Amber Tamblyn Talks White Feminism, #MeToo and Time's Up: "Like Awards Season, But for Our Rage"
The actress and author of 'Era of Ignition' discusses how America's transformation since the 2016 presidential election has changed her own evolution as a speaker and writer.
Since reports about Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct kicked off the #MeToo movement two years ago, several stars have gained greater acclaim for their gender-parity advocacy than their past screen appearances. Alongside others in this category, including Rose McGowan and Annabella Sciorra, is Amber Tamblyn, who pre-#MeToo was perhaps best known for her acting career in titles like Joan of Arcadia and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. But after Tamblyn made headlines in 2016 by disclosing an experience with sexual assault following the release of Donald Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood tape, she helped organize the earliest Time’s Up meetings, sparked feminist debates on her lively Twitter feed and penned opinion pieces on #MeToo for The New York Times.
How Tamblyn morphed from what she calls a “lost” young actress to a frequent speaker and writer on gender is half of the subject of Era of Ignition: Coming of Age in a Time of Rage and Revolution (Crown Archetype), out today. In the book, which toggles between the story of Tamblyn’s coming of age and America’s evolution between the lead-up to the 2016 election and now, Tamblyn argues that both she and America have gone through their own “eras of ignition,” defined as “an age when activism becomes direct action, when disagreement becomes dissention, when dissatisfaction becomes protests, when accusations become accountability, when revolts become revolutions.” Her own personal growth, she adds, would not have been possible without America’s “existential crisis,” which created new opportunities for women like her.
Era of Ignition sees Tamblyn revealing far more about her personal life than she has previously in Instagram or Twitter posts, speeches or opinion pieces: She offers details on how she navigated the #MeToo movement with her husband, David Cross, who has been accused of offensive behavior; how an abusive relationship with an older man has driven her to question Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn’s relationship; and how tough conversations during the #MeToo movement made her reevaluate her own “white feminism.” Tamblyn also discusses the struggle to distribute her well-received directorial debut, Paint It Black, and her role in campaigning for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Tamblyn prior to the release of the book to discuss these topics and more, including her role in organizing the earliest Time’s Up meetings, how Sen. Susan Collins exemplifies “male grooming” and how Tamblyn’s outspokenness has changed the opportunities she’s offered in Hollywood.
How did this book get started for you?
This book began for me in trying to define this world that we're living in right now, and what it means when your inspiration comes from all of this chaos and uncertainty — the motivation that is precipitated by fear and upheaval and change. I think that we've seen at unprecedented levels a change in our culture as far as women finally being able to get into positions of power and maintain control of their own narratives, whether that's in the entertainment business or across any industry. I kept thinking about this idea of America in a state of a national existential crisis, especially because 2017 saw #MeToo and the formation of Time's Up and these really pretty large civil rights movements that have been reignited. And I think what comes after the rage and anger and what we've seen in 2017 and 2018 is exactly this era that we're in right now, which feels like a very inspired, forward-thinking pushing forward. It's scary, because anytime you're changing large systems that have been in place for literally thousands of years, it is scary; it can be revolutionary. There is no revolution that has happened that has felt safe. So a lot of the arguments that I make in the book is what I have come to understand, which is that we shouldn't be afraid to fail, to be locked in the chaos, to disagree with people who do not see eye-to-eye. Going with that same idea is a very personal [element], which is my own existential crisis in my twenties and looking at how that informs me and bringing me into my own ignited era.
When did you first begin to formulate the central allegory of an "era of ignition," and was there anything in particular that inspired it?
I had seen an unprecedented amount of female rage and women's rage, in particular, manifest in some pretty dramatic change and shifts in the way women are allowed to participate in this country. I was trying to put my finger on the language of what that was called, not just of anger and the ripping apart of this country, but what we have to do after. What is the rebuilding, what does that look like? I couldn't help but keep coming back to this idea of a flame, of a metaphor that I think is a universally understood symbol, whether you're talking about romance or anger or any particular emotion. And it came to me as something that you would describe after a Saturn return. I liked the visual of something being ignited, because that could be anything, that could be historical, physical, emotional, professional. I happen to believe that right now we are all feeling the flame of ignition, and it's the era of it, because it's unilateral, collective and widespread. Whether or not you are feeling the proactive, positive side of that, or whether or not you are on the other side of that and are scared and have become a victim of the experience, this time we're living in right now is affecting absolutely everything.
Obviously, you wrote most of the book, but not all of it: You include one written piece and one interview from friends Airea D. Matthews and Meredith Talusan. Why did you decide to incorporate those voices?
So much of the book is about asking other people to take ownership of their behavior and of their own actions, and for each of us to really come into fruition with our own accountability and our own autonomy. One of those things for me was this idea of white feminist behavior and talking very candidly about my own failures and my need to own that term, how important that is for me. If we are able to own the way in which we fail, then those things can't own us, and we can help ourselves grow and learn from our mistakes. And so I included them because it was very important for me to not just be talking that talk, but to really walk that walk.
A lot of what I talked about in the book was this idea of centering non-white voices in movements, in culture, in art, in writing, both in the world that we live in and what we want to change. So it was important to have a friend of mine who happens to be a black woman to be able to shed light on her processing of this idea of solidarity and how women can stand together, and also how extremely important it is [honor] those differences are that make each one of us unique. The reason that I put in the conversation with Meredith is that I find so much value in having dialogue instead of monologue when it comes to trying to understand someone's point of view and experience that might not look like you. I think it's an exercise that more of us could and should be doing, especially in the entertainment business: opening up and being curious in the narratives and the voices of people who are not like you, especially if you are in positions of authority and have power to greenlight projects.
You also write about how before #MeToo, you had never "sat down with a group of my female peers" to discuss harassment in the industry. Do you feel that Hollywood kept women isolated before #MeToo, or that women just hadn't gotten together to discuss these topics before that point?
We've all done panels for Oscar week where you talk about gender and power, but oftentimes you're not able to get to the roots of a very difficult conversation unless you're doing that privately with women of different races, classes and stature within the business. I do think a lot of [the new momentum] was created by the 2016 election; not so much the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, but the complete and utter annihilation and very dark mythologizing of Hillary Clinton as an incapable woman. Whether or not you actually voted for her, or liked her even, we can all agree that pervasive and horrible sexism and misogyny played a huge part in her loss in 2016. Certainly the revelations about Harvey Weinstein, which are things that a lot of people knew to a degree but definitely did not know the full scale, [played a role]. I think what comes after a shock like that is that there's a numbness, and then there's this rage that's just been pummeling out, and there's no way to stop it.
There were meetings all over LA between women, it was wild: It was like an awards season, but for our rage. Instead of going from party to party, we were going from meeting to meeting, talking to different women. Women you had never been in the same room with and because there were no men there, there was no one there to take away from the experience of having to talk about what upset us and having our own space to talk about those things. You're also suddenly seeing other problems: You're seeing not just that there's an inequality issue between men and women, but there's an inequality issue between white women and black women, between trans and non-binary people and the LGBTQ community; you start to understand that it's much larger than any of those binaries, and that it is an overall power imbalance between those in power and those that cannot get there and who are not allowed in those spaces.
This book has some very intimate and painful details, including descriptions of an abortion and an abusive ex-boyfriend. Why was it important for you to include those details?
Pretty much all of that is nothing I've ever shared before. I wrote a little bit about [one scene in the book] a few years ago when I wrote [on Instagram] about having an abusive experience with an ex-boyfriend, which was prompted by Donald Trump's audio tape talking about "grabbing them by" the genitalia. In the book, I go into a lot more details about that experience. I go into it not just to share it; for me, it's not about that. It's not about shaming that person, which is why it was really important for me not to put [the alleged abuser's] name in there, but to look at a larger power imbalance. And so in that particular section, I'm examining Woody Allen and Soon-Yi's relationship and this idea of older men grooming young women and girls who become partners that they can ultimately control. And they can be lifetime partners and never really get an opportunity to evolve and to become a person that is not about that man in their life. I make the argument in the book that I'm not comparing my abusive relationship to Woody Allen and Soon Yi's, but I am suggesting, and very directly asking, how could she know if she was in an abusive relationship? How could she know if she's still in it? It's very hard to see when you're in the middle of an experience like that; a lot of that comes from grooming, and you don't really see it until you're on the outside of it.
I think that's such a common theme: A great example of male grooming [in politics] would be something like Susan Collins, this idea of a singular woman who upholds the patriarchal system, keeps it in place, and errs on the side of the men she works with, no matter how wrong the situation may be, in order to uphold the system instead of siding with people who are asking her not to do that, which are predominantly women, literally screaming and banging down her door in the case of the Kavanaugh hearings.
In the book you touch on situations that your husband has been involved in, such as Charlyn Li's comments about a bit he once did, and the Arrested Development cast's interview with the New York Times. How did you negotiate those parts with him?
One of the important reasons that I wanted to share those stories of talking to David about his behavior and jokes he thought might have been funny at the expense of other people was because I know that there are people all over the country where we are having this debate. That's part of the chaos, is this national negotiation with our partners, our best friends, even with our fathers. We are helping them to see why their behavior or things that they say might not be appropriate or might be upsetting to us. I know people who are going through this, especially women who are in heterosexual relationships. But I wanted to show it because I wanted there to be accountability publicly, but I really want people to learn how to have accountability privately in their own conversations, and I want them to know they're not alone — none of us are alone in having these conversations. They're very difficult, they're very delicate, they require a lot of love, grace and patience, but that's the point.
How has this "era of ignition" affected opportunities you've been offered as an artist? Do you find you receive more offers for work since you began speaking out as a political and social activist, or has that been seen as a liability?
I have found that most men who are producers or run studios or writers are very thankful and open and curious as to how they can participate proactively. Ultimately, [for many] — especially in our business — that's all they want, is they want to be able to feel like they can proactively be a part of the movement, but they just don't know how, and I don't blame them. There was a moment in the last year, maybe two, where we didn't need their help; we wanted to figure out what we wanted first and then to come to our greater creative community in the entertainment business and say, "Here's what we need to do, this is what we need to change." So I've actually found that a lot of people have been open, which is something that I never would have imagined in my wildest dreams; I feel like I didn't even know that existed. But that's been a result of my own trajectory, too, in not waiting anymore and not saying, "I'm not fully prepared in my own line of work to take this on, put myself out there in these bigger, scarier ways and really have the opportunities that I feel I deserve, but I don't know how to manifest them."
I don't think that is every experience, though, I think some people are still experiencing some forms of blacklist and some forms of being left out of large conversations; I think Rose McGowan would tell you that. She really took one for all the team: There would really be none of this if it weren't for women like her and Annabella Sciorra, who put their necks out on the line in that initial article for the New York Times. My hope is that women are not being left out of creative spaces and that there is a lot of opportunity for all different kinds of voices now.
A lot of things are changing, and there is definitely a lot more opportunity than there ever was before. But there's still a long way to go. There are some things I could tell you about that have happened over the last two years that would probably be like a bomb dropping; I'm not ready to share those yet. But there are a few things that happened where you're like, "Wow, really? Still? After all this happened? That's really shocking." Those things will work themselves out. We have to be persistent and patient; it will take time. And remember that it takes a lot of work and time to change and empower the history.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.