A profile of comic, actress, and Majority Report host Janeane Garofalo
Originally appeared in Ms. magazine, Summer 2003
At 5-foot-1, Janeane Garofalo is a small target, but she looms large in the crosshairs of conservative television talk show hosts, radio shock jocks and rabid right-wing Web sites. While the U.S. marched to war, the actor and standup comedian took a public position against the administration’s policy, instead urging diplomacy and cooperation with the United Nations. Given the military victory in Iraq and the triumphalism that permeates the airwaves, was she sorry for earlier predictions of the war’s dire consequences? Not by a long shot.
“Why should I apologize?” she said when we spent an afternoon together at a coffee house near her Greenwich Village apartment. “We have more looting than liberation. We protected the Ministry of Oil but not the treasures of the National Museum. We have photographs of a statue brought down and an Iraqi kissing a soldier, but meanwhile where are the weapons of mass destruction, where is democracy? So, no, I’m not apologizing, and I’m not letting them shut me up.”
It is this very idea of dissent – the core of the right to "free speech" that the amended U.S. Constitution guarantees – that is under attack in our culture today, so much so that it has affected not only celebrities like Garofalo, but also ordinary people. Speak up, criticize the policymakers in the White House, and risk accusations of anti-Americanism. The suppression of dissent this time comes not from the official government or the Congress - there are real distinctions between this moment in our history and the blacklisting against suspected Communist sympathizers of the 1950s; instead, it emanates more subtly from this administration and has pervaded the arenas of community, the workplace and the media. Still, the climate surrounding the exercise of free speech now has brought comparisons to this country's darkest times.
Consider these words:
"Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism:The right to criticize.“The exercise of these rights should not cost one single American citizen his reputation or his right to a livelihood nor should he be in danger of losing his reputation or livelihood merely because he happens to know someone who holds unpopular beliefs. Who of us does not? Otherwise none of us could call our souls our own. Otherwise thought control would have set in."
Those sentiments were uttered by a Republican U.S. Senator, Margaret Chase Smith. She happened to be the only woman in the U.S. Senate, and concerned about the tactics of Senator Joe McCarthy, she spoke those words from the Senate floor on June 1, 1950. The speech itself should prompt us to ask: Who is speaking up for free speech now? Where is today's oratory defending the right to question, debate and dissent?
Back to the future, 2003, post-war. In the current climate, a defense of the Constitution is not likely to be heard by cowed politicians. But Garofalo is conducting her own Operation “shock and jaw,” and she refuses to be intimidated. Dressed in jeans and a white sleeveless T-shirt that revealed taut arms and a few of her 12 tattoos, she did indeed seem in fighting trim. Unbowed by criticism of “wealthy Hollywood liberals,” she spoke forcefully, her dark eyes behind black-rimmed glasses sparkling with energy, her remarks often punctuated by a bright smile. “First, I’m not wealthy, and I don’t live in Hollywood,” she said. “Second, I can take the slams from Bill O’Reilly and others, and I don’t care about the hate mail and the threats of boycotts that are posted on the Web sites either. They only make me more committed to expressing the anti-war views that millions of people around the world share.”
Born in Newton, NJ on September 28, 1964, Janeane (pronounced Jah-neen) Garofalo has always been an independent thinker. Her father, Carmine, a now-retired executive for Exxon, and her now-deceased mother, Joan, a secretary, were relatively conservative and unaffected by the cultural and political upheavals of the 1960s, but their daughter grew up questioning authority.
Enrolled in Providence College in 1982, Garofalo majored in history and American studies and began to define her political views. “I didn’t develop my politics simply on my own,” she explained. “I spent a lot of time at Wheaton College, where there were incredibly intelligent and interesting women, and we read and discussed feminist issues. That’s when I became committed to gender equality and social justice and began to think of myself as a liberal feminist. I’m so proud of the label that I’m thinking of getting two new tattoos: ‘liberal’ here” (she pointed to her right bicep) “and ‘feminist’ here” (she pointed to her left).
As an undergraduate Garofalo also honed her talent for comedy writing, and eventually mustered the courage to perform open-mike standup in Boston. After graduating in 1986, she made the rounds of comedy clubs while supporting herself with odd jobs. In 1992 she broke into television and appeared as a regular on both The Ben Stiller Show and The Larry Sanders Show, and in 1994 she did a stint on Saturday Night Live and was a “special correspondent” on Michael Moore’s TV Nation. By then she had earned a reputation for her caustic wit and was hailed as a no-holds-barred comedian who spoke for her generation when she vented her frustrations with prevailing political attitudes, dating rituals and anything else she viewed as the absurdity or unfairness of modern life.
Having received two Emmy nominations, Garofalo was also cast in films, and of her more than 40 movies to-date, she is best-known for Reality Bites (1994), The Truth About Cats and Dogs (1996) and Dogma (1999). But even as she was building her career as a character actress during the 1990s, Garofalo continued to do standup, and despite recent media stereotyping of her as an arriviste, she remained both a serious student of politics and an activist, most often in support of feminist causes in general and the pro-choice movement in particular. She also voiced her opposition to President Bill Clinton’s “Operation Desert Fox” and led a letter-writing campaign to lift the sanctions against Iraq. When the Bush administration first threatened to go to war, she frequently joined peace marches in both New York City and Washington, D.C.
Yet her political engagement remained a private matter, and she did not present herself as a public spokesperson. Indeed, in 2000, Garofalo explained in an interview that she avoided using her celebrity as a platform because “people are very cynical about actors telling them what to believe in.”
She still stands by that statement, she told me. In fact, she had been reticent to step forward until Robert Greenwald, a film director active in Artists United to Win Without War, asked her to represent the organization because the mainstream media were giving so little coverage to the anti-war movement, and putting celebrities in front of the cameras seemed the only way to get attention. “I also believed that the media had simply become cheerleaders for the Bush doctrine,” she said. “They had abdicated their responsibility to be watchdogs of the government. I wanted the anti-war position heard, and so I agreed to represent those views.”
She was booked on talk shows, including those of Fox Cable Network’s staunch right-wing hosts Bill O’Reilly and Hannity and Colmes, what Garofalo called “going into the belly of the beast.” “Sure, I felt anxiety about being bullied,” she said. “Before the O’Reilly show I dreamed my left eye fell out. I was aware that these shows would trivialize the anti-war movement by going after me and trying to make me look silly.”
Her television appearances only confirmed our culture’s love/hate relationship with celebrity: Bring actors on camera because of their would-be glamour and name recognition; then inveigh against them for articulating political views. It seemed a form of entrapment, and the latest fad of celebrity bashing replaced serious discussion of the issues. Following the lead of the right-wing talk show hosts (who, it should be noted, are also “wealthy celebrities”), their audiences made Garofalo a prime target for their accusations of un-Americanism and their hostile threats.
A few times Garofalo was accosted on the street, another time shoved, once menaced with a coke can and called a “Saddam lover” in more obscene terms. Her home phone number was published—on one of the celebrity-bashing Web sites, she presumed; after receiving numerous angry calls (“most were misogynist and used the ‘C’ word a lot”), she had to change it.
In an attempt to make her look stupid, Web sites spread the rumors not only that Garofalo had dropped out of college but also that she had been kicked out of high school for getting pregnant. “That would have been a real immaculate conception,” she said with a laugh, “since I didn’t lose my virginity until I was 21.”
Nevertheless, she sometimes responded to e-mail writers, hoping to engage them in rational dialogue. She remembered one e-mail in which the writer railed, “I don’t ever want to see your face on television, and if I have to, I can always read a book.” Garofalo was amused: “That’s right, threaten me with reading.” But rather than reply with an overtly cynical remark, she gently suggested, “Book learning can be very interesting.”
For all Garofalo’s insouciance, there were those close to her who were perturbed. While her father and stepmother disagreed with her position on the war, they were “very upset by the degradation of debate on the shows, by the rudeness and the shouting, and the way they treated me,” she said. Her manager, and her agent, who personally share her views, were nevertheless frightened and warned her, as Garofalo recalled, “Be careful, it’s a terrible climate out there.”
They and others had cause for concern. The New York Post began to publish a “Don’t Aid These Saddam Lovers” list of the usual liberal suspects and marked for boycotting their forthcoming movies, television shows, CDs, DVDs and concerts. The Web site Celiberal posted a “Celebrity Liberal Blacklist,” and Hollywood Halfwits targeted even more entertainers whose work “should not be patronized.” Lori Bardsley of North Carolina initiated a “Citizens Against Celebrity Pundits” petition and set up a Web Site where visitors blasted anti-war celebrities and provided names and addresses of those in Hollywood to whom letters and e-mails of complaint could be sent. Garofalo was on every hit list targeting celebrities for boycotts.
Boycotting is a strategy often used by both the left and the right to bring economic influence to bear on, for example, companies, cities, organizations or individuals whose political positions a particular group protests. But in this case, the tactic was tainted by smear campaigns and censorship. A disturbing number of responses to anti-war symbols and speech began to occur:
Warner Bros. airbrushed its What Women Want billboard so that its star, Amanda Bynes, was no longer flashing a peace sign; serving as a judge on Star Search, actress Kathy Nijimy was berated for being “anti-war” because she urged the troops to come home soon and said that she liked Michael Moore; Martin Sheen’s Visa television ad was discontinued, he claimed, because of his anti-war activism (Visa said the commercial had run its course), and there was talk in Hollywood that The West Wing would receive fewer Emmy nominations this year because of his stand; Sean Penn alleged that he was fired from a film because of his anti-war views and his trip to Iraq (the film’s producer, Steve Bing, a Democrat, denied the allegation and countersued); Ed Gernon, the producer of Hitler: The Rise of Evil, a CBS miniseries, was fired from Alliance Atlantis after CBS reportedly brought pressure on Alliance when the New York Post claimed that in remarks about his miniseries, he had compared Bush with Hitler; finally, a number of radio stations refused to air Dixie Chicks songs and called for a boycott of their concert tour and recordings.
Finally, in what were particularly blatant examples of punishment for anti-war opinions, Susan Sarandon and partner Tim Robbins were both disinvited from events at which they were scheduled to appear. Sarandon was dropped as the keynote speaker at a Tampa Bay, Fla., United Way fund-raiser, and the Baseball Hall of Fame cancelled the 15th anniversary celebration of the film Bull Durham in order to avoid the participation of the couple. Their anti-war statements were cited as the explicit reason in a letter from Dale Petrovsky, president of the Hall of Fame (and a former assistant press secretary in the Reagan White House).
Similar sentiments were being expressed in so many letters and e-mails to the media threatening boycotts of targeted individuals that the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) became alarmed that there might be a return to the witch hunts of the McCarthy era. The blacklisting and graylisting of the 1950s had resulted in careers disrupted or ruined. Fearful that actors who opposed the war had become the victims of a similar smear campaign, SAG posted a message on its Web site: “Some have recently suggested that well-known individuals who express ‘unacceptable’ views should be punished by losing their right to work. Even a hint of the blacklist must never again be tolerated in this nation.”
Garofalo, her manager and agent felt the chilling effect as well. It was reported on Web sites that her most recent film, Wonderland, scheduled for release in September, might have trouble finding a distributor because her anti-war position made her box office poison. ABC was also being lobbied to cancel her new sitcom, Slice O’Life, then in development.
“When we were receiving a lot of concentrated negative responses, I was real down,” Garofalo conceded. “But then I reminded myself that even if I were to lose a TV show or a movie, it would be worth it. I can always work for my sister’s alarm-installment company; I can become a secretary, just like my mom was. But if asked to choose between a TV series and their First Amendment rights, most people, I think, would agree with me and say, ‘I’ll take my First Amendment rights.’ That’s when I decided not to let the hate mail and threats scare me into silence.”
The tide soon turned, and eventually the letters and e-mail in support outnumbered the negative by 8–1. “In fact, all the letters to ABC only helped to jump-start my series,” she added. “The network had been inundated by messages filled with atrocious spelling errors, many of them repeaters, from people who were clearly not the market that advertisers would be looking for. After receiving twice as many positive messages, and with all the publicity, ABC decided to give me a definite date for the pilot shoot.”
In addition, sales of Feel This Book (Ballantine, 2000), which she co-authored with Ben Stiller, have spiked, as have rentals of her movies. She is, she said, “either very hated or very loved, but as polarized as it is, I’m now being sent tons of scripts for future work, I’m being asked to many more meetings and auditions, and I’ll soon be shooting both my series pilot and my next movie. As for my last movie, Wonderland, that will be out as scheduled.”
In fact, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, on whose TV Nation she once appeared, had foreseen the surge of positive reaction when she had run into him at the Aspen Comedy Festival. “He has been incredibly supportive,” Garofalo acknowledged. “He told me then, ‘I know what’s happening to you is bad now, but let ‘em do it. They will start to look foolish, and soon you will be rewarded.’”
Moore predicted a backlash against the backlash, and in his own case that seems to have occurred as well. Despite right-wingers calling for a boycott after his anti-war statement at the Academy Awards, attendance at his Oscar-winning documentary, Bowling for Columbine, rose by 110 percent the following day and has remained steadily high. His book, Stupid White Men, returned to The New York Times best-seller list, he has obtained funding for his next documentary, and he has been offered a new television show, an updated version of TV Nation. As he told Frank Rich of The New York Times, he didn’t think that there has been blacklisting of anti-war celebrities, and attempts to punish them have only sparked more enthusiasm.
Garofalo agreed. “There is no blacklist,” she said. “In the first place, in the entertainment business, money talks, bullshit walks. So Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins won’t be blacklisted because they are bankable stars. In the second place, if you are a woman, the only things you’re going to be blacklisted for in Hollywood are body fat and ageing.”
We had a good laugh over that, but then Garofalo turned serious. “Still, we should be alarmed that there have been so many attempts to shut people up,” she said. “The accusations of un-Americanism and the bashing of anti-war celebrities are just a way to try to suppress everyone’s freedom of speech. Right-wing television and radio hosts may be leading the campaign, but they are essentially following the administration’s line.” Garofalo’s own experiences suggest that attempts at blacklisting and censorship will not work in the long run. The bashers and boycotters tried, but a large number of people objected to their tactics. “When radio and cable news guys continue to rant,” Garofalo predicted, “Americans will have that famous McCarthy moment and ask, ‘Have you no decency?’ Many people are already saying, ‘This kind of intimidation is not fair. This is not how I want to live, being told what I can think or say, what I can read, hear or see.’ ”
As our conversation drew to a close, Garofalo reiterated that she will continue to voice her views in order to protect the First Amendment and to urge others to protest this administration’s policies in the Middle East and the possibility of a war on Syria. Given what has happened to her over the last several months, I asked what she would say to any woman who might be reticent to speak out for fear of retaliation. Her parting message was simple. They were her manager’s words when the letters of support started pouring in: “You go, girl!”
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