The issue of wealth inequality is a subject that has been on many minds recently, and for good reason. An article in The Guardian published in January reported that the richest 62 people own as much wealth as half of the world’s population. (HALF.) The wealth gap is widening, wages continue to stagnate, and the moneyed class yells “bootstraps” to the poorer classes and blames them when they can’t eat bootstraps for dinner.
There have always been engaged citizens and politicians talking about the wealth gap and how it manifests in different ways, but there are specific times in recent memory where a particularly engaged and active group shoves the conversation to the forefront and forces everyone to talk about it. I’m thinking specifically of the Occupy Wall Street movement beginning in 2011 and the Democratic primary with the surge and unexpected (to some people) success of Bernie Sanders.
I supported Occupy Wall Street from the minute that they set up camp at Zucotti Park, and I signed up for Bernie Sanders’s mailing list shortly after that. I was angry and frustrated by the callous indifference to the middle class, the people in my generation struggling with crushing debt, and most of all, to poor people. I was convinced that the gap between the rich and the poor was not only an issue, but THE issue, and if wealth could be redistributed, most of the world’s injustice would be solved.
Years later, I still know that the wealth gap is a huge problem and that the American Dream is a dangerous fantasy used to blame the poor for their inability to climb the social ladder. But there are many other prejudices and biases ingrained in our society that can set up people to fail even when they enjoy many other privileges.
Consider, for instance, Gwyneth Paltrow.
Gwyneth Paltrow is about as privileged as a person can get. She was born directly into the film industry to an actress and a writer/producer and had connections that many performers can only dream of having. She has an Oscar and many acclaimed film roles. She has her own very important (according to her) lifestyle blog called Wealthy White Woman Weekly (or something like that) and now spends most of her free time educating busy women on how to better their lives by adapting her privileged white rich lifestyle to theirs.
Some people are infuriated by her lack of awareness about her own privilege. Many of us (including me) just like to laugh at her because we find her hilariously clueless in thinking that poor women have access to delivery from their favorite fishmongers.
But I’m not laughing about the recent court decision to let her stalker go free.
This stalker was acquitted in the early 2000s, found not guilty by reason of insanity. He’s sent her “love” letters, sexually graphic material, and according to Paltrow, has said that he wanted to use a scalpel to “cut out her sin.”
He also committed himself to a mental institution in the past and tried to contact her since then, but said that his recent attempts at contact were to apologize for his previous behavior. He’s also said that he just wanted a “pen pal.” The jury acquitted him because they could not find sufficient evidence that he intended to hurt Paltrow, even though they said they understood why she felt threatened by him.
I’m not writing this post to question the decision of the judge and the jury from a legal perspective – I don’t know enough details of the case to determine that. I am questioning the cultural narratives and biases that may have come into play here.
Why is a man who claims insanity given the benefit of the doubt when he repeats his disturbing behavior even after taking steps to correct his actions? Why is he taken at his word when he said he only wanted a “pen pal?” (There are organizations that provide that service, after all.
Did the jury collectively decide that, you know what, the world has stigmatized mental illness for too long, and a man who sought help from an institution clearly mended his ways?
I somehow doubt it.
I suspect that, perhaps, members of the jury believed cultural narratives about stalking being romantic at best and pitiful and sad at worst, and let him off because he didn’t mean to be threatening.
So he gets acquitted, and Gwyneth Paltrow sleeps less easily at night knowing that her stalker has been given a pass.
All of the wealth and privilege that went along with being a daughter of Hollywood quasi-royalty, all of the wealth and privilege that came along with being a thin, conventionally pretty, cisgendered white woman didn’t stop a stalker from undermining Gwyneth Paltrow’s personal safety.
Sometimes I enjoy making fun of Gwyneth Paltrow’s wealth and cluelessness, but I’m not right now. Right now, I’m glad she makes a ridiculous amount of money so she can afford protection for herself and her family.
I’m also simultaneously sad for the victims of stalking who don’t have access to those same resources and whose lives could very easily come to a much sadder end.
This is just one example of how wealth and fame can’t always save people from those who want to do them harm. I haven’t even touched on poor Kesha.
The wealth gap needs to be addressed, but a fix in the economy isn’t a cure-all for the world’s problems. Sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, disablism, classism, all sorts of isms, are all separate issues that needed to be addressed on their own AND together as a whole – a difficult task, but not an impossible one.