Natalie Portman’s commencement speech to this year’s class of graduates from Harvard University made some good points.
But Portman, a Harvard grad herself, made one terrible joke that had the potential to be damaging to every young adult who heard it.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, amid encouraging the new grads to be confident and test their own limits, Portman joked that her own education at the Ivy League school “doesn’t help me answer the most common questions I’m asked: What designer are you wearing? What’s your fitness regimen? Any makeup tips?”
We’re sure the joke drew some laughs from the crowd of excited new graduates. But even though she probably didn’t intend to, Portman was making light of a very serious problem: the entertainment industry’s institutional sexism.
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Even though she’s a successful actress and director and she has an education from Harvard University, one of the most reputable schools in the U.S., Portman is still treated like a dumb little girl when red carpet reporters only ask questions about her clothes, her body and her makeup. You don’t see them asking men those questions, but you do see them concerning themselves almost exclusively with looks when it comes to women.
Portman’s speech proved she has a lot of intelligent, thought-provoking, useful experiences and ideas to bring to the world. It’s not OK when reporters treat her like she doesn’t and that all that matters is her looks.
And though Portman was just making a joke — and probably one she thought to be harmless — she was sending a message to the new graduates. She was telling them that sexism they are going to face when they go out into the world themselves is a laughing matter. She was telling them that it’s OK that women are objectified and expected to be pretty rather than smart. It’s something we joke about, not something we stand up against.
If that’s the message Natalie Portman wants young women to hear at their college graduations, she has no business giving commencement speeches.