Making good on her recent pledge to focus on social activism since announcing that her Netflix show will not go forward, Chelsea Handler led a feminism-focused panel discussion Sunday at the ComplexCon festival at the Long Beach Convention Center.
Handler's roundtable talk, "Leading Ladies," included actress Dascha Polanco, Emmy-winning writer Lena Waithe, Beautycon Media CEO Moj Mahdara, hip-hop artist Young M.A., and models Iskra Lawrence and Indyamarie Jean. The group talked beauty standards, the sexual harassment syndrome, and their personal journeys that led to using their platforms to advocate for women of all colors and sexual orientations. Here are some excerpts from the conversation.
Chelsea Handler: What does BeautyCon mean to you, Moj?
Moj Mahdara: The first time I saw Beautycon, there were 9,000 girls waiting in line to meet gurus. It blew my mind, because I'd never seen anything like it for girls, by girls. What it means to me is the tipping point that beauty has gone from a concealer culture, of people using it to cover up something that's wrong with you, to a platform that's about expression and power and creativity. Vogue is no longer determining for us what is beautiful, and that's what's insanely awesome about the internet. YouTube and Instagram have given us not a new standard of beauty, but a true standard of beauty because it was always there, we just never got to see it.
Handler: You could argue the opposite because there are people who have Instagram pages who concoct their look and use all those apps to make themselves look better, look skinnier, look younger or look more Persian [referencing Mahdara's heritage], whatever you're into. But conversely you can find the opposite of that, which is people being their authentic selves and being real and giving other people hope to be real and authentic to who they are.
Mahdara: But I will argue to say the difference is there's not an editor there saying, "Lose three more pounds to be in the September spread" versus if you want to FaceTune yourself to death, that's you telling you what to do and I think that's awesome, because people are having a lot of fun when they do that.
Handler: Yeah, well I would argue right back and say that you're setting a standard that isn't realistic and you're influencing young girls. Not to mention any other people — they're not from Iran but they're close by in Armenia, the Kardashians — I just don’t think that's a good example for young girls.
Mahdara: I think Kris Jenner's an incredibly inspiring, creative entrepreneur. She's smart to be able to build that brand. There's not a quote-unquote talent; the talent is marketing and messaging. Curvier women now are more apparent, women with darker skin, multi-racial families.
Handler: Those are valid points. With everything going on politically and all that noise, I feel very hopeful because the world is getting browner and gayer and no one can do anything about it … I think a lot of people now, especially a lot of white people who don't think of themselves as racist or as experiencing white privilege, see what's happening in different pockets of the country and all the violence that has erupted, and take a real look at themselves … It's definitely made me investigate my experience in this world and how out of touch with reality and the rest of the country I've been in certain instances.
Dascha Polanco: What we need as the common denominator in every situation, whether in the industry, in an everyday job, in modeling, at a conference, is to see women from diverse backgrounds, from different socioeconomic statuses, with different colored skin, different sizes and sexualities. That needs to be the norm.
Handler: You guys are all echoing each other about being who you are, instead of trying to fit into the norms you think are going to make you more successful or happier or more accepted. Just standing in your own skin and embracing that and saying, "I'm different because of all these reasons and it's so beautiful to be different." And you don't want to look like a Barbie doll. For people who are having an uncomfortable time expressing themselves, if they're gay or transsexual or bisexual, whatever all the initials stand for (there's probably a new one as we speak coming out), what would you say? What was your experience like coming out, Lena?
Lena Waithe: For me, it was not that smooth, but I infamously told my coming out story through my character on Master of None. Funny enough, I never thought that I would feel the need to tell that story. I didn't feel like I wanted to, I didn't feel like it was that important really. It's a such a small part of my journey, a small window of time and then the rest of your life begins. I was very grateful that Angela Bassett came in and did a beautiful version of my mother and her reaction. But the truth is, it wasn't great. She was like, "Don't say anything to your grandmother. Don't tell anybody." And then I had to go through the process of her becoming more comfortable with it and it becoming a bit of the new normal. The truth is, my mom was born in 1953 in a segregated America. So there's an element of a black mother wanting her black daughter to not make white people feel uncomfortable. It's like, "Oh, now you're a gay black girl, so how are white girls going to react to you?" I think that was a big thing for her, because in her time black girls didn't ruffle any feathers. That made her uncomfortable. I didn't give a shit, so that's where we were bumping heads a bit. I was really happy we got to make that episode and people got a chance to watch it because it really is a process. It's about you just having to be comfortable with yourself, because your family can disown you. They can walk away. That happens. People have to be be OK within themselves and have their own pillars within their own community.
Handler: Right now in the media, everyone's being taken down for sexual harassment and I'm sure we're just scratching the surface. I can't imagine who's next — I can imagine because I've heard so many names floating around. It's a movement that's happening because women are just sick and tired of being sick and tired, to quote somebody from the civil right movement. We're sick of it. Everyone's sick of it. I'm sure it's also a result of our election and that women are just fed up and they don't want to take it any more.
Waithe: Just because one of these tycoons has been taken down, doesn't mean that sexism won't still exist. When Trump goes away, racism is still going to be part of our society. Racism and sexism are built into the DNA of our society. It goes back so far in time. We cannot ignore it. As Michelle Obama says: It's about how we raise our sons, how we raise our daughters. It has to start there. We're in a pool of very toxic soup. It's not the person; it's the community, it's the system. There's a lot of work to be done internally in order to see some real change. We have to be better about it rather than just being survivalists.