Boston, it’s time for a change. We’re a city on the move, three months into a new decade, and we can’t cling to the ways of the past.
Specifically: We need to stop letting the same men be the most famous Massachusetts celebrities. You know who I mean: the Afflecks, the Wahlbergs, etc. Their reign has lasted far too long. Plus, it’s a reign that’s been marked by a cavalcade of scandals, “bad boy” misbehaviors, and worse. So, in honor of Women’s History Month, I offer a humble proposal: Let’s become the state of Mindy Kaling instead. Or Jenny Slate. Or Celeste Ng. In other words, less John Adams, more Abigail; less Ralph Waldo Emerson and more Phillis Wheatley. After all, we are the state of Donna Summer, the queen of disco, for goodness’ sake. Pittsfield’s own Elizabeth Banks has a wildly successful acting and directing career. And Wareham native Geena Davis created an entire institute devoted to studying gender in media, yet somehow can’t get any cred in her home state. What do the women have to do to rise to the top?
It may seem silly to care about the pop cultural representation of your city, but it gets tiring to see over and over again that all Bostonians fit a certain type. The thing is, that has never been actually true. Massachusetts has always been more than a bunch of dunderheads chucking iced coffee at each other and jabbering about the Red Sox (in fairness: It has also been that). And someone like Kaling, who grew up in Cambridge and first came to the public consciousness on The Office, is just as much who Massachusetts is as anyone else.
Yes, Boston has macho bank robbers and gangsters. It also has brainy romantic comedy lovers, brainy book authors, brainy…Okay, you get the point. If, like Kaling, you’re a girl growing up in Cambridge, your mayor is female, your congressional representative is female, your attorney general is female, and one of your two senators is female. Your experience shouldn’t feel like an anomaly when you think of the most famous celebs of your state.
It’s true that Kaling or Slate are not A-listers in the way that Affleck or Matt Damon are. It’s also true that Hollywood has made about four superhero movies starring women in the last 25 years, and it’s damnably hard to reach the level of pop cultural saturation that the men have. And making your name with a popular, non-blockbuster movie like Good Will Hunting seems less and less plausible now than it did in 1997. Can you remember the last time someone got really famous for a movie like that? Affleck and Damon also had the support of Kevin Smith’s movie-making machine for years to gin up a little extra public affection, while both of the more famous Wahlbergs coasted in on existing music careers.
This isn’t to suggest that the pop cultural contributions of those men are bad, nor is this an effort to “cancel” anyone for past misdeeds or suggest that they’re not capable of growth over the many years they’ve been in the public eye. Ben, in particular, has been making what seem to be genuine efforts to make amends and account for the life he’s lived. You don’t need to chuck your old New Kids on the Block albums into the trash, or stop loving Ted. Continue to enjoy these things! But it’s high time we try to embrace a more varied picture of what our state is. When you think of a Boston movie, don’t only envision The Departed. Try thinking of Fever Pitch. Or Slate’s Obvious Child, which is not based here, but is a pretty charming movie starring a public figure who has, in recent years, been very public about spending time in her home state in a way those other guys haven’t (she’s engaged to Ben Shattuck, who runs a local writers’ colony).
Ng is another great example. Little Fires Everywhere was a massive bestseller, Hulu’s about to release a flashy adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, and Ng herself is one of Cambridge’s most well-known residents. One way you can tell? She talks about her city an awful lot. She’s clearly got a close relationship with beloved local institution Porter Square Books. Plus, she’s just announced an initiative to help diversify publishing by launching a grant program for paid internships. This is inarguably a person Massachusetts can be proud of and who seems very invested in living here! Can’t we just decide that a hip, activist author is the biggest name here?
This may seem like small potatoes, given the very real issues facing both the state and the country as a whole. Paying lip service to empowering women isn’t the same as changing the entrenched structures that have kept them out of power in the first place, and it’s a little painful to think about when yet another overqualified local woman got eclipsed by two men on Super Tuesday. It’s also a reflection of our state’s outsize influence on national conversations that we have such a plethora of bold names to brag about—scan your local media on a given morning, and you’ll find it full of stories about John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place sequel, or that Little Fires Everywhere adaptation. But it’s hard to escape the sense that we’re still, in the eyes of way too many people, the state of Afflecks and Wahlbergs, which we’ve been since roughly the end of the ’90s. It’s time to be the Massachusetts of 2020.
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