‘Activism is a form of survival’: A feminist conversation with Amber Tamblyn
Activist and writer, Amber Tamblyn, speaks to Daily Cardinal editors about feminism in the film industry, her life and recent bestseller 'Era of Ignition.'Image By: Image Courtesy of Hollywood Reporter
Amber Tamblyn — actress, director and most recently author of “Era of Ignition” — spoke with editors of the Daily Cardinal about her experience in the film industry, developing the Time’s Up movement, and seeking allyship and inclusivity in mainstream feminism. She discusses the importance of coming to the table and having accountability in this ignited era. This is not a choice for women, but a means of survival.
When did you decide to write this book? And how long has the topic been on your mind?
I started thinking about the book maybe like a year and a half ago. I had wanted to do a collection of essays that really talked about my trajectory in my work, but also didn’t completely focus on that. I kind of feel like anything pertaining to the entertainment business, for me anyway, gets a little boring and monotonous. I knew that there was so much that I wanted to talk about pertaining to my experience as a woman in that business, but then the larger experience of women in any business. And I thought that would make a pretty compelling book in this wild world that we live in right now.
When did you first identify as a feminist?
I don’t remember, which is a good thing. I grew up around a lot of women who identified as that, and so it’s sort of ingrained in who I am, in my culture and in my life, so it was not something that felt separate for me. It’s taken time to fully recognize what kind of feminist that I was, what kind of person and what that value meant. I think it’s one thing to say that you are that, I think it’s another thing to truly act that out and live the words of the idea of having equality for all women. So I think I definitely always identified with it, I don’t think I fully knew the total impact of what the idea meant up until maybe like several years ago. I think most women come into it in that way.
How do you go about avoiding creating this universal definition for feminism, because that happens a lot in the media. How do you go about making sure there’s not this one label of feminism?
I think it’s very hard not to, but I believe that to be true of any movement or ideal or belief. Then, I think that, at some point, there is always somebody that is going to say that it’s wrong or it’s not conducive and that it has problems. And, you know what, all of those things are true, especially in feminism. It’s true of everything. It’s true of the civil rights movement, it’s true of religion, it’s true of everything. And that’s okay for those things to be true, I think that’s why Roxane Gay’s “Bad Feminist” was truly revolutionary, because it gave us permission to be flawed. It gave us permission to say that you don’t have everything figured out, you don’t have all these answers. There is no perfect wave. Every wave of feminism is important, has been important, has something to offer. And that we all have, at one point or another, failed and probably hurt somebody in the process of trying to be part of that change. I think owning those mistakes and failures — the blind spots — in places in which is has not been, is the most important thing we can do in changing things going forward, to be really honest.
What does intersectionality mean to you and why is this important to movements like Time’s Up and Me Too?
Intersectionality is the sub-equality conversation. So while we’re having conversations about equality of men and women on their treatment and how their paid, there’s also the sub-conversation, and there are many versions of that, which is equality within the equality conversation. And so, it’s predominantly white women or affluent women of a higher stature or class where dictating social justice has changed and [are] trying to change the world, but that’s not necessarily the right thing. And so, I think one of the important things that we have to remember is that is not just that we have felt marginalized, it’s not just that we have felt left out of the conversation. There are always other women that feel that moreso. And those women we have to lift up and make sure that their voices are heard. It’s the same thing I would say about, like we can’t have feminism without men. We can’t have it. It should be for for cisgendered women. It should be for non-binary people. It should be for queer men. It should be straight men. It should be for everybody. Like the “bell hooks” books, feminism is for everybody and she meant it. And she was right. I would take it one step further and say that it has to be everybody, because we can’t succeed in any sense of equality unless you have everyone trying to understand the things that they value.
Because in the news, it tends to focus more on this idea of mainstream feminism or even just white feminism, how do you work, personally, to make it more inclusive?
I think the most important thing we can do is have personal responsibility and personal accountability, so forget what everyone else is doing, right? Forget that. I don’t believe that spending our time policing online and policing on Twitter is necessarily the way to go. I think it’s really important for us to converse and be aware of the ways in which we are failing other people, but then there’s this whole thing of: who do we have access to? Is it our other white girlfriends? Do we have access to them if they are good friends of ours to help them see when they have failed and they have done something racist or when they are just not really getting it. I know I am the person I am today because of my close girlfriends who were not white. These women who loved me enough to pull me aside and say let me help, this is how we do it. And I love that as a way to pass it on to other women so that we’re all doing it. And also passing it onto men so that their doing it too. But I think remembering that we can hold people accountable without cruelty. This idea of mentorship is incredibly important, so to see it more as mentoring our sisters, as blind as they might be, so that we are all uplifting each other at the end of the day.
How are you and other members of the Time’s Up movement working to enact change in the film industry, specifically?
We’ve been working on that, as you know, Time’s Up is over one year old. And we have been working very hard to make sure that women’s voices are being heard in film and television and not just the stories that are told onscreen, but the people that are creating those stories: the writers, the directors, the women behind the camera, the women working in different departments that create those creative endeavors. So we’ve been working on that for some time and I think also making sure that there is a very safe environment for those experiences to happen. It’s the simple things, like never in our existence as an industry has there been somebody present to coordinate scenes that are intimacy related, so like sex scenes or things like that, if they were making out, or whatever those things might be. And it was just in the last year that they developed this term called an intimacy coordinator. Because when you are doing those scenes, it’s not just less to the devices of the male actor who you’re acting across, and predominantly the male director and the male producers. It always a very uncomfortable situation. And now when you have someone there, it feels so much safer in a lot of ways. I would say that’s one of the really big things.
What are some ways to combat the self-doubt women face when going into leadership roles? And fighting the oppressive systems that create the gender roles and positions that are traditionally fulfilled by men?
I talk a lot in the book about that and the idea of how do we go from being held in one particular place and boxed into a certain archetype or role and how we can change that. How we can push through the greater oppression whether that’s in the workplace or even personally in our own lives and come out on the other side changed and feeling more powerful about that. I keep going back to this idea of allyship and mentorship and it’s so important for each of us to find those people in the workplace and in our personal lives — we really have to push through the idea that we have to stay where we are at and that we can’t grow or go past anything further from that. One of the best ways to do that is to find people who are like-minded and believe the same things we believe because if we find those people and we create groups or movements or organizations with those people, whatever that is, we can affect a lot of positive change. I think even in schools or universities some much can be changed just by women and getting together with like-minded men and asking them to come support them. Be there with them whether it’s that they want equality, they want there to be less sexual harassment and sexual assault on campus — these are huge issues always for any university or college. That is just not a battle that can be done alone. One of the most powerful things about Time’s Up is that it was exactly that, it was this idea that we realized on our own and it didn’t matter how famous the person was, how powerful the executive was, how much clout the distributor had, as women that we were not going to be enough by ourselves. We had to get together, we had to work to fight for each other and that we were much stronger in numbers. So, I think that’s one of the really great ways that anyone can push through that, any marginalized voice whether that’s again a women, a non-binary person, someone with disability, anyone that has felt boxed or left out of the room. Really work hard to find who your allies are.
What is an ally to you? Do you consider it an action or an identity?
I think it can only be an action. I think even in our words, the words can support an action. Right, so it doesn't necessarily mean you have to go and physically show up for something. Some people that’s just not in their nature, they don’t feel comfortable with it and I get that, I think those that want to physically show up for something should and they have to stick their necks out on the line to do that, but I think for other people sometimes it can be just communicating through a friend, it can be saying something with words. Haha, it’s one of the things that I remember when Donald Trump when he was talking about words and how we lost the way to talk. I just shook my head and was like that’s not true. Words are especially tied to action, they are actions. Speaking bigotry, speaking racism, speaking sexism, those affect people, they affect what jobs they get, work they get, their self-esteem. These words can literally manifest and turn into somebody’s suicidal ideation, the power of words is innumerable and we have to take that seriously. And, we have to remember that is so much a part of the action of allyship. So, we should definitely consider that as one of our strongest tools. That’s what we have best to offer.
What is your relationship with identifying as a feminist and traditional societal norms that revolve around marriage and family?
Well to me, everything is intertwined and deeply rooted in feminism no matter what it is. So any of the work will always come from that whether it is the work I do in my own marriage or whether it is the work I do as a mother or a writer — everything comes from that place. I think it’s so interesting, I’ve always felt like for women activism is not a choice, so, when people always ask me, ‘like how old were you when you got into activism?’ And I’m like I don’t remember. I am deeply tied to it, it’s been a part of who I am forever. I don’t think that women have that choice, I think that for women activism is a form of survival. And that is with any given activism that things are just not there, someone is getting paid more, I’m being abused, I’m being talked down to, whatever the form of it is we react and we act in an activist way. By being a part of that and making sure that we are doing the most that we can and not by choice but either we do that or we are harmed or cease to exist in a certain capacity. I’m constantly reminded of that as an idea. So, I think it’s deeply tied to everything I am. It’s not like I choose it, for this one part of my life and then I don’t for another part. It is everything that I am and everything that I am not. And, that’s just the way that it is.
How does your discussions with David and other men work to combat these gender barriers and systemic privilege?
Again, I go back to this idea of having these conversations and it’s on each of us do to our part and to know that we are all human beings at the end of the day. The problem is not failing, the problem is not any given man or person failing in their attempt to be better and to no harm people, [but] to see them for who they are to support them. Failure is not the problem, the problem is in not trying, it’s in being this [person] in the stands who is going like ‘well this doesn’t affect me so I don’t have to worry about it’ or it upset me so I am not going to push through and work harder at it. It’s uncomfortable, we always hear about this word, I think being uncomfortable in these capacities — it’s supposed to be uncomfortable. These conversations are type of change in ourselves, again, going back to the accountability model. It’s uncomfortable, you never have a breakthrough where you’re like ‘ah that was really easy, like it didn’t leave me emotionally gasping for air at all.’ It does. It’s supposed to be that way, but even the best of us — I hate the word woke‚ but even the most woke of us have that and have to go through it and comes out on the other side like ‘oh what I did is really shitty and blind.’ And it’s the learning, it’s the trying and learning that is the most powerful thing we have to offer as human beings. But, the not trying is unacceptable, especially in this time. That’s what I believe so much so I always just encourage men to not be afraid to fail with this particular movement and topic and seeing things now, but to know that to not come and meet us at the table, to not try is where the problem is. And that’s when things get difficult and messy.
What was the inspiration for ‘Era of Ignition?’ How did you come up with this? And lastly, why did you choose to end with a letter to your daughter?
I was trying to find a way to describe what this world is that we are living in right now, which just really feels like a condense, age of change. Radical change and things that feel very chaotic, a world that feels like we don’t know where it’s going to land once it has landed. After this huge detonation that we’ve all felt in the last two years and describing what we do after the chaos, what we do after the palpable rage, which is I believe this ignited era that were in right now. I mean I don’t know a woman whether it’s my sister or my mom or my friends in the entertainment business who are not feeling to some capacity more powerful than they ever felt before whether or not that’s literally true or not. They are feeling very engaged and they are feeling very much like they would do anything they can to change their own lives and see through what they need to see through without asking for permission. So, that’s sort of where the title came from and again, this idea of mentorship and passing on what we most hope for ourselves. Someday if you decide as women to have kids, you don’t have to either is fine, but you’ll feel the same way. You will feel this need to pass on everything that you have learned, the good and bad, most importantly the bad. Learning from the bad is so important for each and every one of us and I really wanted to end the book by gifting that to her. And by hoping that letter to her will resonate with so many women and fathers too, this idea of the gift that we give to our children, which is not all their hopes and dreams and filling them with them with those types of things, but filling them with truth. And, then talking about truth of the world that we live in because with that knowledge and intelligence we come armed to the table. We come armed to the conversation, to any conversation.Subscribe to The Daily Cardinal Newsletter