The Strange Political Ascent of Alyssa Milano

The Strange Political Ascent of Alyssa Milano

On April 21, 2010, Us Weekly ran an article that was simply titled: “Alyssa Milano: She’s Back!” The actor had spent the years since Charmed ended in a familiar post-network-series purgatory, taking bit parts in sitcoms and doing TV movies. She wore a cabbage dress for PETA and wrote blogs for (“Touch,” an exclusive line of jerseys for women, was sold alongside her various posts on the Dodgers.)

The ABC vehicle Milano was pushing at the time, Romantically Challenged, ran for only four episodes, but the coverage of her in the tabloids remained steady: a sampling of headlines about Milano, taken from People, Us Weekly, and Life & Style between the years of 2010 and 2013 include: “Inside Alyssa Milano’s Baseball-Themed Baby Shower”; “Alyssa Milano Baby Joy: My Heart Has Tripled in Size”; “Halle Berry Shares Mommy Tips With Pregnant Alyssa Milano”; “Alyssa Milano: Son Milo ‘Started Talking at 4 Months’”; and “Milano Pumped Breast Milk Every Two Hours On Set of Mistresses.” Despite relatively minor jobs, like ABC’s Mistresses and a hosting gig on Project Runway: All Stars, the renewed tabloid interest in her life as a mother kept her firmly in the public’s attention.

In the interview with Us Weekly, Milano shared harmless anecdotes: that time she tap danced on Who’s the Boss?, turning down Dancing With the Stars, life as a married woman. Albeit a meaningless interaction between a tabloid and the star of a show desperately in need of promotion, this interview would land Milano in the center of a crucial change in public life. By the time Us Weekly announced “She’s back!” tabloid culture had been cannibalized by social media. With the details of their relatively average existence in hand—motherhood and a television career—Twitter and Instagram gave celebrities swathes of territory unrestricted by silly anecdotes shared with late night hosts. Alyssa Milano staked her claim quickly in this new land.

To understand Alyssa Milano’s rise to political prominence, you first have to look to the tabloid culture of the early 2000s.

But recent years have seen Milano’s career and the press around it turn expressly political. In the nearly two years since she tweeted “me too” as a response to the sexual assault and rape allegations against Harvey Weinstein, she has become a central celebrity figure in the expanded Democratic universe. She has advocated for abortion rights, launched a failed sex strike, and recently announced an appearance at a Marianne Williamson campaign fundraiser (somewhere on the astral plane). Fans call her a fearless advocate for justice, the president’s press secretary thinks she “doesn’t matter,” and Twitter ignites with discourse every time she logs on.

The transformation has been strange to watch: Her biggest acting jobs of the past few years, besides a lead in a play based on the Mueller report, were widely maligned. And yet she is, somehow, everywhere. Her well-documented advocacy cannot be denied—and there’s no reason to doubt the good intentions that motivate it. But does Milano’s place in the wider anti-Trump “resistance”—and celebrity activism more generally—actually mean anything?

To understand Alyssa Milano’s rise to political prominence, you first have to look to the tabloid culture of the early 2000s. It was the aughts. Instagram influencers, who’d eventually wrestle the internet to the ground, were a decade off. But there were still products to sell, shows to promote, and opinions to manage. So their ancestors—the weekly print tabloid—were the primary conduit between celebrities and the public imagination. Through them, the particular conservatism of a post-9/11 America bled into our celebrity culture in increasingly bizarre ways. The Jonas Brothers wore purity rings. “Christian celebrities” were bountiful. Elisabeth Hasselbeck argued against Rosie O’Donnell about supporting the troops.

Women in Hollywood were still finding their voice on the greater cultural stage. Many twenty-something starlets of the time would eventually go on to lead the conversation against Hollywood’s ageism against women, but the film industry was still closing its doors on women in their 30s and 40s in service of the next generation of intangibly beautiful people. So when the aughts came, and ’90s starlets were no longer giggling ingenues, they might disappear off the map or play someone’s mother on a cable drama! Alternatively, they could turn the lens elsewhere—their own lives as mothers.

With their politics usually obscured by a deference to supposedly more universal personal experiences, celebrities suddenly found themselves becoming the most looked-to voices on a defining cultural shift.

Celebrity motherhood, then as now, was a point of public fixation, and the tabloids reflected it. This was especially true for Milano. As conversations on the dynamic between women and their supposed “places” evolved, so too did celebrity coverage around the everyday habits of the working mother. In 2012, the paparazzi snapped photos of Milano with her son on the set of Mistresses. At the time, she tweeted: “Letting Milo take a nap in my arms before I have to go to work on #Mistresses. This working mom thing is no joke. You all made it look easy.” The labor of motherhood—it appeared—was gaining traction in the weekly tabloids. And as things often go, the conversation prioritized the white women at the forefront of Hollywood’s attention. But for a brief moment, celebrities of a certain specific mold—white, straight—were “liberated” by a new style of no-judgement motherhood.

Things for Milano took a sharper turn toward the political in December 2013, when actor and radio host Jay Mohr gave a radio interview about an actress he’d had a joint appearance alongside at the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards gala in Las Vegas. It was Alyssa Milano, and he said: “It seems like she had a baby and […] I read it on her gut. Somebody sat in the director’s chair and was not wearing Spanx and I was like, ‘Jesus Christ.’”

She was quick to issue a defense on Twitter:

“@jaymohr37 So sorry you felt the need to publicly fat-shame me. Be well and God Bless. Please send my love to your beautiful wife. You’re all lovely. Thank you for your kind words. #Appreciative.”

The ease in her response branded her as a celebrity who spoke out with abandon when confronted with an injustice. When Milano’s daughter was born, in September of 2014, the coverage of her motherhood journey continued. The following month, she posted a series of breastfeeding photos, dubbed “brelfies,” on Instagram. Backlash to the images ensued—many commenters questioning her motherhood credentials and casting judgement on their purported “raciness”—but she stood by the decision. While guest-hosting The Talk that December, she said: “Who are we now that we get upset as human beings if we see a woman feeding her baby? It’s crazy to me. Crazy, crazy, crazy.”

It was here that the politics of breastfeeding became a fixture in Alyssa Milano’s various social feeds. When Heathrow Airport confiscated her breast milk in 2015 for pumping without a child present, she called it “heartbreaking” and urged lawmakers to “thoughtfully reconsider” the policy. A week later, she was listed among various celebrities in the coverage of Instagram’s decision to update its community guidelines to allow images of breastfeeding. In her first public appearance of 2016, Milano argued with Wendy Williams about nursing in public and later railed against such “archaic” mentalities in a HuffPost Live interview. Milano, an early spokesperson and advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness and vegetarianism, was finding more of her contemporary political voice. And soon, a cataclysmic cultural moment would launch Milano back to the forefront of the public’s attention.

After the allegations against Harvey Weinstein were first published in the New York Times in October of 2017, Alyssa Milano took exactly four days to comment. In a since-deleted post from her site, Patriot not Partisan, she wrote, “Georgina Chapman is my friend. She is one of the most special humans I have ever met. […] Please don’t confuse my silence for anything other than respect for a dear friend.” (The two appeared together on Project Runway All-Stars.)

A week later, she’d launch a Hollywood firestorm. Unknowingly reviving Tarana Burke’s decade-long movement of the same name, she urged her followers, on October 15, 2017, to tweet “me too” if they’d been sexually harassed or assaulted. Two days after a torrent of messages had eclipsed our daily social media routines, Milano was invited on Good Morning America and proclaimed: “We are going to be vocal until this stops. Not one more. It stops here.” The same week, she told Variety that her tweets were meant to “take the focus off the predator”:

We’ve been hearing a lot about those who caused this kind of hurt and heartache and not enough about the victims who have to overcome and heal. I feel like to be able to do that, you have to know you’re part of a community that can support and stand beside you. This is a community that is very large.

The founder of the original Me Too movement, Tarana Burke, was eventually and rightly brought back into the conversation she first started all those years ago. Both Milano and Burke were featured on Time magazine’s Person of the Year cover, and dubbed “The Silence Breakers.” The same week, Milano announced her dream of eventually running for office during a sit-down interview with noted Republican—and fellow “Silence Breaker,” according to Time—Megyn Kelly. (Exactly one year later, Megyn Kelly Today was canceled following her claims that blackface was “okay as long as you were dressing up as, like, a character.”)

When coverage of the sexual assault allegations eventually slowed and the nascent movement shifted its focus to other industries, the political commentary from Hollywood didn’t stop. It appeared that Me Too had unknowingly created an echo chamber.

Amidst the changing climate in the wake of Me Too, awards season was in full swing. There was simply no way to exist in any proximity to celebrities without asking them their stance on the accusations, and many celebrities leaned into the coverage. The cottage industry around the Oscars, and the rise in reporting on the exploitation of actresses, had Hollywood leading the public conversation. Michelle Williams received an avalanche of press for the the disparity of pay between her and Mark Wahlberg for All the Money In the World. Actresses who’d formerly worked with Weinstein were asked daily to reveal the minutia of their relationships with him. Midway through December, The Hollywood Reporter revealed that an industry commission “to combat gender inequality” was “coming to fruition.” On January 1, 2018, Time’s Up was announced as a leaderless movement to empower and support women. It was also spearheaded by Hollywood powerhouses like Reese Witherspoon and Shonda Rhimes. In it’s press announcement, it asked the women attending the Golden Globes to wear black in solidarity with victims of sexual violence. Expectedly, this spawned another series of news cycles on the alignments of the various stars in attendance.

With their politics usually obscured by a deference to supposedly more universal personal experiences, celebrities suddenly found themselves becoming the most looked-to voices on a defining cultural shift. When coverage of the sexual assault allegations eventually slowed and the nascent movement shifted its focus to other industries, the political commentary from Hollywood didn’t stop. It appeared that Me Too had unknowingly created an echo chamber.

Alyssa Milano, in the two years that followed, immersed herself deeply in Democratic politics. She rallied against Trump’s ban on refugees, drove voters to the polls for Georgia’s special election, and “slammed” Republicans for voting to repeal Obamacare. In the face of immense criticism from conservative pundits, she stood in solidarity with the NFL national anthem protests. Advocating against the election of Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, she urged women to share what they’d looked like at 14 to drive home the point about Moore’s predation on young girls. (Like her early press on motherhood, much of this coverage existed in the tabloids.) She even attended the Senate confirmation hearings for Justice Brett Kavanaugh in support of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, as the guest of Senator Dianne Feinstein and tweeting (which was against the “rules”) throughout much of the hearing. Photos from the day have her flanked by reporters, all vying for her commentary on the proceedings.

But her political rise, and branding as an advocate for women, has also been plagued by missteps and controversy. After former Nevada State Representative Lucy Flores and Amy Lappos came forward in March and April of 2019 and said Joe Biden had touched them inappropriately, the former vice president and current Democratic primary candidate denied acting in such a way. Many Democratic voices rallied behind him—including Milano. She later wrote an extensive tweet thread, calling Biden a friend and “champion on fighting violence against women.” (Never mind his role in the orchestrated attacks on Anita Hill.) It seemed to play directly into the most notable criticism against Biden—that his minor celebrity status obscures his troubling politics and downright strange interactions with women.

Like Kim Kardashian’s “prison reform,” the conversation is not: Here is a policy platform with which we’ll fight the slow repeal of reproductive rights. Instead, we’re talking about Alyssa Milano’s self imposed dick-drought.

Milano’s celebrity status, and attendant allegiances and blindspots, often seem to infringe on the effectiveness of her advocacy. Compare two recent ventures concerning abortion rights in Georgia: In May, she announced a “sex strike” to fight anti-abortion laws across the country. It received mixed reactions, but was largely regarded as myopic and a little cartoonish. Milano attempted to shake off criticism in a piece for CNN (“So now that we have your attention,” she wrote), but her response to the accusations—that she merely intended to grab our attention—misrepresents that celebrity wraps the world around it. Like Kim Kardashian’s “prison reform,” the conversation is not: Here is a policy platform with which we’ll fight the slow repeal of reproductive rights. Instead, we’re talking about Alyssa Milano’s self imposed dick-drought.

Milano’s call for a similar boycott of the state of Georgia in response to its restrictive abortion proposals was similarly fraught. When Georgia governor Brian Kemp signed a bill banning abortion as early as six-weeks, Milano told TheWrap: “I will do everything in my power to get as many productions as possible—including Insatiable—to move out of this state which continues to put forth oppressive, hurtful policy that contradicts everything the entertainment industry stands for.” It seemed to be a declaration made without any input from the people in the state directly impacted by such proposals. As the conversation reached a boiling point, former Democratic state lawmaker and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams flew to Hollywood and met with “industry leaders” to discuss the proposed boycott. Addressing “execs, showrunners, actors, and more,” the rising Democratic voice said:

If companies #StayAndFight, we can save jobs, build power and most importantly, protect women. While the call to leave resonates for some, we must leverage the time before a final determination to lead. Business relies on predictability – too many companies will face growing uncertainty in our healthcare environment. This forced pregnancy bill targets women but every Georgian is at risk if we lose doctors, jobs and billions.

Speaking to Atlanta Journal Constitution, Georgia state representative and Democrat Teri Anulewicz echoed Abrams sentiments:

“It’s so maddening. I don’t understand why folks think that uprooting an industry that employs tens of thousands of people here will possibly help women in Georgia. They are incredibly well-meaning to take an interest in this fight, but these are men and women who work so very hard. This is their livelihood, and we can’t be glib about shutting down an entire industry.”

What is really accomplished when an already wealthy Hollywood actress wields her social capital to effectively eliminate entertainment jobs in a state that consistently ranks as one of the poorest in the nation? (It also toes dangerously close to the common thread amongst coastal Americans that excising the South is a realistic or effective solution to ending hatred and bigotry, as if racism can be contained by an imagined, geographical fence.) Milano, for her part, seemed uninterested in grappling with such questions.

The agendas of organizers are often in active opposition to Hollywood’s actual goals—the consolidation of wealth, the protection of class structures to maintain and reproduce that wealth—making celebrity activists a perplexing vehicle to promote social change. Milano appears unbothered by such worries about undoing the exploits of capitalism. Her politics often do as well. In a tweet from February of 2019, she positions socialism as a Republican “distraction” meant to deter voters rather than an actual movement aimed at the liberation of working people worldwide:

This is the part of the election cycle when the @GOP will paint the Dems as socialists to deter you from voting in 2020 for the party that actually fights #ForThePeople. They’ll drill the word “socialist” into our daily vernacular. Don’t be fooled. This is strategy not sincerity.

Despite such a wild, ahistorical position—it’s unquestionable that her commentary will factor into the upcoming primaries. In recent forays into the rapidly filling arena, she reveals an obvious deference to celebrity modeled by the industry that first made her famous.

Consider Joe Biden, the first guest on her podcast “Sorry Not Sorry” alongside Tarana Burke. (What a dissonant pairing, but that’s for another piece.) She mentions that the allegations against him had surfaced prior to recording the episode, but stressed that she has always—and will continue—to consider him a friend and champion of women. The second candidate to be featured? Marianne Williamson! The often cheerily anti-science Democratic candidate has been slowly marching her way to the forefront on a wave of press eerily similar to the paternalistic derision once associated with Donald Trump’s initial candidacy. (A tone we at Jezebel have also indulged in.) Unlike Trump, however, Alyssa Milano believes Marianne Williamson is the “only candidate talking about the collective, soulful ache of the nation.” She also compared her to Galileo. Moths to a flame feels an apt description of the mutual attraction.

In her interview with Tarana Burke, the actress revealed that she was “relieved” to find the longtime educator and activist and her work amidst the beginnings of the modern Me Too movement. Sharing a sentiment I had not encountered to that point, Milano admitted that “there was a part of me that felt like I wasn’t going to be able to handle the pressure of this movement alone, because it felt so much bigger than I was.”

A profound statement—the spirit of collective organizing is what sustains the most successful of movements. It’s also exceptionally good advice! But as we watch Milano barrel through a series of high-profile political gambles, seemingly absent of counsel of other organizers, one is left to wonder: Why doesn’t she take it?

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