Monday, March 3, 2014

Whose Oscar Speech Is It Anyway?

Since when are Hollywood actors expected to speak on behalf of oppressed groups?  By what standards is someone's commitment to helping other measured?  And whose responsibility is it to stand up for important social issues?

These are some of the issues that are currently being debated back and forth, in light of Matthew McConaughey's speech at last night's Academy Award ceremony.  Upon winning the award for Best Actor for Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey thanked "all 6000 members of The Academy," the film's cast and crew, his mother, his wife, his kids, his late father, himself in ten years, as well as God. He pretty much expressed gratitude to everyone and everything except for the people with HIV/AIDS portrayed in the film, and people living with HIV today who are still struggling.

Many are subsequently taking umbrage at this omission, referring to McConaughey as vain, selfish, narcissistic, and "disgusting."  They believe McConaughey "should" have thanked Ron Woodroof, whose life the film is based upon, or at least said the word "AIDS" in his acceptance speech.  There is a general feeling that McConaughey "owes" the activist community this debt of appreciation, because he had the audacity to deliver a first-rate performance of a real-life hero struggling with AIDS.

What I look for in Oscar speeches, as well as in any public statement, is authenticity.  Is the person speaking being true to themselves?  Do they have integrity? Are they saying one thing while meaning another?  Do they claim to care for a group of people for whom they have no interest whatsoever?

This was indeed the case twenty years ago when many Hollywood celebrities were "encouraged" (i.e, expected) to wear red ribbons to demonstrate support for people living with HIV/AIDS.  This false sense of humanity led many actors on stages to make shallow statements of caring, hollow gestures of concern, insincere proclamations of compassion.  

One could certainly assert that a false sense of concern in front of 45 million people is better than no concern at all.  But I, for one, found the practice to be lacking in integrity, and proudly wore my ACT-UP T-Shirt proclaiming, "Red Ribbons Are For Gift Wrapping" to protest such fallacious ideals.  I'd still rather deal with an authentic bigot than a contrary liberal any day.

Keep in mind that for many public figures, social justice is, and always has been, an authentic commitment.  Certainly Elizabeth Taylor was a beacon at trumpeting HIV/AIDS services, and this was an integral thread of her public and private work in the last three decades of her life.  Susan Sarandon, Judith Light, Richard Gere, and yes, Alec Baldwin, are only a few examples of people who have consistently and authentically dedicated parts of their life to political action.  Given an opportunity to make a public speech, they will often use it to lend support and attention to their cause.

It would have been nice to add Matthew McConaughey to that list.  It is disappointing to me that he did not use one second of his three minute acceptance speech to say the words "AIDS."  But McConaughey's indifference has nothing to do with my commitment.  I have been working in HIV prevention/ education in one form or another for the past 22 years.  Having a celebrity's endorsement has nothing to do with the work that is important and meaningful to me.  It won't stop me from actively talking about PrEP, TasP, and continuing to help people understand how to enrich emotional and sexual intimacy responsibly.

Instead of crucifying McConaughey for expressing his authentic self, why not use this as an opportunity to decide how you want to communicate your concerns?  If you think HIV/AIDS rights need more attention, then you give it attention.  Write about it in social media, talk to your friends about PrEP, donate money to a cause, be the change you want to see in the world.

Focusing narrowly on the limitations of others does not change the world.  Openly sharing your values, commitments, and then taking action based on those values and commitments, does change the world.  What if we started from there, and allowed award-winning gumbo-loving actors to take care of their themselves?

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in New York who has helped hundreds of couples and individuals create joyful, peaceful, and pleasurable relationships. He is the author of the books, “Rational Relating” and “Absolutely Should-less.” His trainings have helped thousands to learn practical skills for living an empowered and fulfilling life. To speak with Damon about counseling, speaking engagements, or media appearances - please contact him at, call 347-227-7707, or visit 

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