How Ricky Gervais’ speech exemplifies—and entrenches—White male privilege

As I write this, Ricky Gervais’ 2020 Golden Globes opening speech (video and transcript) is making the rounds. My, how he socked it to that self-righteous Hollywood elite! And sure, Hollywood’s got its elitism problems (not to mention quite a few others)—but Ricky Gervais seems ok with dismissing some of these issues as insignificant and worthy of poking fun at, when he’s not the one inconvenienced. Take representation of Color, for example:

Many talented people of Color were snubbed in major categories. Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do about that. Hollywood Foreign Press are all very racist. Fifth time. So. We were going to do an in-memoriam this year, but when I saw the list of people who died, it wasn’t diverse enough. No, it was mostly White people and I thought, nah, not on my watch. Maybe next year. Let’s see what happens.

Mr. Gervais takes a similar attitude toward themes of sexual abuse:

In this room are some of the most important TV and film executives in the world. People from every background. They all have one thing in common: They’re all terrified of Ronan Farrow. He’s coming for ya. Talking of all you perverts, it was a big year for pedophile movies. Surviving R. Kelly, Leaving Neverland, Two Popes. Shut up. Shut up. I don’t care. I don’t care.

It’s funny … this excerpt here above could certainly be viewed as a reverse psychology move: Satirically protest too much about the exposing of sexual violence in Hollywood and society in order to draw more attention to the issue. Brilliant! I’d have been quite happy with that approach.

But Gervais makes it clear at the end of his speech whose side he’s on:

So if you do win an award tonight, don’t use it as a platform to make a political speech. You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything. You know nothing about the real world. Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg.

So if you win, come up, accept your little award, thank your agent and your God and fuck off, OK? It’s already three hours long. Right, let’s do the first award.

Was I the only person who noticed the irony of Gervais making political points about how everyone else must not do the same? I’m sure I wasn’t.

It’s also not the first time I’ve noticed this pattern of authoritative hypocrisy; as a White man who studies White men, I’m quite familiar with it. Many of us White guys attempt the same sort of policing of space when we aren’t comfortable with a critique that’s out of our orbit.

“Apolitical” points of view in the public space represent a certain kind of privilege — the privilege of feeling basically unaffected by a subject or ongoing series of events. Which is fine as long as one does not impose this experience onto others.

So, for example, Ricky Gervais doesn’t seem to feel particularly affected by the Whiteness of the Golden Globes. Makes sense. He’s White and grew up in a White family in a White-majority society. That’s his experience, and while I personally think he should care, I’m not going to criticize him for [not] having certain feelings. You can’t help your experience, and you can’t help the feelings you [don’t] have as a result of it.

The big question is, what do we do with our feelings and experiences? Ricky Gervais, in his speech, gives his answer quite clearly: My perspective is the standard. If you care so much about non-White representation in film … you shouldn’t, because I don’t and oh well. If you care about sexual violence in Hollywood and elsewhere, whatever. Don’t make a big political speech about it. “I don’t care. I don’t care.

In other words, if Ricky Gervais decides it doesn’t matter, it must be self-righteous PC Hollywood prattle. Nothing to see here.

I hear the counterargument: Gervais is the master of ceremonies, so he gets more time to do his shtick and set the tone—time that those who get awards are not allotted. Ok, sure—so why use that time to set a tone of erasure and punching down? Why ape the language of all those out there who say that racism doesn’t matter, or that rich, privileged perverts will be perverts and that it isn’t a big deal?

Hollywood has a huge self-righteous elitism problem. That’s part of why Gervais’ speech rings true to a lot of people. But when he all too eagerly plays the time-honored role of the great White male authority on who can say what, particularly in a space increasingly known lately for its critiques of the powerful, he’s not helping. Rather, he is using his own powerful platform to engage in the very sort of PC-policing he decries — and doing so for the benefit of the powerful.

Does every White man have the powerful platform that Ricky Gervais has? Absolutely not. A lot of White dudes are struggling with the lack of agency we feel in our lives. But too many of us are think we must get back our agency through asserting social dominance, rather than finding other healthier, less overbearing sources of agency—and today’s huge batch of brutish, dominance-obsessed, overwhelmingly-White-and-male role models for White men does not help with this problem.

Ricky Gervais is not just some brutish dude with an opinion, though. He’s a comedian. He thinks about situationality—how things sound to whom, from whose mouth, in what situation, etc.—for a living. But with his opening speech at the Golden Globes Sunday night, he made a choice to play up the brazen dominant White male stereotype by punching down for kicks. As a White man who hates how White men are constantly socialized toward this brutish way of being, I’m angry at him for that. He knows better.

We live in a world of rising fascism, worsening inequality, rampant sexual abuse, religious repression, exhaustion of natural resources, war-readiness, impending climate apocalypse, and so on. It’s all political. Be very wary of anybody who says that something isn’t political or shouldn’t be political; those who want to safeguard their satisfaction with how things are are going to use that refrain again and again to silence important efforts to right wrongs and enact justice. Don’t fall for it like Mr. Gervais appears to have.