Monthly Archives: July 2017

Why Sexual Coercion Scandals Are Good News

Celebrity culture has given women the confidence to defy and challenge those with power and influence in show business.


“You brought the flames and you put me through hell.” The words are from the American singer Kesha’s recent track “Prayer” and are, in many people’s opinion, directed squarely at her former producer Dr. Luke, with whom she has been locked in a legal battle for years.

There have been allegations of sexual abuse made by Kesha (pictured above, by rocor) that Dr. Luke (Lukasz Sebastian Gottwald) denies. She signed for his Kemosabe Records, an imprint of Sony, in 2005, when she was 18. Their relationship was fractious pretty much from the outset, though it was creatively fertile and made her a star.

But in 2014, Kesha, or Ke$ha as she was then known, went into rehab and there she told doctors that Dr. Luke had drugged, sexually abused and physically assaulted her. When she emerged, she replaced the $ with an s in her name and filed a lawsuit, accusing him of sexual assault and battery, sexual harassment, gender violence, civil harassment, unfair business and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress in a lawsuit. He countersued for defamation.

A ruling in March concluded that Kesha had entered a contract after the time she alleged the abuse started; this seemed to contradict the singer’s allegations and suggest that Dr. Luke’s alleged abusive behavior was foreseeable. The conflict appears to have subsided, at least for the time being. Dr. Luke continues to produce music.

Indecorous stories about the singer, songwriter and R&B producer R. Kelly have been circulating for several years. The latest broke a couple of weeks ago and centered on his alleged immurement of several young women. According to allegations, these women live in properties in Atlanta and Chicago, owned or rented by Kelly, where every aspect of their lives is controlled — down to what they eat and wear, how they address him (“daddy,” apparently) and when they have sex with him. A parent of one of the captives despaired: “It was as if she was brainwashed. [She] looked like a prisoner … she just kept saying she’s in love and [Kelly] is the one who cares for her … if I get her back, I can get her treatment for victims of cults.”

Men with Power

While there are huge differences in the two cases, there are similarities: In both cases the alleged wrongdoer is a man who is successful in the entertainment industry and respected for his artistic output. The cases bring into grim focus an ugly aspect of show business — men with a certain status can be controlling abusers of the opposite sex.

The focus seems sharper now than ever. Bill Cosby was recently in court accused of numerous offenses. An inconclusive jury verdict resulted in a mistrial, but the stories of drugs, intimidation and sex resonated with other episodes, particularly the many episodes that have emerged in the UK recently. The most infamous of these concerned the television presenter Jimmy Savile, who died in 2011 but was posthumously disgraced after it was found he abused 60 people, aged from 5 to 75.

Embed from Getty Images

Most of us will assume the paradigm is the O.J. Simpson case, which involved the murder of his wife Nicole Brown Simpson and culminated in what many still regard as the trial of the century in 1995. Simpson was cleared but later served nine years behind bars for armed robbery at a Las Vegas casino hotel in 2007. He was recently released.

But these kinds of incidents are probably as old as the entertainment industry itself. Enrico Caruso, the world’s preeminent tenor of the early 20th century and one of the most famous figures of the time, was in 1906 prosecuted for molesting a woman in New York City. At the trial Caruso was said to have imposed himself on six women in total. Caruso was found guilty and fined $10, the maximum amount allowed by law. Since then there have been standout cases. Roman Polanski in 1977, Woody Allen in 1992, Mike Tyson in 1992 (I count sports as part of the entertainment industry). But after the Simpson case, there seems to have been a prevalence of cases involving men who have exploited their status, influence, authority or a combination of all these to abuse women.

This is probably a misleading perception. More likely, we are just more aware of such cases. Why? Obviously, the media are much more likely to pounce on this type of case nowadays. Our appetites are probably more salacious now than ever. We take delight in pronouncing our own judgments in supermarkets or at the office. And the media feed this. But there is more.

Code of Silence

Celebrity culture has delivered many gifts, many of them unwelcome. But an agreeable aspect of its largesse is the confidence it has given women. I’m not talking about confidence in its most general sense, though I do think this has been affected by our preoccupation with celebrities. I mean the confidence to defy and challenge what were once regarded as indomitable show business figures with power and influence enough to get pretty much what they liked and do as they pleased — with anyone they chose.

Women, young and old, have been emboldened because they’re no longer awestricken by the kind of men who in previous eras were popularly regarded as inaccessible, unapproachable and, in some cases, godlike. In any case, there are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of cases that have been buried by Hollywood’s super-efficient publicity machine. Stars, especially male stars, were surrounded by an invisible defensive shield, a shield that dissolved as celebrity culture took shape. The once-remote stars were humanized into celebrities — the kind of people who would stand next to you and chat at a bar.

One of the features of Britain’s Savile case was the apparent hesitance of women in the 1970s to raise a whisper about men in the public eye. They weren’t just star-struck; they were terrified, not by the man, but by his aura – that immanent quality possessed by public figures of the time. Not now, of course: Fans exchange views on social media, take selfies with them and track their movements online. All of which has rendered them more ordinary. And being ordinary means having the same sort of inadequacies and being capable of the same kind of transgressions as anybody else.

Without caricaturing every powerful man in the entertainment industry as a sex-seeking missile, it seems reasonable to assume that the casting couch of Hollywood lore has some basis in reality and that attractive but powerless young women have been awarded roles in return for granting sexual favors.

Whatever happened to the predators? There are probably plenty of them around, though their pursuit of young women has been restrained, paradoxically, by the spate of cases that have dominated news in recent years. Any time a man contemplates making an unwelcome sexual advance on a woman, the possibility that she’ll react with the fury of Judith beheading Holofernes must cross his mind. Flashing before him are thoughts of a career-ending indictment, a shaming court case and even a prison sentence.

Learning about sexual coercion in the entertainment industry horrifies us, but it also reminds us that the days when young women did as they were told and obeyed a code of silence are gone.

*[Ellis Cashmore is the author of Elizabeth Taylor: A Private Life for Public Consumption.]

Sexting: A Reconfiguring of Childhood?

Are we witnessing the disappearance of childhood, at least in the way we’ve understood it for generations?

computer kids

Everyone must at some point wonder if the internet and the apparent dependency it has introduced is a benediction digitally bonded to a curse — or several curses. Barely a week goes by without some cautionary study warning of trolling, addiction, the decline of interpersonal skills and the decomposition of community life, all because we have our eyes fixed to our screens.

The evidence is, as any self-respecting cynic realizes, skewed in favor of tradition: Few researchers are prepared to embrace screens in context. We now have populations that not only have to engage with screens but find it rewarding. They like navigating their ways around cyberspace.

The internet has given us a weightless world of wonder and, for the most part, the supposed negative side effects have the character of the scares that accompanied the growth in the popularity of television in the late 1950s and early 1960s. If the doomsayers of the time were to be believed, it shortened our attention spans, blitzed our cognitive capacities, ruined family life and so on. All of these predictions were ill-founded, as we now know.

Recently though, a report made me realize I’ve been too dismissive. It concerned a 5-year-old English boy who was investigated by police for allegedly sexting. For those who don’t know, sexting means sending sexually explicit photographs, messages or other kinds of materials via smartphones.

The case of the child came to light in the context of a report on the rise in sexting among young people: More than 4,000 children have been dealt with by British police for sexting since 2013. The most common age of these children is 13 or 14, but younger people, as the standout case indicates, are also taking up the practice.

Disappearing Childhood

Every sentient being knows that childhood is disappearing. I’m defining childhood orthodoxly as the state or period of being a child and a child as a human below the age of puberty. In Britain, the age of consent to any form of sexual activity is 16 for both men and women, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

Self-accredited experts on the subject offer advice to parents, much of which is obvious or useless. Apart from the usual suggestions to update software, change passwords and avoid clicking on unusual links, parents are often urged to familiarize themselves with security settings, implement family settings and make children aware of the risks of exchanging information with people they meet online.

I should perhaps own up at this stage: I’m not a parent. So everything I write has to be understood in this context. I am sure people over the age of 30 have little or no idea what their children do online. They can adjust their settings to the highest level of security and counsel their kids with an earnestness that will make them giggle with disbelief. Children today, probably like children of previous generations, will carry on heedlessly and, if necessary, in wilful contravention of their parents’ advice. That’s what children do. All of which makes the report even more discomforting than it already is. The inescapable conclusion is: We can’t do anything about the growing number of children who choose to pursue what they regard as a rewarding experience. We’re destined to watch helplessly as more and more kids send sexually charged text and images.

This is an ugly question to raise, but are we witnessing the disappearance of childhood, at least in the way we’ve understood it for generations? Childhood never stays the same.

As recently as 100 years ago, children were not the same as they are today. Produced often by accident, they were typically parts of much larger families than today and, should they survive their first 10 years, were sent out to work part-time or full-time and their income became a contribution to the family’s economy.

They were probably loved, though not in the same way that children are today. Orphaned children (of which there were plenty) would hardly be loved at all; they would spend their tender years in orphanages and dispatched to the outside world as quickly as possible. A hundred years before this, kids were sent to work in factories or as chimney sweeps’ assistants (they climbed inside the chimneys). In other words, we’ve understood children and childhood in a particular way since the end of World War II. This may be about to change.

Mark of Maturity

It’s unsettling to imagine children as sexual beings. Britain’s youngest parent was 12 when she gave birth (11 when she conceived, as a result of rape). Rates of teenage pregnancy in the UK have halved in the past two decades and are now at their lowest levels since record keeping began in the late 1960s. Sex and relationship education, contraceptives and changes in the status of pregnancy have been factors — pregnancy may once have been a mark of maturity, but it now carries more stigma than kudos.

But the provision of sex and relationship education and the widening of the availability of contraceptives are, of course, predicated on the assumption that young people are interested in and willing to engage in actual sex. And the widening awareness that their immersion in the net will surely bring will stimulate that interest even more.

Children are, it seems, sexualizing themselves. I mean by this that they are exhibiting themselves in a way they fully realize will be interpreted as erotic. This is disturbing in itself, more so when it’s realized that the images and text, once posted, are no longer under their control. Are children net-savvy enough to know that once they hit “send” their pictures and other materials are in the public domain to be appropriated and used potentially by anybody? I suspect from my own research that many are and many more will become so over the next few years.

But I’m sure none of them has the intellectual or emotional maturity to make what we’d consider an informed decision about whether it’s right. This is a moral choice made by people without the sophistication or experience to comprehend the probable consequences of their actions. Of course, we all make mistakes; that’s how we learn – by responding to errors. There’s not much leeway with sexting: the decision to distribute is irreversible and its consequences, in practical terms, impossible to undo.

A non-parent like me finds this unnerving. So I presume any right-minded parent will be even more disturbed. We waste energy fretting over the imagined ill effects of our preoccupation with screens. For the most part, the alarmists are misguided scaremongers who struggle to keep up. But in this one important respect, there is a demand for creative thought. Somehow we must avert the potential reconfiguring of childhood.

Screens present most of us with agreeable and convenient portals to work and pleasure. To the young, screens are the places where they learn and play. In an ideal world, they should be for observing, not for being observed.

*[Ellis Cashmore is a member of the Screen Society research team investigating the cultural impact of digital media. The current questionnaire is here. The results will be published in 2018 by Palgrave Macmillan.]

Sport: Still a Man’s World?

Serena vượt qua trận chiến của các cô em gái

“Dear John, I adore and respect you but please please keep me out of your statements that are not factually based.” Serena Williams (pictured above) was replying via Twitter to John McEnroe’s impolitic remark that if she ventured to play tennis against men she would be “like, 700” in the rankings.

McEnroe’s statements actually were “factually based.” At least in the way evolution is a factually based. It’s so well established that no new evidence is likely to alter our understanding of it substantially. Similarly, it appears self-evident that a female athlete, no matter how proficient, could be accomplished enough to beat an equivalently proficient male, less still beat a man of her own rank. Williams versus Andy Murray?

Serena gave her own assessment of such a match in 2013 on US television’s David Letterman Show: “If I were to play Andy Murray, I would lose 6-0, 6-0 in five to six minutes, maybe 10 minutes.” She was more confident as an 18-year-old in 1999 when she claimed: “I can beat the men,” and asked for a wild card entry for the Eurocard Open in Stuttgart, then one of the elite tournaments on the men’s circuit. Her entry didn’t materialize.

Yet in sports in which women are allowed to compete against men, they’ve fared quite well. In equestrianism, for example, women and men compete on equal terms in a completely gender-integrated contest: Whether in show jumping, three-day eventing, dressage, enduring and driving disciplines, women regularly beat men. In sailing too, there is integration in solo ocean racing (though, since 1988 women compete in a separate category in Olympic sailing events). There are other sports in which women and men participate such as ultra-marathoning, curling and climbing, but none of these is what we’d call a major sport.

Marathon running is a major sport and up till 2011, women were allowed to run in the same event as men, at least in the city marathons. There were two competitions with the first women home receiving a separate accolade, but, for practical purposes, women ran alongside men. Then the London Marathon, presumably at the behest of television, splintered the races so that female runners started before the men.

In 2003, Britain’s Paula Radcliffe finished the London Marathon in 2:15.25 seconds. The time has not been bettered by any woman since. Running against men, it seems, brought women to their mettle and their performances reflected this. What if they’d have been allowed to continue running with men? We can probably guess they’d never have got on even terms with men. But Radcliffe’s best time would almost certainly have been beaten, several times over.

The Best of Us

Sport has, since the 19th century, been based on the unarguable maxim that competition brings the athletic best out of us. Striving to win something by establishing superiority over others is a sure-fire way of reaching our limits. So, the question we asked of marathons stands with tennis: How would the world’s number one female fare in a head-to-head with the top male had women been playing competitively against men for the past 100 years?

Again, many will argue that the results would be basically the same, the support this time coming from the copious amount of evidence on the physical differences between the sexes — that is, differences which do not refer to social or cultural influences. There are differences in, for example, adipose tissue, respiratory volumes, activity of sweat glands and other areas, but there is also similarity: Women’s bodies respond to training in the same way as men’s. It’s possible that women can close the gap in strength to within 5% — crucial in some though not all sports.

You can probably guess where I am going with this. Say we could turn the clocks back a 100 years and dissolve the distinction between men’s and women’s — or to use a term tennis still favors, ladies’ — competition at Wimbledon and elsewhere, where would we be now? It’s likely that female tennis players would be, at first, annihilated, then well beaten, and perhaps then edged out by men. For how long? Sixty years? Maybe longer. But what about today?

It’s misleading comparing performances in male and female events, which have developed separately. Tennis has for long been open to at least those women of resources sufficient to afford it. Only in the most playful mixed doubles have they been allowed to confront male adversaries. One-off exhibitions between the likes of an aged Bobby Riggs and Billie-Jean King (and, before her, Margaret Court) owed more to theater than competitive sport, though The Battle of the Sexes, as it was hailed by the media in 1973, was a victory of sorts for King. This is the subject of a film to be released later this year.

Men Only

Now, women compete in every sport, even then ones that were once strictly “men only.” The once-exclusive male preserve of combat sports has been breached. Professional women cage fighters appear regularly on major MMA bills; tae kwon do has featured as a competitive event since the 2000 Olympic Games. Women are involved in virtually every form of combat sport.

Over the years, women have not achieved as much as men in terms of prestigious titles or money: The highest paid female athlete is currently Serena Williams, who ranks 50 places behind the highest earning Cristiano Ronaldo. In fact, she is the only woman in the top 100. Yet the conclusion that women can’t achieve the same levels doesn’t follow logically from the original premise that they are biologically different. In fact, it could be argued that, if women had been regarded as equally capable as men physically, then they would perform at similar standards, and that the only reason they don’t is because they’ve been regarded as biologically incapable for so long.

It would be ridiculous to deny that there are differences, but think of the body is a process, not a thing: It is constantly changing physically and culturally, as our personal perceptions. Sporting performance promotes changes in terms of muscular strength and oxygen uptake; changes in diet and climactic conditions induce bodily changes too, of course.

Athletes, in particular Caster Semenya, have complicated the traditional male-female binary. In 2009, testosterone testing was introduced to identify cases where testosterone levels were elevated above an arbitrary level, a condition termed hyperandrogenism. Semenya was excluded until 2015, when the rule was reversed and she returned. Indian sprinter Dutee Chand, was dropped from the 2014 Commonwealth Games but, at the last minute, successfully appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which ruled that there was insufficient evidence that testosterone increased female athletic performance. Athletics’ governing organization, the IAAF, is due next month to deliver a clarification on this issue.

In our particular culture and this stage in history we understand women and their association with men in one way; in another place and at another time, this relationship may be understood quite differently. It is a matter of convention that we organize sports into women’s and men’s events, just as it’s a convention to award Oscars for the “best actor,” a man, and “best actress,” a term that’s still used to describe the best female actor. 

The Second Sex

There can be no argument about the fact that the experience of women in sports virtually replicates their more general experience. They have been seen and treated as not only different to men, but also inferior in many respects. Historically, women’s position has been subordinate to that of men. They have been systematically excluded from high-ranking, prestigious jobs, made to organize their lives around domestic or private priorities, while men have busied themselves in the public spheres of industry and commerce.

Being the breadwinner, the male has occupied a central position in the family and has tended to use women for supplementary incomes only, or, more importantly, as unpaid homeworkers, making their contribution appear peripheral. Traditionally, females have been encouraged to seek work, but only in the short term: Women’s strivings should be toward getting married, bearing children and raising a family.

Since the late 1960s and the advent of legal abortion and reliable contraception, women in the West have been able to exercise much more choice in their own fertility and this has been accompanied by feminist critiques of male dominance. Studies showed wide discrepancies in earning power and this prompted legislation on both sides of the Atlantic designed to ensure equality in incomes for comparable jobs.

One of the loudest cries of feminists was about the abuses of the female body: Women, it was argued, have not had control over their own bodies; they have been appropriated by men, not only for working, but for display. “Sex objects” were how many women described themselves, ogled at by men and utilized, often dispassionately.

Against this, they recoiled. Even today, at practically any tennis tournament, the media will almost certainly gravitate toward the best-looking rather than best player. Maria Sharapova, for instance, earns about $20m per year from commercial endorsements. Eugenie Bouchard, ranked only 61st in the world, makes nearly $6m a year from ads, suggesting aesthetics often outweigh sports performance for advertisers. Danica Patrick, the stock car racing driver, earns around $6m from endorsements, while cage fighter Ronda Rousey makes a meager $4m from advertising.

Women are underrepresented in politics compared to their total number in the population. They consistently earn less than their equivalent males and are increasingly asked to work part-time. Despite recent changes in the number of places in higher education occupied by women, they tend to opt for subjects, like sociology and art, that won’t necessarily guarantee them jobs in science and industry. When they do penetrate the boundaries of the professions, they find that having to compete in what is, to all intents and purposes, a man’s world, has its hidden disadvantages — what many call the glass ceiling.

Women’s experience has been one of denial: They simply have not been allowed to enter sports, again because of a mistaken belief in their natural predisposition. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries they were considered too frail to withstand the physical exertions of sport. Then they were warned that their reproductive capacities would be harmed by exercise. They were even told to beware of virilization — the development of male physical characteristics, such as muscle bulk, facial hair and a deep voice. Historically, women who excelled at, or even participated in, sports were called “mannish” and regarded as unnatural. Even as recently as 1967, when Kathy Switzer became the first woman to run the Boston Marathon (she applied under “K. V. Switzer”), she was pilloried and, because of her run, the Amateur Athletics Union barred women from all competitions with male runners.

Because of this, the encouragement, facilities, and, importantly, competition available to males from an early age hasn’t been extended to them. In the very few areas where the gates have been recently opened — the marathon being the obvious example — women’s progress has been extraordinary. Given open competition, women could achieve parity with men in virtually all events, apart from those very few that require the rawest of muscle power.

The vast majority of events need fineness of judgment, quickness of reaction, balance, and anticipation; women have no disadvantages in these respects. Their only disadvantage is what many people believe about them: In sports as in life, women will simply never catch up.

*[Ellis Cashmore is the author of Making Sense of Sports. He will be appearing at the Bradford Literature Festival on Sunday, July 9, 2017.]

Halle Berry: ” I’m not going to put a label on it”

Halle Berry

Halle Berry’s changes of mind reflect a restless intellect pulsing with ideas. 

“I had lived this woman’s life from the age of 15 to 65 as she was sexually abused, beaten, treated like dirt. I really felt the injustice and I was called nigger just one time too many on screen,” Halle Berry told The Daily Mail. It was 1993 and she had just finished playing the title role in Alex Haley’s Queen, the concluding part of the Roots saga. “I was going to give up acting and become a full-time civil rights activist.”

She didn’t, of course. She went on to grander roles, more bravura performances and, in 2001, became the first African-American woman to win the best actress Oscar for her role in Monster’s Ball.

Whether the experience of playing the daughter of a slave and a white plantation owner who tries to pass as white in the period after the American Civil War impressed Berry indelibly isn’t certain. Berry had shown an awareness of history when she dedicated her Oscar: “This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. This is for every faceless woman of colour who now has a chance tonight because this door has been opened.”

But in an interview with Teen Vogue‘s Elaine Welteroth, she described receiving the Oscar as one of her “lowest moments.” “I thought it meant something, but I think it meant nothing.”

Still sleekly beautiful as she approaches her 51st birthday, Berry expressed her interest in “making more opportunities for people of colour … and I’m trying to figure out how to help and add more diversity to the academy.” In her own quiet, prepossessing way, Berry has become one of the most thoughtful, yet provocative artists of recent years. She has raised issues that have been uncomfortable to discuss, yet relevant to the experience of African-Americans today. She has reminded us that, whether they like it or not, all black actors are, in some sense, political figures.

For example, in 2011, after splitting up with her partner, a white Canadian, Berry pressed for custody of their daughter. The custody was contested and Berry based her claim on her daughter’s ethnicity: she was black, insisted Berry, drawing on what has become known as the one-drop rule. This is an old idiomatic phrase that stipulates that anyone with any trace of sub-Saharan ancestry, however minute (“one drop”), can’t be considered white and, in the absence of an alternative lineage — for example, Native American, Asian, Arab, Australian Aboriginal — they are considered black.

The rule has no biological or genealogical foundation, though. In 1910, when Tennessee enshrined the rule in law, it was popularly regarded as having scientific status, however spurious. By 1925, almost every state in America had some form of one-drop rule on the statute books. This was four decades before civil rights. Jim Crow segregation was in full force. Anti-miscegenation laws that prohibited unions of people considered to be of different racial types remained until 1967 when the Supreme Court repealed them completely. Berry’s case reflected the interest in “authentic” black culture that spread across popular culture, leading to a redefinition of roles available to black actors and, indeed, a redefinition of blackness itself. It also resonated with historical memories and emotions.

Berry herself had an African-American father and a white mother, who was from Liverpool. Her parents divorced and she was brought up by her mother in Cleveland, Ohio. Prior to the custody argument, she had declared that she considered herself bi-racial, this referring to a child with a black parent and a white parent: “I do identify with my white heritage. I was raised by my white mother and every day of my life I have always been aware of the fact that I am bi-racial.”

Berry had occasionally talked about the particular predicament bi-racial people but had never made an issue of it. At various points, she had also used black, African-American and woman of colour to describe herself. She had, in measured terms, talked about how she never felt accepted as white, despite her white mother. But her appeal to the one-drop rule seemed a bit like a physicist trying to explain the movements of celestial bodies by citing astrology.

Actually, while it seemed irrational, Berry’s explanation of her actions was far removed from any kind of faux biology or pseudoscience. “I’m black and I’m her [daughter’s] mother, and I believe in the one-drop theory. I’m not going to put a label on it. I had to decide for myself and that’s what she’s going to have to decide — how she identifies herself in the world,” she was quoted by Chloe Tilley of BBC World Service.

In resisting conventional census categories or labels such as bi-racial or multiracial, she was not resorting to another label, black, as if returning to a default setting. Black, in her argument (at least, as I interpret it), is no longer a label: it is a response to a label — a response, that is, to not being white. Blackness, on this account, doesn’t describe a colour, a physical condition, a lifestyle or even an ethnic status in the conventional sense: It is a reaction to being regarded as different or distinct.

Black no longer describes a designated group of people: It is the way in which those who have been identified as distinct from and opposite to whites have reacted; their answer. When Berry allowed, “that’s what she’s going to have to decide,” she meant that her daughter has some measure of discretion in the way she responds. Blackness is now a flexible and negotiable action; not the fixed status it once was.

Rachel Dolezal advanced a similar argument when she proclaimed herself black, even though several critics called her a fraud. The Branch President of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) thought Dolezal’s argument was too sophisticated for most to understand: Blackness, like whiteness, is a culturally created label that’s often confused with a biological description. If she identifies with blackness, the only fraud is in perpetuating artificial categories invented by Europeans to subordinate slaves in the 17th century.

Similarly, Berry’s wish that her daughter will mature in a world where she can make choices about her own identity, including her ethnic affiliations, and perhaps even change these as she moves from situation to situation, is a difficult one to grasp, but one the world is going to have to. Blackness is not a thing: It is, as I say, a response.

Berry is using her status and intellectual ingenuity to prompt debates that affect not just actors, but everybody. At times, her arguments are worthy, yet confusing; there is surely a contradiction in appealing for choice in ethnicity while citing an ancient, racist justification that would be endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

The volte-face on the Oscars is also perplexing. The virtual exclusion of African-American artists from nominations was dramatically reversed earlier this year, though this seemed suspiciously like Hollywood tokenism. Perhaps this too-obvious lip service payment has convinced her that more structural change is called for. She now says: “I want to start directing, I want to start producing more [and] I want to start being a part of making more opportunities for people of colour.”

Her changes of mind reflect a restless intellect pulsing with ideas. You don’t have to agree with Berry to acknowledge that she is a woman for the hour when popular culture needs to speak to its time.

Ellis Cashmore is the author of “Elizabeth Taylor,” “Beyond Black” and “Celebrity Culture.” He is a visiting professor of sociology at Aston University and has previously worked at the universities of Hong Kong and Tampa.

This article was originally published on Fair Observer.