During a conversation with BuzzFeed News Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith about their upcoming film The Post, actors Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks mulled over the question of what to do with art once an artist’s reputation has been compromised. The question revolved around the deluge of allegations of sexual misconduct that have recently hit public figures in Hollywood, from Harvey Weinstein and Brett Ratner to Dustin Hoffman and Kevin Spacey. “We still revere Shakespeare,” Streep said. “We haven’t thrown it out, and there is no question that [The Merchant of Venice] is anti-Semitic. There is no question that The Taming of the Shrew is misogynist. Everybody has their blank spots, but the genius that understands so much else about the human experiment is worth safeguarding, and shouldn’t be touched.”
“People who are terrible also have terribly clear insights on other subjects, so I don’t think you throw the baby out with the bathwater,” she continued.
Hanks answered next, emphasizing that the question of the art vs. the artist is one that takes time. “If you threw out every film or television show that was made by an asshole, Netflix would go out of business,” the actor said. “The Brady Bunch, I don’t know what else. I think you do just have to…you wait. ‘Cause this is a long game. Picasso was a womanizer. And this is not excusing anybody — you just have to wait and see how it settles over the long haul.”
“This is not a sprint, this is a marathon,” he continued. “And I think work does speak for itself. But character does come into the conversation at some point. But I think that lands over time.”
Throughout her first four seasons on Black-ish, Zoey Johnson has more or less known who she is. Played by reigning teen icon Yara Shahidi, the Black-ish incarnation of Zoey has been the cool girl; the stylish girl; the popular kid; the favorite child. She’s been the sister who knows how to ground her family members when they stray too far into one of their frequent flights of fancy. She’s rocked practically every possible hairstyle. She’s been genius, and fabulously frivolous. She’s taken part in discussion after discussion about the nuances of black life in America. And she’s done it all with confidence, a winning smirk, and an uncommon amount of swagger. But she’s also done it from the sidelines.
ABC’s Black-ish thrives in its own tried-and-true formula. Its characters are designed to represent a range of perspectives, and each offers a different point of view in America’s most relevant cultural conversations.
The show has also always been framed mainly around a middle-aged black man — Dre Johnson, played by Anthony Anderson. And Black-ish has certainly gone to very smart places with Dre in the lead, churning out engaging episodes that examined everything from police brutality to the 2016 election to postpartum depression. But it’s also begged the question: What would this show look like if we decentered Dre — if the default perspective were, say, a young black woman instead of her father?
Grown-ish, premiering Jan. 3 on Freeform, is centered on Zoey’s first year of college. And it’s here to answer that question. With Shahidi in the lead, this new show already glows from the inside out.
This time, it’s Zoey’s identity at the center of everything. And, as she realizes quickly in the show’s Breakfast Club–inspired first episode, it’s an identity that’s much more in flux than on Black-ish. “The spine of this is Yara Shahidi, is Zoey,” Black-ish and Grown-ish creator Kenya Barris told BuzzFeed News in mid-November. “She’s the narrative engine.”
“You really get the chance to create Zoey,” Shahidi told BuzzFeed News of the opportunity a spinoff provides, adding, that “we’re watching the creation of a complex character.” Shahidi, who is 17 herself, had just completed her own college applications in January 2017 when she learned of Barris’s plans to spin her character off. “Kenya would really treat me like a collaborator, especially in the preproduction,” she said. “While Black-ish is through Dre’s lens, Grown-ish is unabashedly through Zoey’s lens.”
“I think that this generation has more on its shoulders than any different generation probably since, like, the Vietnam War,” Barris said.
That lens is one of a young black woman struggling to figure out what kind of person she wants to be. It’s also, by extension of Zoey and her group of friends, one of a younger generation responding to a culture in flux, with an ensemble cast so easily captivating they’d make John Hughes jealous. “I think that this generation has more on its shoulders than any different generation probably since, like, the Vietnam War,” Barris said. “And I think all that is at the core of what this show is.”
The idea of harnessing “the voice of a generation” has been tainted since the 2012 reaction to the first season of Lena Dunham’s HBO show Girls. But that’s never meant that a generation doesn’t crave voices — plural — and Grown-ish aims to spin the Black-ish formula into a series that acts as one for Generation Z. Black-ish takes on the spirit of black affluence in Generation X through the point of view of a goofy, high-strung dad. Grown-ish, on the other hand, is carving out space to debate the burgeoning cultural essence of Generation Z, as anchored in the point of view of a young, soul-searching black girl. “They really are the generation that kind of is tasked with really making America great again,” Barris said, echoing a sentiment he shared in a recent commencement address at Tufts University. “It is kind of a crazy place right now.”
With that in mind, having Shahidi in the lead and collaborating in creating her character certainly helps Barris’s goal. Since Black-ish premiered in 2014, Shahidi has stood out both on the show and in her offscreen life, becoming an activist and a sort of public teen representative on a variety of issues. “That voice that she gives to youth culture and the people who don’t have a voice, I think that probably comes before the show [for her], before school,” Barris said. “I think that’s something that she thinks is really important. And that comes out sometimes in the show.”
A generation is, of course, a big thing — one that could never be summed up in one TV series. But the black American experience is a vast thing, too; that didn’t stop Black-ish from taking it on piece by piece. They did so by acknowledging the sheer diversity of those experiences and offering up an array of perspectives that mirror how people are hashing them out in the larger world.
In the first season of Grown-ish, the show takes on a slew of topics using much the same format. Among the subjects on the table in Season 1 are campus drug use, the intensely subjective definition of the phrase “hook up,” and a debate about safe spaces centered around the status of an all-black dorm. There’s also an episode discussing “black women and their position in society,” according to Barris, inspired by data that shows that black women and Asian men are the demographics most often seen as undesirable on dating apps. That one sparked the biggest debate internally — “the one that almost broke the writers room,” Barris said. “It was really this emotional whirlwind that we had in the room talking about it.”
The cultural status of black women is a conversation that absolutely could have happened on Black-ish. As Chloe Bailey — who plays one half of a track star duo on Grown-ish with younger sister Halle Bailey — told BuzzFeed News, Black-ish is “not afraid to talk about any and everything.” But it’s also a conversation that promises to pack an even bigger wallop on a series actually centered on a black woman. “I want to be part of something that moves culture and really hits the nail on the head,” said Trevor Jackson, who plays young activist and Zoey’s sometime love interest Aaron, on Grown-ish.
Grown-ish already feels strikingly confident in its first few episodes, anchored by an exciting ensemble and a main character who thrives in the spotlight. “They come together to make this amazing alchemy of people that I don’t think we’ve seen in a really, really long time,” Barris said of the ensemble, citing examples like St. Elmo’s Fire, Friends, and St. Elsewhere as a reminder of the goal. There’s also a healthy helping of A Different World.
Zoey may still be figuring out who she is, but Grown-ish already seems steady in what it wants to be. It’s “a little bit looser and gets a little bit wilder” than Black-ish, according to Barris, and that’s evident from the season’s first three episodes. It’s more serialized, more romantic, more character-driven. It’s what Zoey is: fresh, and young, and stylish. And it’s all hers.
Alanna Bennett is an entertainment reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
In the ever-widening world of Harry Potter, there is a dark entity known as the Obscurus. Created when a child suppresses their magic, an Obscurus is often brought about by abuse in that child’s environment. The parasite uses that pain to take over its host’s body, then lashes out to destroy everything in its path. In the first Fantastic Beasts movie, it was the force that pummeled its way through half of Manhattan — forming the film’s climactic moments and sending the entire wizarding government into a damage control panic.
When Johnny Depp’s casting as Gellert Grindelwald in the Fantastic Beasts franchise was announced, it was Nov. 1, 2016, only a couple of weeks before the first Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them film hit theaters in the US and the UK. It was also 11 months before the exposure of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged decades of sexual misconduct — an event that would inspire droves of people to come forward with their own abuse stories, landing a growing list of people (primarily men) fired or in the midst of PR disaster. But back in 2016, Depp’s alleged verbal and physical abuse against ex-wife Amber Heard was public knowledge, and the once-beloved actor had already fallen from grace.
Fans weren’t pleased with the casting from the get-go. “The Harry Potter universe is all about being against the abuse of power and yet you cast a known abuser?” Twitter user @wednesdaydreams tweeted soon after the casting was announced. “What really gets me, is how many victims of abuse have used the Harry Potter franchise as a means to heal,” user @holly_bourneYA tweeted. “How must they feel today? How.”
In the wake of the Weinstein-inspired floodgates, several industries have been stoked to attention via the resurgence of movements like the Tarana Burke–founded #MeToo. Many are just beginning to reckon with the vast, insidious history of abuses within their ranks. And Depp is still in Fantastic Beasts, gearing up for the release of the series’s second installment in November 2018, eerily called The Crimes of Grindelwald. Only, the cultural environment his role exists in has grown even more inhospitable than it already was.
“If Ridley Scott can reshoot an entire movie in two weeks, you can recast Johnny Depp.”
“It’s galling, and it’s heartbreaking, simultaneously,” Harry Potter fan Leah Cornish told BuzzFeed News. “It’s such a slap in the face to people who love the books,” fan Sarah Furniss said. Several longtime fans spoke to BuzzFeed News recently, citing their own experiences with abuse and the ways in which the Harry Potter series historically acted as a balm in their lives. Many also noted Sony’s recent decision to replace Kevin Spacey in All the Money in the World as an example of a contentious lead actor who was replaced even when it was inconvenient. In that case, Christopher Plummer stepped into Spacey’s former role following sexual assault allegations against Spacey. At the time it was an unprecedented move; now it’s publicly, provably possible. “If Ridley Scott can reshoot an entire movie in two weeks, you can recast Johnny Depp,” Harry Potter fan Cate Young told BuzzFeed News. (Spacey was also removed from House of Cards, and Danny Masterson was written out of The Ranch following rape allegations.)
It’s glaringly evident that everyone from Potter fans to those responsible for creating Fantastic Beasts are intensely aware that Depp’s presence is potentially disastrous. And yet he remains in the role. And as of this week, all the major forces behind the film — director David Yates, Warner Bros., and creator J.K. Rowling — have spoken publicly and supported the decision to keep him employed. “It’s put me in a weird place,” Ariel Taranski, a former employee of the Harry Potter fansite MuggleNet.com told BuzzFeed News. “I love literally every other actor in these movies. It’s disheartening.”
Abuse has always been a central theme in the world of Harry Potter. It was the reality of the title character’s daily life with the Dursleys: confined to a cupboard, starved, berated daily for merely existing. That was a big part of what made Harry’s escape into the wizarding world feel impactful — he was finally granted a reprieve from life with his abusers. Verbal and physical abuse was speckled throughout every story, from the childhoods of Sirius Black, Severus Snape, and Tom Riddle, to the misconduct of school and government officials like professors Snape and Umbridge. It is present, too, in Fantastic Beasts and Cursed Child, and will certainly be a theme in The Crimes of Grindelwald.
On Thursday, Dec. 7, Rowling released a statement responding to the Depp controversy. It came nine months after Twitter users started claiming that Rowling had beenblockingthem when they tweeted at her about their displeasure over his role. In Rowling’s statement, she called the “questions and concerns” fans had regarding Depp’s casting “legitimate,” and admitted that producers “naturally considered the possibility of recasting.” She continued, though, that, “based on our understanding of the circumstances, the filmmakers and I are not only comfortable sticking with our casting but genuinely happy to have Johnny playing a major character in the movies.”
“I accept that there will be those who are not satisfied with our choice of actor in the title role,” she wrote in the statement’s final paragraph. “However, conscience isn’t governable by committee. Within the fictional world and outside it, we all have to do what we believe to be the right thing.” Reached for comment, a representative for Rowling told BuzzFeed News that the author “isn’t making any further comment and won’t be doing interviews.”
Warner Bros. also released a statement, writing that they “take seriously the complexity of the issues involved,” but that “based on the circumstances and the information available to us, we, along with the filmmakers, continue to support the decision to proceed with Johnny Depp in the role of Grindelwald in this and future films.”
Warner Bros.’ statement also said that the matter of the abuse allegations had “been jointly addressed by both parties, in a statement in which they said “there was never any intent of physical or emotional harm.” This was in reference to a statement released by Heard and Depp in August 2016. Heard seemed to respond to Warner Bros.’ use of that line on Twitter, writing, “For the record, this was our FULL joint statement. To pick&choose certain lines & quote them out of context, is not right.Women, stay strong.” [sic]
Heard and Depp’s full statement read as follows: “Our relationship was intensely passionate and at times volatile, but always bound by love. Neither party has made false accusations for financial gain. There was never any intent of physical or emotional harm. Amber wishes the best for Johnny in the future. Amber will be donating financial proceeds from the divorce to a charity. There will be no further public statements about this matter.”
The fans BuzzFeed News spoke to were not happy with the responses from Rowling, Yates, Heyman, or Warner Bros. Neither were many fans on Twitter. As user @leonardoflac wrote, Rowling’s “legacy is literally about a boy who has been emotionally and physically abused and the danger in looking the other way bc the truth is inconvenient.” But other fans also came to Rowling’s — and Depp’s — defense, saying that Heard could be lying, or commenting on the intense scrutiny Rowling is under. Still others reminded folks of the People report from June 2017 that claimed Depp’s former managers had witnessed Depp being “extremely volatile” with Heard. That report alleges that he had “gotten physical” and “violently kicked” her. Neither Depp’s nor Heard’s reps responded to request for comment.
After hearing Rowling’s statement, Young told BuzzFeed News about her disappointment, “not just because of the themes in the story in general, but also because of her [Rowling’s] reputation of being so outspoken and progressive,” Young said. “It’s just a very bad look to keep him on, because it’s just another Lena Dunham situation basically, where [the excuse is] ‘Oh, well I know the real reason why it’s fine.’” Young was referencing an incident that occurred after actress Aurora Perrineau accused Girls screenwriter Murray Miller of raping her. In response, Dunham and fellow Girls showrunner Jenni Konner released a statement to THR that said that their “insider knowledge of the situation” and working history with Murray led them to side with his version of events. Dunham later apologized after an intense Twitter backlash, writing that “until we are all believed, none of us will be believed.”
Rowling’s statement echoed that of Yates, whose thoughts on the matter had been published in an interview a week prior. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly, he said that “with Johnny, it seems to me there was one person who took a pop at him and claimed something. I can only tell you about the man I see every day: He’s full of decency and kindness, and that’s all I see. Whatever accusation was out there doesn’t tally with the kind of human being I’ve been working with.”
“Our feelings are valid. [What’s happening] feels basically like gaslighting.”
Later, in a joint statement from Yates and longtime Harry Potter producer David Heyman, they wrote that “none of us involved in Fantastic Beasts would ever let our appreciation of talent obscure other, far more important considerations. We recognized the magnitude of the issues raised and understood the strength of feeling expressed. We hoped and strived at all times to be sensitive to both parties. We stand by our decision to have Johnny in the films.” Reached for comment, Warner Bros. directed BuzzFeed News to the previously released statements.
As it is, fans’ relationship with the Harry Potter franchise has been increasingly strained in recent years. As fan Robyn Jordan told BuzzFeed News in 2016, “We have to ask ourselves if they’re taking advantage of the audience they have while not meeting the standards that they set.” And as Furniss told BuzzFeed News this week, “Our feelings are valid. [What’s happening] feels basically like gaslighting.”
Some themes in a fictional series could never contain the full implications of the massive moment forming around the exposure of abusers in Hollywood. But in the case of Fantastic Beasts and the truly staggering fandom that’s congregated around Harry Potter for the past 20 years, it’s a relevant facet of a painful situation. The fandom has been fighting Depp’s casting since the day it was announced, and Rowling has stayed mostly quiet for the vast majority of that time. For some, the silence itself was an ideological betrayal. It was also hypocritical given the nature of the series and Rowling’s public history of progressive rhetoric. Now, the statements from Fantastic Beasts’ powers that be are their own troubling entity, and, to some, serve as yet another symbol of the ways in which women’s grievances will be disbelieved or dismissed in favor of a charming man.
The question of whether these controversies will affect the box office of The Crimes of Grindelwald are more difficult to predict. The movie doesn’t even come out for another 11 months, and Harry Potter is a powerful force. Given the new allegations and Hollywood upheavals happening daily, we don’t even know what the industry creating this movie will look like in the coming months. After Crimes of Grindelwald, the plan is to make three more Fantastic Beasts movies, presumably also involving the archvillainy of Grindelwald. What will anything even look like by the time we get to the last one? What will the industry and the culture at large have reckoned with then, and what will continue to escape scrutiny or consequence? As Furniss said, “The problem with this past year is that I can’t be super optimistic anymore.”
Alanna Bennett is an entertainment reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Taylor Swift’s reputation is a complicated mess. Love her or hate her, she knows this and we know this — it’s what her newest album (uh, Reputation), is all about. One would need a corkboard and miles of red string to sort out the full medley of exasperation that has accompanied conversations about Taylor Swift over the past few years.
In one quadrant of tacked-up evidence are Swift’s celebrity feuds, generally juicy but also exhaustively long-running. In another, you’d find everything about Swift’s personal life that alternately grates and thrills (depending on your preferences). Move over a little from there and you’ll find Swift’s image itself — willowy, blonde, and aggressively white. Perhaps, in an awkward corner close by, are the white supremacist fans who’ve claimed her as a figurehead. In any blank space, you’ll find her political silence and her idiosyncratic ways of communicating with the public. Somewhere scattered among all this is her actual music — as genre-torn as ever, but permanently catchy. Altogether, you’ve got a map without roads, the landscape to how we view a public figure who is alternately aggravating and illuminating.
But can Swift’s way of doing things keep up with the mounting pressures of a culture whose priorities have shifted?
With the release of Reputation, an album whose very concept hinges its very title on Swift’s persona and how we view it, the pop star’s ability to navigate the tangled web surrounding her name is front and center. Swift remains one of the most powerful figures in entertainment today, with a large bevy of stans who would still follow her anywhere. But can Swift’s way of doing things keep up with the mounting pressures of a culture whose priorities have shifted?
In a behind the scenes clip for the “Look What You Made Me Do” music video, Swift talks into the camera about the decision to wear the same dress in the video that she wore to the 2014 Met Gala, which is colloquially known as the start of Swift’s 1989 era. “This is the shot of, like, me in a grave, as if I was buried in that dress,” she said. “Which is an interesting and thought-provoking idea.” That era is, after all, is known in Swiftian history as the period of time when everything went off the rails and the public turned on her.
But the 1989 era started off downright swimmingly. In fact, the time between November 2014 and July 2015 was one of the most fruitful eras of Swift’s career. It wasn’t just her longtime stans who were doing what they do best (stanning); she had won a lot of mainstream goodwill, with a very well-received album, a public declaration that she’d grown to consider herself a feminist, and a music video that poked fun at the persona people had long lampooned her for.
In the slide from 2014 into 2015, Swift’s strategy was working. As Time critic Sam Lansky wrote of 1989, “Thematically, too, Swift breaks from the past, skirting victimhood and takedowns of maddening execs, critics and romantic competitors. Instead, there’s a newfound levity. Not only is Swift in on the joke; she also relishes it.”
Then, in July 2015, the nominations for Video of the Year for the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards were announced. Swift was nominated, for the music video for “Bad Blood.” Nicki Minaj, who was not nominated for the daring, if not provocative, video for “Anaconda,” tweeted an accusation that the VMAs were more likely to celebrate “other” girls for their accomplishments — “women with very slim bodies.” Swift jumped into the conversation, literally making it about her: “I’ve done nothing but love & Support you,” she wrote on Twitter. “It’s unlike you to pit women against each other. Maybe one of the men took your slot..” Minaj responded with confusion: “Didn’t say a word about u.”
Anyone who follows Swift knows the general outline of her most famous feuds. Much has been made of Swift’s falling-out with Katy Perry, and of her alarmingly long-standing beef with Kanye West. Perhaps most epically, in the history of Swiftian-Shakespearean drama, came the moment in July 2016 when Kim Kardashian West posted a video to her Snapchat that appeared to show Swift agreeing to endorse West’s song “Famous” — or, at least part of it — despite that Swift eventually took a public stance against the song. Every one of these episodes is part of the swirling excess of the Swift narrative. The Kardashian–West incident, in particular, acted as the climax that culminated in Swift being publicly branded a “snake” on social media for the perceived lie. Soon after, Swift left the public eye for a stretch of time before re-emerging to release Reputation. And the resulting album, which leaked yesterday — a day before the official release today — spends a considerable amount of time seemingly blaming Swift’s reputational fallout on the feud with West and on a too eager media.
It would be naïve to discount the impact of the Snapchat videos that came out of Swift’s back-and-forth with West; they branded her (“snake,” “liar,” “image manipulator”) in a way that has stuck. But to blame Swift’s entire image problem on West or the media is to ignore a crucial element that came into the forefront of American culture around the 1989 era as well. As Swift was dealing with all the public drama surrounding her name, other cultural conversations were speeding along. In the US, Swift’s battle with Kardashian faded into the background as the country was swallowed whole by an election that brought conversations about sexism and white supremacy to the forefront of everyday politics.
It’s a bleach stain that’s never really left Swift’s persona.
These conversations never entirely fade into the background, of course, and were absolutely present when Minaj called out the racism of the VMAs during Swift’s 1989 era. When Swift inserted herself into the conversation, she stepped into something much bigger than herself. Swift apologized quickly — swiftly — after an onslaught of backlash. “I missed the point, I misunderstood, then misspoke,” she wrote. “I’m sorry, Nicki.” The pair even capped it off with a joint performance at the VMAs. But it was too late: Swift had already linked herself to an ever-growing conversation about the damage racism can do — especially when that damage presents itself as white innocence and/or oblivion. It’s a bleach stain that’s never really left Swift’s persona, and one that took on an even more intense tenor after the 2016 election.
Predating the Minaj incident but potentially egged on by it, Swift has long had a curious issue: Nazis love her. Ever-blonde with a public presence linked to ideas of purity, images of Swift have circulated in alt-right internet circles for years. “We are certain that as soon as the Nazis saw her, they were magnetically drawn to her sculpted Aryan form and angelic demeanor,” Andre Anglin, founder of neo-Nazi blog the Daily Stormer told Broadly in 2016. “The entire alt-right patiently awaits the day when we can lay down our swords and kneel before her throne,” he said, “as she commands us to go forth and slaughter the subhuman enemies of the Aryan race.”
The Nazi connection is not one Swift has ever courted, at least not in any active, provable, or logically tangible way. But it’s not one she can seem to shake off, either. And as white supremacist groups take center stage in the news cycle more and more throughout 2017, the connection grows more troublesome for Swift. As a public entity, Swift’s strategy around politics has been silence throughout most of her career — so much so that the fact that she has previously publicly distanced herself from the groups has been drowned out by her lack of public endorsement for any candidate in the 2016 election. Oh, and that persistent perception (or running joke?) that she voted for Donald Trump.
Swift’s relative silence on politics may have worked for the majority of her career so far. But by the time the 1989 era came to a close, a lot of Swift’s standby strategies had already proven themselves outdated. And as a sizable portion of the US entered panic mode politically, the perceived stakes of anyone’s silence seemed to grow exponentially.
In 2017, Swift’s team spotted a PopFront blog post by Meghan Herning titled “Swiftly to the alt-right: Taylor subtly gets the lower case kkk in formation.” In October, Swift and her lawyers sent a letter to Herning, threatening a defamation lawsuit if she didn’t retract the post. Then the American Civil Liberties Union got a hold of the letter and publicly called out Swift’s “attempts to suppress constitutionally protected speech,” as ACLU of Northern California attorney Michael Risher told Entertainment Weekly. In the letter, Swift’s lawyers do state the pop star’s opinions on the alt-right: “Let this letter stand as yet another unequivocal denouncement by Ms. Swift of white supremacy and the alt-right,” they write, calling associations of Swift with white supremacy “disgusting.” But they also state that the letter is confidential, and not to be published. And when the statement did go public, it was via a scolding by the ACLU. Swift’s rep did not respond to multiple requests from BuzzFeed News for comment.
Silence is not uncommon for the biggest celebrities. Beyoncé, for example, effectively stopped giving interviews when she reached a certain level of prominence. She’s practically made an art of selective silence, and it’s a choice that has proven effective in guarding her personal life and even certain parts of her personality from the public. But Beyoncé is also exceptionally skilled at toeing the line of silence, but without crossing over into perceived complicity with embedded forces like white supremacy and misogyny. Beyoncé did endorse a candidate in the 2016 election (Hillary Clinton), and her renowned visual album, Lemonade, is as political as it is intimate. Beyoncé’s silence and her speech alike fuel her power, shoring up her gates against the particular kind of public backlash that has accompanied Swift’s persona in the last two years. Of course, by nature of that very history of racism and misogyny, Beyoncé has always had a much higher bar to clear than Swift to reach similar kinds of success.
The world around Swift is not at all limited to the feuds and relationships that have marked her narrative. But watching the strange dance she does between engaging and retreating in her relationship to the public — and listening to Reputation — one gets the impression that she thinks it is. Consider how many times conversations around Swift circle back to the perception that she hasn’t grown, matured, or changed. That’s a sticking point in part because the culture Swift’s persona exists in has evolved to see her in a very different context, while that persona hasn’t evolved to account for the world around her. Most of Swift’s public reactions to the world revolve around, well, what the world is saying about Swift. That can work sometimes. After all, Swift still remains heavily popular — even now, her power of perception hasn’t faded irreparably, and certainly, her economic power does not show signs of waning. But through the lens of a culture, especially a popular culture that involves progressives actively battling white supremacy, Swift is intrinsically linked to whiteness and privilege. And in 2017, she is still absenting herself from the cultural conversation while simultaneously trying to center herself in it.
Perspective is everything. While it may not destroy an artist’s cultural power — their ability to remain relevant and capture audiences time and again, it can eventually make or break a reputation.
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“Susan Kelechi Watson, it is my pleasure to rep black love with you, sister,” Sterling K. Brown said on the Emmys stage this year. “Let’s keep doing it like Martin and Gina.” Brown was accepting the award for Lead Actor in a Drama Series for his role as Randall in This Is Us, and thanked his acting partner in one of the best TV marriages currently on air. Because just as there is no Martin without Gina, there’d be no Randall — or Brown on that stage — without Beth, his onscreen wife.
Played by Watson with a discerning warmth, Beth is not just magnetic, she’s the magnet; she’s holding the whole joint together. “I’m excited for people to get to know [Beth] on a deeper level,” Watson told BuzzFeed News in August.
“I try to give her an eyes-wide-open perspective.”
Watson, 35, is not a member of what This Is Us calls “The Big Three,” aka the trio of siblings at the center of the series, and didn’t feature much in the first trailer for the show. But make no mistake: Beth is essential, and the first season proved it. How integral she is becomes clear by the show’s second episode, when Beth pulls aside Randall’s long-lost birth father, William (Ron Cephas Jones), and delivers a monologue about her husband’s vices — namely, his heart and his perfectionism. She moves between looking into William’s eyes and at the wall as she recounts moments from their past, the half-smile on her face telling a story of devotion as much as worry. It’s this sort of nimbleness with mood and easy evocation of her history that quickly established Watson as one of the show’s powerhouse performers.
“I try to give her an eyes-wide-open perspective,” Watson told BuzzFeed News of her character. “With her, I try to let information be new, and assess it in the moment. She’s always grounded in the reality.”
The be-all and end-all of This Is Us is family. The series follows a married couple in the 1970s (played by Mandy Moore and Milo Ventimiglia) and the present-day family tree that branches out to include three children — biological kids Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Kevin (Justin Hartley) and adopted kid Randall. As for Randall and Beth’s family, they have two daughters (played by Faithe Herman and Eris Baker). The ensemble drama found success soon after it premiered in September 2016: Its ratings have given network TV rare hope, and the show was nominated for 10 Emmys (it won two). It also quickly became known for its ability to make viewers cry, cry, cry. NBC renewed it for two more seasons halfway through its first, guaranteeing at least two more years of targeted weeping and social media watercooler moments. “We didn’t realize the responsibility that it innately has,” Watson said about the show’s impact on viewers. “It’s been responsible for this sort of cathartic response that’s been happening. … As an artist, it’s kind of dreamy.”
The opportunity to join the show came to Watson during what she calls a “tough time” in her career which she got through with the help of friends. Watson, who was 33 at the time, was living in New York and was mainly known for her role on Louie as Louis C.K.’s character’s ex-wife. “I was really thinking, Should I just move to Montreal and get an apartment and work in a coffee shop? … Sometimes when you’re down, you’re looking down and you only see down. But if you have people around you who are looking up, you’re like, oh, there’s some sunlight out there.”
“I thought, Oprah called her already? Did Oprah just see that?”
This Is Us was a part of when things started to look up. Watson happened to be leaving an audition for the Oprah-produced Queen Sugar when she found out she got the part on This Is Us. “I came out and I got this message from my agent saying she had news and to call her back. I thought, Oprah called her already? Did Oprah just see that?” That agent and Watson’s manager played around with her a little before telling her the news. “[They] got on the phone and asked me if I wanted to do Queen Sugar,” Watson recalls. “I said ‘I think that’d be great,’ and they said, ‘Well, you can’t, because you got this other thing!’” And so it was goodbye to Oprah, and hello NBC. “I told them to pull their phones away from their ears because I was about to start screaming. And I did.”
At first, Beth is quite literally a supporting character. As Randall’s Season 1 storyline revolved around exploring a relationship with his birth father and his ethnicity as a black man raised by a white family, Beth spends a lot of her initial screentime as a fortifying beacon. She speaks truth into scenes, asking the tough questions that Randall wasn’t quite ready to speak aloud, pointing him in the right direction. Like when Randall brought William to live with them without bothering to ask anything about his life, or when she senses that the stress has been secretly eating away at her Energizer bunny of a husband. Alongside Brown as her most frequent scene partner, Randall and Beth’s relationship felt instantly lived in, real, emotionally weighty, and sexy, all without even a single sex scene. They’re stars, especially together. If the marriage between Moore and Ventimiglia’s characters grounds the series during the show’s frequent flashbacks, so does Beth and Randall’s in the present. And none of it would work without the sly, crackling charm Watson brings to the experience.
“I keep impressing on myself to keep discovering her.”
This Is Us has yet to explore much of Beth’s backstory, though Watson hints that there’s more of that to come. “There are scary moments because they’re giving me a lot of new material, so I’m learning on the spot about Beth,” she said. “I keep impressing on myself to keep discovering her, and I’m trying to maintain the integrity of who we’ve established that she is, and who I created her to be.”
And the Beth that Watson and the writers did co-author is beloved by viewers. Beth is sure of herself, but open to the right kind of change (after some convincing). She is protective of the life she’s built, and loves with the kind of fierceness that makes any of This Is Us’s best scenes shine. Her intelligence is palpable; so is her vulnerability and her humor. She’s a well-rounded woman of color on one of the biggest shows on TV right now — of course viewers want more of her. As BuzzFeed News’ own Sylvia Obell wrote last season, “This show should honestly be called This Is Beth and Her Sweet Husband Randall.”
“She’s earthy in a lot of ways, she feels very down-to-earth,” Watson said. “And that has a lot to do with her knowing herself, and knowing about herself. She’s not so lost, you know what I mean?” This makes her the perfect balancing act opposite Randall, who’s still actively grappling with his upbringing through his relationship with William and flashbacks showing his struggle with his white surroundings as a kid. “Beth’s black as hell. That’s the great thing between Randall and Beth — she’s grounded in that kind of thing, and he’s still looking to discover it,” Watson said.
Beth shines separately from Randall too — something that’s evident throughout This Is Us’s first season, but particularly in the season’s penultimate episode. In “What Now?” William has just died, and Beth is wrestling with her treatment as a supporting character in his life. “I loved him too, Randall,” Beth says. In the eulogy she gives for William minutes later, she takes center stage. Her grief mixes with anger and — again — with the full vulnerability of affection as it all spreads across her face. She’s the kind of actor who can make you cry with a smile.
This Is Us is an undeniable force in television, and as the show sinks deeper and deeper into the family life the series is built on, there’s more opportunity to dig deeper into Beth. Think of all the things we have yet to discover about her, for a show so grounded in how where you come from shapes who you are. “I hope that people learn more about her and have the same appreciation for who she is,” Watson said. “If nothing else, they get more of her point of view on the world.”
Knowing This Is Us, that’s a flashback worth waiting for.
Alanna Bennett is an entertainment reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.