Gina Carano, one of the stars of Disney+’s wildly popular Star Wars spinoff The Mandalorian, has been driving controversy on social media for a while now.
Carano has tweeted false and baseless intimations that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, suggesting that Donald Trump was its legitimate winner. She’s tweeted criticism of mask mandates during the Covid-19 pandemic. She has changed her Twitter profile to mock trans pronouns and posted anti-Semitic memes.
The actress has expressed these views in just the past year. Her history of expressing more mainstream conservative viewpoints goes back further than that. She wasn’t one of Hollywood’s most prominent conservatives until recently, but her political beliefs weren’t exactly a secret. That she remained employed in spite of her posts could have been an argument against perceived “anti-conservative bias” within the entertainment industry.
But on February 9, Carano posted an Instagram Story comparing being conservative at this moment in time to being a Jewish person during the Holocaust, along with a broader suggestion that those most at fault for the Holocaust were not the Nazis but ordinary German citizens. The post was an attempt to compare the events of the Holocaust to so-called “cancel culture.” The resulting firestorm was immediate, and even though the actor deleted the post from her account, it was shared widely on other platforms.
Carano was quickly fired from The Mandalorian and the Star Wars universe more generally. (Her character, Cara Dune, was widely rumored to be part of a new Mandalorian spinoff Disney+ is developing.) United Talent Agency dropped her as a client. In response, she is going to star in a movie for the Daily Wire, Ben Shapiro’s new production company that makes movies by conservatives, for conservatives. (The company’s first release, Run Hide Fight, arrived last year, though it acquired that film at a festival and did not develop the movie itself.)
Carano’s firing has started a larger conversation, driven mostly by political writers, about whether conservative voices are welcomed within the entertainment industry and if, perhaps, they are subject to a new blacklist. But that larger conversation butts up against a different larger conversation about abusive attitudes on Hollywood’s film and TV sets and creating welcoming workplaces there.
And both of those conversations butt up against a conversation we’re having writ large in America right now: How do we define what acceptable, mainstream political speech looks like when a sizable and influential political movement, one that has taken over one of the two major parties, is driven by virulent prejudice and baseless conspiracy theories?
Lots and lots of conservatives work in Hollywood, some quite vocally
One of conservative media’s favorite perpetual boogeymen is the idea that being a conservative in Hollywood is a fireable offense, and as such, conservative political beliefs must be kept hidden.
It is fair to say that the entertainment industry is full of center-left liberals. Many folks who work in movies and TV broadly support diversity initiatives (except, sometimes, when those initiatives apply directly to them) and redistributive economic policies (except, sometimes, when those policies apply directly to them). If you are coming up in the industry as a young conservative, I am sure there is a subtle pressure to keep quiet about your beliefs.
The flip side of this coin is that there are a lot of conservatives in Hollywood, and some of them are quite well known. Actors like Kelsey Grammer, Patricia Heaton, and Jon Voight — all award winners — have expressed their support for Republican politicians, with Voight even going to bat vocally for Donald Trump. (Heaton, for her part, has distanced herself from the Republican Party due to Trump.) Even more actors, including movie star Chris Pratt, signal frequently that they espouse conservative beliefs. (In Pratt’s case, this includes occasionally posting about his evangelical Christianity.)
Certainly, there are conservative stars who struggle to land roles in the mainstream entertainment industry and instead find work either in explicitly Christian productions or more niche spaces like the Hallmark Channel. Siblings Kirk Cameron (a fixture of Christian film) and Candace Cameron Bure (a fixture of Hallmark) are good examples of this type of Hollywood conservative. Yet it’s hard to argue that if either sibling were a center-left liberal, they would be massive movie stars. In Cameron’s case, Hollywood actually tried to make him a star, and his movies mostly flopped.
In general, if conservative stars continue to make money for entertainment companies, those companies continue to employ those conservative stars. When a star is fired, it’s usually because they said something really, really, really bad, as when Roseanne was fired for a racist tweet. But in almost every case like this, the social media post that broke the camel’s back is just the latest in a long line of controversial statements. (We’ll come back to this as it applies to Gina Carano.)
As evidence that simply saying one controversial thing isn’t enough to get fired, consider the case of Tim Allen, another well-known Hollywood conservative. In March of 2017, he compared being a Trump supporter in 2010s Hollywood to being a Jewish person in 1930s Germany on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Allen, a comedian guesting on a late-night comedy program, could more easily claim he was joking than Carano could. But his show, ABC’s Last Man Standing, was still canceled that May at the end of its sixth season. The reasons for its cancellation probably didn’t stem from his bad joke, but we also can’t know for sure. (Plenty of conservatives intimated that the show was, in fact, canceled because of Allen’s conservatism.)
Still, the show made its studio money, and Allen loudly advocated for Last Man Standing to return in some form. In the fall of 2018, it came back, with most of its cast intact, on a different network (Fox). It will finally end, after its ninth season, this spring. And Allen hasn’t been particularly shy about his political beliefs since the show’s first cancellation, either.
This distinction is why comparisons to the Hollywood blacklist of the mid-20th century are so unfounded. The blacklist was a literal list of people who were forbidden from working in Hollywood because of alleged and often specious affiliations with the Communist Party. Even more people were pressured to name names and betray friends to the US government before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
The blacklist has been widely mythologized as “people being fired for political beliefs,” which is definitely one part of its legacy. But what made it so specifically and particularly destructive was how it was rooted in actual political persecution of people suspected of being Communist dissidents bent on destroying the American system of government, when there was no evidence to suggest that the accusations against them were true. And that persecution was aided by a studio system where power was consolidated in a small number of men and by the literal US government.
The much more diffuse entertainment industry of 2021, one where Carano can immediately get work with an explicitly conservative production company, simply cannot compare to the situation of the 1950s. And the US government was not pressuring Disney (which owns Lucasfilm, the company that makes Star Wars stuff) to fire the star; Disney made that decision on its own.
What’s more, Disney has fired people for expressing liberal political beliefs on social media as well, often with far less build-up than there was with Carano. Comics writer Chuck Wendig, for instance, was removed from a Star Wars title he was writing after a tweet thread in which he equated calls for “civility” with calls for normalizing bigotry went viral in 2018. The thread kicked up a mostly fake onslaught of online outrage, but the damage was done. Wendig was gone after one tweet thread. It took far longer for Carano to be fired.
In general, Hollywood’s fear of seeming anti-conservative when so much of the country is, after all, conservative arguably insulates famous conservatives from the same sort of pushback that more vocally left-leaning stars could easily face. To be clear, anyone who brings in a lot of money for a film or TV studio is likely to keep being employed by that studio, no matter their political beliefs. But in the cases of Wendig or Carano, both marginal players, Disney spent far longer tacitly standing behind the conservative’s social media posts than it did the liberal’s.
Hollywood is also actively working to (appear like it’s trying to) curb abusive behavior on sets
Two news stories that also broke the same day as Carano’s firing inform what happened with Carano, at least a little bit:
- Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its spinoff series Angel who went on to become a celebrated Hollywood director, was accused of gross misconduct and abusive behavior by several of the women who starred on his TV series. These accusations followed others made last year by Justice League star Ray Fisher, who said Whedon created a hostile on-set environment while directing that film.
- Lux Pascal, the sister of Mandalorian star Pedro Pascal and an actress in Chile, came out as a trans woman in a prominent Chilean publication.
Whedon’s actions have long been rumored within the fandom around his shows, particularly pertaining to the firing of actor Charisma Carpenter after the fourth season of Angel. But Carpenter telling the full story in a tweet on Wednesday, coupled with Fisher’s statements last summer and Whedon quietly stepping down from his upcoming HBO series The Nevers in late 2020, seems to have pushed these accusations into the mainstream.
Whedon doesn’t deserve leniency for his actions. But it’s telling that Carpenter’s accusations, which are horrifying, would have largely been seen as “business as usual” in 2003, when she was fired from Angel. A powerful producer (usually a man) clashing with a star (usually a woman) and removing her from the series they were both part of was a sadly frequent occurrence, usually with a strong undercurrent of sexual harassment and other mistreatment.
What has changed rapidly is not precisely that Hollywood has made it harder for people who create abusive work environments to accrue power but that it is more sensitive to people who create abusive work environments accruing power. It will sweep the actions of a Whedon under the rug if he’s powerful enough, but when accusations like Fisher’s and Carpenter’s become sufficiently public, his power dwindles more rapidly.
That said, these sorts of scandals typically affix themselves to figures who are on the downswing in terms of their power within the industry, as Whedon is. J.K. Rowling spent much of her 2020 propping up transphobia and Warner Bros. (which produces Harry Potter films and TV) didn’t disavow her at all, instead making a vague statement about tolerance, because Harry Potter is so valuable as a media franchise.
What was fascinating about the Lux Pascal news, meanwhile, was how focused the coverage was, in American outlets, on Pedro Pascal’s reaction to his sister coming out to him. To be sure, Pedro Pascal is far more famous to an American audience than Lux Pascal. But I also read the headlines about her coming out to him as a preemptive attempt to distance Pascal from Carano, whose transphobic social media behavior has led to basically every trans person I know mentioning that Carano is on The Mandalorian as a caveat when either recommending the show or urging people not to watch.
The Hollywood publicity machine has long tried to make stars seem unimpeachable, and Pedro Pascal having a trans sister he can wholeheartedly and genuinely speak up for helps separate him from the behavior of Carano. (When pressed last year, including by Pedro Pascal himself, Carano said, “I’m not against trans lives at all,” which ... thanks?)
But these two stories link up with Carano’s firing under the larger question of “what constitutes a hostile or abusive work environment?” If Carano is very publicly tweeting transphobic statements, to the degree that Pedro Pascal, who has a trans sister, has to discuss the basic dignity of trans lives with his costar, does that add up to an abusive work environment? If Carano is suggesting an election was stolen, when those sorts of suggestions very nearly led to lawmakers losing their lives, does that add up to a hostile work environment? At what point does nodding to conspiracy theories — conspiracy theories that suggest the sorts of center-left liberals who populate most Hollywood film sets literally eat babies — create a hostile work environment?
You can flip that question around, if you’re so inclined. Is Pedro Pascal telling Carano that her statements about trans people are unacceptable creating a hostile work environment? Does the corporation she works for firing her because she finally went too far in comparing Hollywood conservatives to Jewish people in 1930s Germany constitute hostility or “cancellation”? I don’t really think so in either case, but that isn’t stopping anyone from making the argument.
The largest question here is: How on Earth do we create a mainstream environment where everybody feels welcome when a substantial portion of the American public believes it should be allowed to express open bigotry and ridiculous conspiracy theories as a matter of course?
The argument over Gina Carano is (kinda, sorta) an argument about the future of American conservatism
The “we have to listen to all points of view” reflex that drives so much of Hollywood’s insulation of prominent conservatives has gotten a real workout in recent years. For one thing, the rise of Donald Trump led to a lot of stars who took his ascent to power as an excuse to give in to their inner radio shock jocks. But for another, the film and TV industries are betting that the future of entertainment doesn’t lie with embracing a narrow view of what it means to be American but, rather, with as broad and diverse a view of American-ness as possible.
This tension is, in essence, at the center of every single major argument in the entertainment industry across the last decade. It drove Gamergate, it drove too many of the trolls who got mad at The Last Jedi, and it drove the anger over that all-lady Ghostbusters. Three pressures — a rapidly diversifying America, an effort to appeal more broadly to a global audience, and the rise of social media giving voice to people whose criticisms of mainstream entertainment would have been largely unheard even 20 years ago — have combined to create an environment where Hollywood wants to seem more diverse, at the very least. And that movement has created backlash as well, from (usually white, usually male) fans who preferred it when entertainment was full of cis, straight, white guys as protagonists.
But that tension is also at the center of American politics now, and increasingly at the center of political discussion in majority-white nations that are rapidly diversifying. And where questions about, say, what makes Star Wars Star Wars have fairly low stakes for the future of the planet, transplanting those questions into our political discourse — what makes America America? — has huge consequences for, well, what makes America America.
“What makes America America?” is a conversation worth having. But too often, the conversation is centered on a debate over American diversity. And where Hollywood’s feints toward diversity are all too often merely that, a hollow attempt to cast a few more people of color or queer folks in movies or on TV pales in its potential to do harm when compared to, say, posting a meme that all but comes out and says that Jewish people control the world order and must be overthrown, as Carano has done. It’s not as though Carano was advocating for tax cuts or school choice on her social media accounts. She was advocating for outright bigotry.
As a trans woman, I often notice how often conservatives’ insistence that the left should be open to vigorous “debate” centers on questions of my basic humanity, or the basic humanity of people of color, or the basic humanity of other marginalized communities. I do not particularly want to debate my existence with someone who would ask that question in the first place. I exist. I matter. I am afforded the same rights as anybody else.
And I haven’t even begun to dig into how, say, QAnon and adjacent conspiracy theories push this conversation in directions that actively demonize one political party. It is really hard to see how “an actor is fired from a Star Wars show for bigoted social media statements, before getting work in conservative media” is at all equivalent to “a massive group of people actually tried to carry out an insurrection against the United States government.”
Hollywood has always set tacit, unspoken limits on what its stars are allowed to say, making allowances here and there for the really big names whose success makes it hard to reprimand them (lest we forget just how mad people got at Jane Fonda in the 1970s). Stars have always received slaps on the wrist when they’ve gone too far with what they say, and they’ve often had to go on apology tours where they try to win the public’s favor all over again.
The rise of social media has created a soup where stars who express bigoted views or support harmful and horrifying conspiracy theories (like Carano or Roseanne) expect to be allowed to share those views without reprisal, because they are “conservative.” But the real question here isn’t whether stars are being silenced for their political views, because we live in an era when truly silencing any star is impossible. Accused sex pest Kevin Spacey releases a new video every Christmas Eve on YouTube, for God’s sake. It’s a terrible holiday tradition!
The real question is why so many conservatives in entertainment and elsewhere are so intent on creating the belief that bigotry and conspiracy theorizing are essential planks of conservative discussion and that people who express those views shouldn’t be punished by their workplaces, even if those workplaces believe those views create hostile work environments. The argument over Gina Carano’s firing isn’t about whether liberalism has gone too far. It’s about whether conservatism is too far gone.