Column: Despite what you may have heard, no one’s trying to make white men feel guilty for being white men

Brad Pitt, left, and Leonardo DiCaprio in "Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood"
(Andrew Cooper / Columbia Pictures)

Just before Christmas I received an email from a gentleman who was none too pleased by a column I had written about “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood.” His was not the first such response I had received — when the piece, which was actually about what I consider toxic nostalgia, ran in July, my mailbox and Twitter feed overflowed with missives from men expressing their belief that I am a moron, a racist (toward white people), a sexist (toward men) and, in a few cases, descriptors that cannot be reprinted in this paper.

For the record, this gentleman did not call me any names. He did say he had stopped his subscription because of writers “like you … who made me feel guilty EVERY SINGLE TIME I read a review of a film that featured, wait for it, WHITE PEOPLE.”

Again, this is not the first time a piece in which I suggested that, oh, there should be more people of color on TV or more films about women caused readers to accuse me of being as big a bigot as those I was criticizing.

Let me make it clear: Pointing out that the white male viewpoint continues to dominate Hollywood and therefore a very large portion of our cultural landscape isn’t a criticism of the white male viewpoint. It’s a criticism of that viewpoint’s continued domination, often to the point of exclusion.


A domination that is inarguable.

Once again we are in the midst of an awards season in which virtually all of the “best” pictures revolve around the obstacles white men face and the choices they make while facing them. Even the work of Lulu Wang and Greta Gerwig on their ambitious and universally praised films “The Farewell” and “Little Women,” respectively, was not enough to convince Directors Guild of America voters that its list of nominees should not look like roll call for a boy’s club. Once again we are facing acting categories that are all or mostly white; on Sunday, Awkwafina became the first actor of Asian descent to win a Golden Globe in a lead acting category though several acting categories included no performers of color and the next day, BAFTA apologized moments after announcing its all-white list of acting nominees.

But while I deleted that email weeks ago, I keep coming back to the term “made me feel guilty.”

My piece had, apparently, made this man feel guilty for liking a movie — this, despite the fact that it was enthusiastically reviewed, has already won awards and will certainly be an Oscar contender. That guilt, or his perception of my attempt to inflict it, turned to anger, as guilt often does, enough to fuel a fairly long missive in which he also criticized the hypocrisy of liberals in general and liberal writers in particular, but didn’t call me any names. As I say, a gentleman.

Now, I am the eldest daughter of an Irish Catholic family, so there is not much about guilt that I do not understand. I feel guilt over the fact that for many years I accepted the whiteness of most popular culture as natural, that I didn’t truly understand how even the obstacles I faced as a woman were made less arduous by the fact that I am a white woman.

Like many, my people came to America fleeing famine and religious persecution, and faced bigotry when they got here. Their lives were difficult and my great-grandparents, grandparents and parents all worked hard to make things easier for their children, which they did. But none of my ancestors were brought here in chains or put in internment camps or threatened with deportation. The color of their skin and the fact that they spoke English made assimilation easier, and though Catholicism was definitely suspect, it was still Christianity. Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine anyone being denied a job because they are Irish and no Catholic child is regularly asked if she really has horns (as my mother was).

Unfortunately, assimilation often entails such relief over being accepted as part of “us” that we are willing to see ourselves as separate from the remaining “them.” So yes, as someone who writes about art and culture, I do try to note who and what is being left out of our main methods of modern storytelling; I believe the best storytelling is about making new connections rather than reinforcing old ways of viewing the world.

Which is not the same thing as saying you are a terrible person if you liked “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood” even though I did not.

Art can evoke intense feelings, at times a personal bond so deep that any criticism of the beloved work, or a type of beloved work, is felt as a personal affront, aimed not only at the creator but the fan.

It’s tough to see criticized stories we hold dear, including those long accepted as classics; much of our sense of self is built on these stories. Most of us are just trying to do our best, and it’s difficult to have someone imply that this is somehow not good enough. It can feel so personal.

I do not blame anyone, including myself, for liking stories about, wait for it, WHITE GUYS. The fact that so much of film and television revolve around them does not mean that some of those movies and shows aren’t terrific. Of course they are. Some white guys are cool and interesting, with important stories to tell. But so are some black guys. And black women. And white women and Asian women and Asian guys and … you get the point.

Or maybe you don’t. Maybe I’m the one making too many assumptions. So this being the beginning of a new year and decade, I will attempt to curb my own knee-jerk reaction to being told I am a bigot and a hypocrite and clarify my position.

I believe the gentleman who wrote me was sincere when he said he was tired of being made to feel guilty for being white. Just because the ruling class remains white and male does not mean that every white man is a member of it. White men can be disenfranchised too for all sorts of reasons — poverty, physical or mental challenges, cultural differences — and even those who are not still face plenty of life’s obstacles — crappy bosses, addictive personalities, terrible parents, ill-fated love affairs. It is tough to be told you are “privileged” when you have just lost your job or gone through a divorce or been diagnosed with cancer or simply worked very hard to achieve the life you have. Plenty of white guys don’t get their movies or TV shows made either.

I understand that some white men, and white women, feel personally attacked by terms like #OscarsSoWhite. Definitions of racism and sexism and homophobia seem to grow broader every day as long-accepted opinions or social interactions are suddenly labeled, rightly and wrongly, “micro-aggressions” or the hallmarks of “privilege.”

It’s easy to feel that no matter what you do, or say, or enjoy, you’re going to get called out for it. Why can’t we just enjoy awards season for once? Why does everything have to parsed for/ruined by political correctness?

Because feelings are not facts. Inclusion is not synonymous with replacement and real change occurs, as it always has, slowly. My opinions about “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood” or the difficulties of getting a film made with two female leads compared with that of one with two male leads, or the need for greater narrative diversity are not attempts to make audiences feel bad, just aware. Aware that there is another way of looking at things. Aware that not everyone sees what you see. Aware that a thing can be masterful and still misguided, or brilliant on its own but still part of a larger problem.

The conversation around culture has changed a lot in the last 10 years, for a variety of reasons. Young people expect a level of acceptance unthinkable to previous generations. With the rise of social and niche media, life can seem like an unending rhetorical street fight. Despite the legalization of weed in many states, whatever hazy “make love not war” vibe previously existed among social egalitarians has been replaced by the more militant cancel culture and those who find it intolerable. Tolerance itself is seen as patronizing and divisive rhetoric flies from every quarter.

And yes, works of art are now often seen through a new prism of inclusion, in ways that can be illuminating and ridiculous. Just like the older prism of “great art is great art” can be illuminating and ridiculous. Diversity doesn’t equal greatness, but working harder to achieve it does give us a better sense of what the world is, and was, really like.

For everyone. And that’s something anyone should feel guilty about.