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Decoding Jane Campion’s Joke About the Williams Sisters

With so much news recently, I needed a bit of an escape. I scanned a list of awards season contenders for new films to watch. I had never heard of Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” until Sam Elliott decided that it does not qualify as a cowboy movie. Elliott is one of those character actors who seem to have subsumed his core identity into the roles he has played in dozens of movies and television shows. It is cool to lust for Elliott — gruff, masculine, western, small-c conservative, with a mustache made for pornography — or, rather, for the type of masculinity he performs. Women and gay men and nonbinary people frequently remark on his appeal. While that appeal might have a daddy-issues vibe, it is also nostalgic for an old-school movie star masculinity that was problematic in its own time (the patriarchal colonialism!) and that has been now defanged in the #MeTooera. The anachronism of Elliott’s cowboy archetype makes him safe enough to lust after.

Elliott’s commentary and Campion’s movie reminded us that the West may be dead but the patriarchy has not disappeared. Elliott took issue with the film’s “allusions to homosexuality” and questioned Campion’s western bona fides. It has been more than a decade since “Brokeback Mountain” should have made his critique passé. But Elliott is riding the wave of a western resurgence. His current vehicle, “1883,” is a prequel to “Yellowstone,” one of the most popular shows in America. In it Elliott plays basically himself as the last real man. It’s a role he has played many times before. That’s why his snub of “The Power of the Dog” garnered attention.

Campion handled the criticism well. Not demurely but well, directing righteous anger at Elliott’s right to criticize the film’s authenticity. She peaked with a red carpet interview in which she had choice words for Elliott: “I’m sorry, he was being a little bit of a B-I-T-C-H. He’s not a cowboy; he’s an actor. The West is a mythic space, and there’s a lot of room on the range. I think it’s a little bit sexist.” It was an elegant read, as cool kids call it. The next day, Campion took best director honors at the Critics Choice Awards. It was the perfect narrative arc for the miniature drama that had played out, beginning with Elliott’s critique.

Campion opened her acceptance speech with a nod to the tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams, who were seated near the stage. “Venus and Serena, you’re such marvels. However, you don’t play against the guys, like I have to,” Campion joked. And it was a joke — a horrible and unfunny one. But it is pretty clear in context that she thought she was drawing attention to the paucity of female directors by alluding to … two Black female superstar athletes? It was awkward and cringey. It reeked of trying too hard, the exact opposite of the cool anger Campion had aimed at Elliott from the red carpet. It was, as social media commenters described, an unforced error.

The people at the “King Richard” table were seen laughing and clapping as the befuddled audience tried to figure out if Campion’s joke was funny. A quick camera cutaway showed a more reserved reaction from Venus Williams, who looked confused as to why Campion had dragged her into the script. The why of that can never be known. I would be surprised if even Campion knows. The whole moment reads as a perfect storm of awkwardness, cluelessness, arrogance and adrenaline. For a lot of Black women, it also read as normal.

There is something in Campion’s acceptance speech faux pas that moves the silly Hollywood moment from mundane to illuminating. There is the juxtaposition of different social statuses, some of them not as easily read as one might think at first glance. Campion is white and, as a movie director, the definition of cultural elite. But Venus and Serena Williams are demigods at the top of the celebrity hierarchy. Yes, they are Black women, but they are not Campion’s social inferiors. That evening they were outside their sports milieu, present because their docudrama, “King Richard,” was making an awards run. The Hollywood context makes them familiar, if slightly strange, bedfellows. And it cannot go without saying that the Williams sisters are extremely wealthy. That is another level of status. All of those shades of gray influence the meaning of the script being enacted by all involved.

Humor is always a commentary on what a society finds normal and what it finds deviant. Campion’s joke made some assumptions about the Williams sisters that misread where society is. The joke is funny only if the world understands them as female athletes, with their gender modifying their athletic achievements. In this way, Campion has a lot in common with Elliott. Both of them willfully ignore how society has changed. The Williams sisters’ position as Black female athletes means their fight for parity is not the same as Campion’s. The audience felt that difference, as judged by their confused and scattered responses to her joke. It was the Williamses who eventually saved Campion, by leading the audience in cheers as she floundered onstage.

I interviewed the Williams sisters recently. It is hard to spend time with them and believe them to be anything but astute. They surely understood in that instance who held the power, even as I am certain they know that Black women in their position do not often have the same benefit. But their status trumped Campion’s. That is why they were the brunt of her joke but they were not victims of the joke. The fine grains of difference, embodiment and status are layered and complex. Their experience is also much more reflective of the way we live in the world than cut-and-dried cultural narratives built on the good guys and bad guys. In the real world, context changes everything.

Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, the author of “Thick: And Other Essays” and a 2020 MacArthur fellow.

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