OITNB's Matt McGorry On Feminism, Power and Dascha Polanco 


Over the past two years, the actor Matt McGorry has evolved from his job as a personal trainer and bodybuilder with mostly small TV roles (he played a lot of cops and EMTs) to a star in not one, but two of television’s must-watch-or-I’ll-croak shows.

As Asher in How to Get Away With Murder, the New York-born actor plays a feckless bro with a crush on his instructor’s legal assistant and an epic dance scene. As Bennett on Orange Is the New Black, which returns to Netflix this Friday, he’s a kind, also somewhat feckless corrections officer who’s fallen in love with—and impregnated—a prisoner, a transgression that could cost him his job (and the ability to see his love, Dascha Polanco’s “Daya,” ever again).

And on March 5, Matt McGorry posted on his Facebook page that he is a feminist, writing, “I’m embarrassed to admit that I only recently discovered the ACTUAL definition of ‘feminism.’” Since then, his social media has been singularly focused on the task of publicly exploring what it means to be an intersectional feminist, which is not only a learning journey for him but also, he hopes, for other people like him, who may espouse feminist beliefs but simply don’t know what that means.

Jezebel spoke with McGorry about his mission with feminism, how gender-based power dynamics affect his roles on Orange Is the New Black and How to Get Away With Murder, and people on the internet—including Jezebel—allowing newbie feminists like him the space to learn and grow.

Hi Matt. How are you feeling about Orange is the New Black Season 3? What can we expect from Bennett this season?

I feel great about it. Per usual, I haven’t seen any of the episodes but the scripts and everything were continuously great the way I expected them to be, but it’s a pretty amazing feat, to kind of, it seems like each season critics say it gets better. That’s a pretty rare feat, you know? It’s pretty cool. As far as Bennett goes, I’m very happy with where the storyline ended up going and if not for anything else, it’s the most real it’s been for Bennett and that character. It’s really great, even highlighting the social issues as well, and the kind of complexities of a relationship between a corrections officer and an inmate.

That’s one of the most interesting arcs, because it’s realistic scenario. There’s a reality to correctional officer/inmate interactions, and I’m wondering if you’ve done any research on these types of scenarios, or have any thoughts on the dynamics between your characters, compared to what actually happens.

Right. It’s a tricky situation. I did explore it a bit before season one, you know. I had a friend whose father was a psychologist for male corrections officers, actually, and it’s come up in the news, and my sort of recent foray into exploring feminism and gender equality stuff has made me think about it even more.

It’s strange because there’s this divide between reality and our characters. The law states that sex between a corrections officer and inmate cannot be consensual by definition basically because of the power dynamic. So it’s a tricky thing because I do think that Bennett and Daya really do have a connection but it’s also inherently… she doesn’t come in contact with a lot of men, and there’s a power dynamic there that, you know, depending on the nature of how the relationship ended up going, could be detrimental. I don’t think that he’s typically someone who’s exerting his power over her, but it’s possible that the relationship could go in a way that it could become more of a factor. And that’s the reason it’s illegal.

Bennett has a sweet demeanor, but you know, even if you’re a serial killer and you have a sweet demeanor… I’m not saying it’s like that, and I’m not saying he doesn’t have very serious feelings about her, but it’s a tricky situation.

That’s why I think it’s so compelling, in the nuances of the way it’s written and also the way you portray him. There is that sweet demeanor,, but you can also see him crack under some of the pressures.

It’s funny because he has the best of intentions, but you can look at the complexities of Season 2, where Jenae trips Daya in the lunchroom, and Daya goes on the floor, and then Bennett slams Jenae on the floor. From a romance point of view, it’s a sweet moment, but also by the same token, the relationship between Daya and Bennett has influenced how he treats the other inmates. That’s part of the other issue.

Going from this complicated situation with Bennett, to How to Get Away With Murder’s Asher… He’s not uncomplicated, but he’s kind of like, a twerking bro.

At their core, both characters are pretty insecure, and at their core they’re both good people. I think Asher’s ignorant, has grown up in a very real world where he’s had this rich white male privilege and hasn’t had to consider what it’s like to not be that, until he’s thrown into the group at school and interacting with Connor he learns some things about gay culture from that.

I do think one of the cool, telling moments is when he hooks up with Bonnie for the first time. She’s really drunk at his place, and this is something that he’s wanted and has been excited about, but he looks at her, she’s drunk, and goes, “I don’t know, you’re pretty wasted, I don’t think we should do this.” For me, that’s a moment where it could have gone either way. If he was the evil guy, he would have went for it. I don’t know that people expected him to do otherwise, but I think that’s a powerful, telling thing.

So, you’re thinking about these power dynamics. And also, I’ve been reading your Twitter with fascination, where you’ve been so open about how you’re recently learning about feminism. I’m wondering about your journey into it.

It’s only been a couple months now, so it’s grown since then. I think the thing that I’m sort of starting to realize now is, it’s this tricky thing when you’re a sort of public figure, and especially when you’re someone who’s not an expert in something, where… there’ve been so many things that I’ve wanted to comment about in the last couple of years, when I’ve had more of a following. But it’s this dangerous, slippery slope where, sometimes if you aren’t an expert, people want to crucify you, you know? The sad and scary thing to me was that my biggest fear about commenting on things was really not from the people—I wasn’t afraid of the bigots or the people who were against me because really, who gives a shit about that. I was afraid of the people who were interested in the same thing that I wanted to do.

So the first thing that came out about [my statement that I’m a feminist] was Jezebel—you did a thing that I was like, “I’m not sure if this is intended to be purely sarcastic, or…” But in the end, I think it was. It was sort of—and I’m using air-quotes here—a “glowing” thing about this watershed moment in women’s history, Matt McGorry learning what feminism means. And ending with, like, “Please, Matt McGorry, tell us how feminism is a clouded term.”

I thought about writing something in response. I think actually the author of that, a lot of people in the comments actually went at them. But I think it’s tricky because it made me be like, Oh, maybe I shouldn’t be commenting on this.

So, I think what I’ve been trying to do is have a conversation and sort of, making it okay for people to fuck up. I think we all need to be careful about when someone is talking out of ignorance, versus bigotry. The more intersectional I try to become, I have a couple friends who are very into it and I often run things by them. Because it’s really hard to say the wrong thing or something that’s not inclusive of trans people or everyone across the gender spectrum, and sometimes I think we need to be forgiving, because the problem is, when people attack, I think that’s when people start locking up.

I keep trying to incorporate that into my message as well. Part of it is humor, because that’s a strength of mine, and I think if we can make this humorous it makes people less defensive. And even the thing I posted yesterday about Caitlyn Jenner, saying, “This is ignorance, not bigotry.” In my personal experience, people tend to shut down when you’re accusing them of something. Ultimately, the people we have to convince who are gonna be allies, like me—the people I feel like I’m trying to go after are the good people who just maybe have blind spots about gender inequality like I did. Or, didn’t know what the term feminism meant. You know, a guy who’s a bigot who hates women is not gonna care what feminism means anyway, so I don’t need to go after him. But I’m trying to incorporate an easy way in for those people that don’t know a lot about it. Who actually have good intentions.

It is interesting to see you publicly documenting the process of your learning about social justice, and also doing so on a platform as a famous person. It’s uncommon.

Honestly, in my whole life I’ve never been the kind of person who has been that interested in politics, but the more I learn about gender inequality, the more I know that there are things I need to know if I’m going to help make a difference. And they’re gonna be related to, probably, policy changing and all that stuff.

Are you aiming to change policy?

I don’t know. I’ve had a lot of advice from people to be more specific about what I’m interested in about gender equality. But part of it is that I’m so new to it, I see a lot of important things. Whether it’s the pay gap, whether it’s genital mutilation in different parts of the world, there’s a lot of shit out there that’s really important to me. But you know, that’s why I have to tread lightly at times, as I’m learning this.

But I’m a very all-or-nothing person and I’ve always been that way. Frankly I’ve wanted something that I’ve felt this strongly about for a long time, but it just didn’t hit me until it hit me in that particular way. I think I didn’t wanna waste the time of having to become an expert, or reading about it for a year or two before sharing my opinions. There’s still work to be done. Even in the fact that expressing that I’m learning about this and maybe making it okay for other people to not know the answer, I think it all creates a way in for people.

And, you know, I come from a personal training background, I did it for ten years, and I come from a family of teachers—my mother’s a wonderful teacher. I think part of the skill of that is making something digestible, something people are going to want to read and not be turned off by.

I’ve read that your reading Lean In was the lightbulb for you, is that true?

In a way, but it was a number of factors. I had a female friend who was trying to start a business; she’s very attractive, and kept having a hard time getting meetings that didn’t end up being dates, unbeknownst to her. I was trying to kind of advise her but really, I couldn’t help her much. In her field of health/wellness, there weren’t really that many female mentors. It was that in combination with the book, and when I posted the definition of feminism and seeing the response that I got, I realized, It’s so fucking simple. The definition of feminism is so simple, and this many people are this excited and stimulated by it; I have a unique position as a heterosexual white male, also, and there aren’t a lot who make this their thing, and this needs to be. The Emma Watson speech was huge, and now I’m, for lack of a better term, I’m balls-out.

Oh, the irony.

The irony! That’s the other thing too: people don’t look at me and expect that. Inherently, there’s something disruptive about simply me saying I’m a feminist, partly because I end up in circles that… what most people imagine a feminist to be, I don’t necessarily fit the mold. I think that allows me some more access to maybe people who could be converted or who can redefine their own perception of what it all means.

Sure, you have this traditional hetero-masculinity that maybe similar men could relate to.

Right, and I think that they’re like, If you can be [a feminist], what does that mean? For me that’s part of the interesting thing about peoples’ understanding of the word feminism, because before, when they had the “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” campaign”—before it came out that all those shirts were made in sweatshops by women, which is unfortunate—even when I saw that stuff, I didn’t really understand it. I thought it was just like, Joseph Gordon Levitt and people like that just being “Cute.” I didn’t really know that a male could be a feminist.

So I feel like that’s why I spent like two hours crafting this post about Caitlyn Jenner because I wanted it to be a teachable, bite-sized thing that people can share and digest and it’s the least ostracizing, most inclusive of the people who have the greatest potential to be converted. And that’s sort of what it’s been doing.

You’re in two shows that are very rare in that the cast members are comprised of mostly women of color, and I wonder if that has led you down this path as well? It’s very rare that a white male is in the minority in a cast in mainstream TV and film.

I couldn’t say that I was consciously aware, partly because I haven’t professionally in the industry for that long—I’ve been acting as long as I can remember, but I wasn’t steeped in the industry enough to think it was a big thing that a woman had created a show that was a big hit. I’m like… Why wouldn’t it be that way? These are the inherent beliefs that I have in me that have sort of made me blind in the past, too. I was talking to my ex-girlfriend who was hugely into feminism even when we were dating, and I didn’t really identify with it then necessarily, or at least with the word. And since I’ve been getting into it and talking with her about it, she’s like, I knew you were a feminist from the day I met you, whether or not you identified as one.

And so it’s like, Oh yeah, these things are all inherent beliefs. But there are factors that I think affect it as well. For example, before meeting Laverne Cox, I’d never really known a transgender person. I mean, I grew up in Chelsea in New York City, which has a super high LGBTQ community, and I went to a performing arts high school and I was a theater major in college, so I was around women and people of the LGBTQ community for a long time. But it wasn’t until I was exposed to this and even learning the stories of my fellow castmates and how some people had been acting for so long and seen limited roles or, even Laverne, there just weren’t the roles. It’s changing, and there’s still work to be done, but not that long ago the only roles she was getting were, you know, prostitutes and things like that.

I think it definitely brought things to my attention, and I think it definitely had to play a role.

We only have time for one more question, so here is what I would like to end with. My coworker, Kara, found out I was interviewing you and really wanted me to ask you, quote, if Dascha Polanco is a literal goddess in real life as well, endquote.

If we extend the definition of the word literal?

Literal in the hyperbolic, internet sense.

Right, in the 2015 nomenclature. Uh, yeah. She is awesome, she’s amazing. I am surrounded by so many really strong, powerful, empowered women and that’s really wonderful and refreshing. And it makes me want to fight more for her and everyone else.

Thank you. I will continue binge-watching the shows you’re in obsessively, to the point that I do not leave my house.

Wonderful, I hope you don’t fall ill.

Contact the author at [email protected].

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