[This was originally posted at Bitch Flicks as part of a Male Feminist & Male Allies theme week.]
My first introduction to Matt Damon was the same as many movie viewers–Good Will Hunting, a film that he starred in and co-wrote with Ben Affleck. It was my favorite film of 1997 and still holds a special place in my heart for its humor, poignancy, and moving portrayal of the lasting effects of abuse. While the main focus of the film is on Will’s character development and his relationship with his psychologist, Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), the romantic subplot plays an important role in the story and features an intriguing love interest.
Skylar, played by Minnie Driver, is one of the more fleshed-out female supporting characters I’ve seen in film. Because she is a supporting character, she is, by definition, in the movie to assist with Will’s development, but she’s still a fully developed human being rather than an obligatory “girlfriend” archetype included in the script to throw a bone to a female audience. She loves Will and is committed to their relationship but is primarily motivated by her academic and career ambition, and we’re encouraged to sympathize with her when Will lashes out at her. While much of the success with Skylar’s character lies with Minnie Driver’s performance, Damon and Affleck share credit for writing a woman who has a backstory and motivation beyond, “Hey, this movie needs a girl in it.”
Considering the level of care put into the writing of Skylar’s character, it’s no surprise that Damon is an outspoken feminist ally and supporter of issues that directly affect women.
Public education is one of Damon’s major political causes, largely inspired by the lifelong work of his mother, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Professor Emerita of early childhood education at Lesley University. Outspoken advocates for teachers and education, Damon and Carlsson-Paige were questioned two years ago by libertarian ambush reporters who alleged that job insecurity was motivation for teachers to improve their performance, to which Damon gave this now well-known response:
“So you think job insecurity is what makes me work hard? I want to be an actor. That’s not an incentive. That’s the thing. See, you take this MBA-style thinking, right? It’s the problem with ed policy right now, this intrinsically paternalistic view of problems that are much more complex than that. It’s like saying a teacher is going to get lazy when they have tenure. A teacher wants to teach. I mean, why else would you take a shitty salary and really long hours and do that job unless you really love to do it?”
As a former public school teacher who left the profession largely because of this “intrinsically paternalistic view of problems” that Damon speaks of, I appreciated this interview on multiple levels. I appreciated that Damon deferred to Carlsson-Paige’s superior knowledge in the field (even though the interviewers only referred to her as “Matt Damon’s Mom”), challenging the reporter’s incorrect assumptions by reminding her that an expert in the field was proving her wrong. I appreciate that Damon is so invested in a field where over 70 percent of teachers are women, showing that he believes women’s work is valuable.
Most of all, I love that Damon criticizes the “intrinsically paternalistic” nature of education reform, pointing out that problems are very complex, and solutions need time to grow. Similar to the way many people would like to pretend that complex problems like racism, sexism, and homophobia are of the past, many leaders in education reform would like to believe that the next set of standards or change in tenure policy will fix all the problems in public schools. Acknowledging the complexity of systemic problems is a key component, regardless of whether or not Damon is directly tying his public school advocacy to women’s rights.
There is, however, at least one cause where Damon specifically advocates for women, and that’s through Water.org, a nonprofit organization that he co-created with Gary White. Water.org’s main goal is to improve access to safe water and clean toilets. The website makes a point of saying that “We believe people in developing countries know best how to solve their own problems,” showing that there’s a level of respect for different cultures that is sometimes absent from other charities.
Perhaps even more remarkable than the lack of a “white American savior” attitude is the fact that Water.org has its own page for “the women’s crisis,” showing how the water crisis affects women specifically. The page also details the organization’s approach to helping women:
“Around the world, women are coming together to address their own needs for water and sanitation. Their strength and courage transforms communities. With the support of Water.org and its local partners, women organize their communities to support a well and take out small loans for household water connections and toilets. They support one another, share responsibility. These efforts make an impact, taking us one step closer to ending the global water crisis.”
There are many wonderful things about this organization’s work, and one of my favorite aspects of this activism is the language used. “With the support of Water.org and its local partners, women organize their communities.” This careful phrasing shows not only investment in issues that directly affect women, but respect for women’s empowerment. The language used shows a key understanding of effective ally work: not to rescue or save a marginalized group, but to give the support needed so that people in that group can improve their own lives. Given Damon’s other criticisms about an “intrinsically paternalistic view of problems,” I can’t think that the phrasing is a coincidence.
Whether he’s advocating for causes that affect women on a global scale or simply writing a decent female character, Damon has proven to be an ally to women. No wonder Sarah Silverman was so proud to be f***ing him.