How an ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Actor Became a Powerful Feminist Ally

It’s a safe bet that many of us feminists who say things like, “It’s not my job to educate you” and, “Why can’t [Celebrity X] just say she’s a feminist?” on Twitter or Tumblr, interact every day with people in our families, workplaces, and even social circles who are exactly like the folks we criticize online. Most feminists have have “I’m not a feminist, but” friends — and perhaps our daily interactions with these folks help to explain why we don’t feel compelled to slow down and teach Feminism 101 to curious strangers on the Internet.

It’s also true that newbies to social justice can be maddeningly demanding of the time and teaching of writers and activists in ways that range from subtly frustrating questions to blunt demands to outpourings and confessions. All this is immensely draining to those of us fighting for our own rights.

But there has to be a balance between refusing to do that kind of unpaid labor and also getting so angry at well-intentioned (temporary) ignoramuses that we scare them away from social justice communities forever. Surprisingly enough, some answers to this conundrum arrived yesterday from Orange Is The New Black actor Matt McGorry (who plays Officer Bennet), in an enlightening interview with Jezebel’s Julianne Escobedo Shepherd that made me question some of my own assumptions.

In their chat, McGorry emphasized the idea of giving people space to mess up when they are new to a social justice framework, whether that specific topic is feminism, trans civil rights, or anti-racism:

So, I think what I’ve been trying to do is have a conversation and sort of, making it okay for people to fuck up. I think we all need to be careful about when someone is talking out of ignorance, versus bigotry. The more intersectional I try to become, I have a couple friends who are very into it and I often run things by them. Because it’s really hard to say the wrong thing or something that’s not inclusive of trans people or everyone across the gender spectrum, and sometimes I think we need to be forgiving, because the problem is, when people attack, I think that’s when people start locking up.

Ironic use of “locking up” aside, McGorry is talking about the psychological effects of public humiliation and shame, which — even if used against someone who is genuinely wrong — can backfire or cause more conflict. It makes me think that I should treat curious strangers the same way I’d treat a friend or relative who wasn’t fully feminist — with patience, persuasion, and space to be themselves.

Yet McGorry is hardly messing up all over the place. In fact, when he first announced that he was a feminist Jezebel mocked him, teasing the idea that somehow a man being a feminist was earth-shattering. He tells Jezebel now that he thought about responding but did not, and instead proved his worth by keeping quiet and continuing to learn and advocate. So, as he’s talking about how we can help people become better allies, he’s also demonstrating how to be a better ally, by listening and learning. And it should be noted that while Jezebel did tease them, the site didn’t go as far as saying, “McGorry is the worst  — how dare he call himself a feminist?” The results of that kind of post might have been less fruitful for all.

Finally, what tickled me about McGorry’s transformation was that the actor’s feminist “click” moments came from often-derided “mainstream” feminist texts: Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In and Emma Watson’s UN speech on gender equality. Since then, he’s moved on to talking about intersectionality. He’s made a huge leap in a short amount of time, partly because he’s been allowed the benefit of the doubt.

This leads me to propose a solution for killing two feminist-irritant birds with one stone. Whenever a would-be ally bugs busy activists about basic principles they should know already, let’s give them a copy of one of these basic texts (that we might not even like), both of which are imperfect and not intersectional enough but have broad starter appeal. Instead of just “Educate yourself!” we should say, “Educate yourself — start with Emma Watson, but don’t stop there! And get back to me in a year.”