Celebrity obsession is both irresistible and insidious. Humans have a strong desire to see celebrities heroized, but we also can’t resist the urge to tune in when they’re torn down. Media treatment of female celebrities is a particular problem, as they are so often objectified or treated as nothing more than pretty statues in pretty clothes. The truth is, we’re culpable of the same. We post celebrity red carpet content because, well, it’s what our reader clicks on. A massive op-ed about the damage the fashion system does to the environment gets very few clicks, whereas a round-up of Selena Gomez’s best red carpet moments gets hundreds of thousands.
In an attempt to start changing the direction of the conversation and how we support female celebrities, we’re focusing less on their red carpet appearances and more on their contributions to humanity. Today’s birthday girl, Natalie Portman, is a prime example of how celebrities use their platforms for good and to invoke justice in the world.
Portman has been in the public eye since 1994, when she co-starred in the compelling thriller Léon: The Professional. From the start, her film choices have been brilliant. She won an Oscar for her bone-chilling role in Black Swan, and has also starred in such critical hits as Closer, Garden State, V for Vendetta, and Annihilation. Throughout her career, Portman has been a passionate supporter of activist causes.
Portman has also been a vocal advocate for Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, particularly in her efforts to pass the ballot Measure R in Los Angeles. Measure R creates increased authority to investigate corruption within the L.A. County Sheriff’s department, independent of the department’s own internal review process. Portman campaigned for this measure along with Ava DuVernay and John Legend, and it passed the March 3 primary with more than 67% of the vote. Additionally, the ongoing protests have been supported by Portman, who has come forward to sign an open letter demanding that the police be defunded.
In 2018, Portman narrated the eye-opening documentary Eating Animals. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, she tied her stance on animal rights to widespread sexism saying, “dairy cows and hens are female animals that are being treated really torturously. There is a capitalist connection with all of it to make money.” Although Portman has been a vegetarian since childhood, she transitioned to veganism as an adult and it is a cornerstone subject of her activism. In addition to narrating Eating Animals, she was involved in the project from inception, by helping secure funding for its production and helped outline how the book it was based on by author Jonathan Safran Foer would translate to an onscreen documentary.
In addition to her commitment to social justice, Black Lives Matter, animal rights, and the vegan movement, Portman is a vocal supporter of #TimesUp in Hollywood. In support of the movement, she has participated in women’s rights marches and was one of the original signatories of the now-famous letter published as a full-page ad in The New York Times.
One of the ways she made her stance visible was at the 2020 Academy Awards, where she donned a custom-made cape by Dior that was embroidered with all of the names of female directors that the Academy had overlooked. Her look went viral, but it also spawned a backlash led by Rose McGowan, who criticized Portman at length on Facebook, saying, “You are the problem. Lip service is the problem. Fake support of other women is the problem.” McGown pointed out that Portman’s own production company worked with very few female directors.
However, Portman was gracious in her response, and agreed with McGowan. She used the criticism to point out that her lack of history of working with female directors is directly related to a larger systemic problem in Hollywood, where female-led projects are shelved, refused financial support, or dismissed entirely.
Part of a staggering problem, Hollywood has traditionally underserved women, and Portman called the issue out, saying, “If these films do get made, women face enormous challenges during the making of them. I have had the experience a few times of helping get female directors hired on projects, which they were then forced out of because of the conditions they faced at work.”
Dr. David Holmes, who is an expert in communications and sociology and the head of the Monash Climate Change Communication Research Hub, pointed out that her viral moment actually had lasting impact. “Despite the negative attacks on Portman personally, the ‘long tail’ on social media actually strengthened her message,” said Dr. Holmes.
Today, Portman celebrates her 39th birthday and over 26 years of being an advocate for truth and justice in Hollywood and the world at large.