people of color and people of other, is to hand them the microphone.
Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for Burberry.