Matt McGorry on the Struggles of Being a Woke Bae

We talked to the celebrity feminist about Twitter fighting with Piers Morgan, posing with "The New Jim Crow," and learning when to shut up.

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Apr 28 2016, 6:55pm

Photo via Facebook

Last night, a gaggle of feminists convened at the after-party for the Ms. Foundation for Women's annual Gloria Awards. Chief among them was the night's host, Matt McGorry. Although McGorry is, of course, a man, he is one who has been deemed both "woke" and "bae," two attributes that apparently qualify him to command the room of mostly women at an event dedicated to celebrating women.

That—the snark, the sass—was at least my attitude before I caught up with the Orange Is the New Black actor as he was preparing to give the party's opening remarks. And while it's not his personal fault that the phrase "male feminist" has inspired both suspicion and satire, I was certainly holding it against him. But as we talked, and multiple Prince songs played in the background, I came to realize that my conception of him wasn't entirely fair. McGorry, who raised money for NARAL earlier this year and is about to embark on a campaign for sentencing reform, sincerely wants to be a good ally in the ring for women's equality and racial justice. Posting topless selfies with The New Jim Crow is just part of that. Which is not so bad; it's actually really nice.

Matt McGorry, Gloria Steinem, Luvvie Ajayi, and Dorothy Pittman Hughs. Photos courtesy of the Ms. Foundation

BROADLY: When I emailed the Ms. Foundation staff for an interview with you, they mentioned that you wanted to specifically talk about your "advocacy-related work and social justice." What projects are you currently working on in that regard?
Matt McGorry:
Well, being as I'm only a year into [my activism], a big part of it is educating myself—reading, learning, and watching things so I can hopefully be a better ally, so I'm not sticking my foot in my mouth or speaking over people who I'm trying to amplify the voices of. That's the main part of my work so far in the last year. It's nice that I'm fortunate enough to have a large platform from the acting work. I can retweet the stuff that I'm reading to my 2.5 million followers for no additional cost. [Ed. note: McGorry has about 437,000 Twitter followers, 680,000 Facebook fans, and 1.4 million Instagram followers, so he must be referring to his reach on all these platforms combined.] It's an easy thing.

The other stuff is a little piecemeal, here and there. I have some ideas for some bigger things that I won't share now, about how to put it all together. Part of the work right now is just figuring out how I fit in. [On April 28] I'm going to DC and I'm lobbying for criminal justice reform, [including the passage of the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act], with an organization called Cut 50. I've actually been gone this whole month traveling around. I gave a speech with Vice President Biden at the University of Pittsburgh on sexual assault prevention for It's On Us. So yeah, things are coming up, and I'm just trying to think of ways to deepen my impact.

Read More: The Broadly Guide to Male Feminism

As a recent ally, were you surprised when you were asked to host this big feminist event?
Yeah. There are not a lot of straight white men who talk about feminism and racism, so unfortunately [when one does do that] it gets a lot of attention. It's disproportionate to what it would be if I was a woman. I don't think the things I'm saying are so groundbreaking that if I were not an actor already... I wouldn't be asked to host this if I didn't already have a bit of a platform. Last year, I was nominated as one of the Ms. Foundation's celebrity feminists of the year by the public, and that was quite an honor. Part of being an ally is just hoping you're not fucking up. It's nice to have a reaffirming thing. It's like, "Alright, I'm not a total piece of shit."

Right. You've been really publicly learning and challenging others on Twitter. For example, I recently started following you, and I saw that you got into a discussion with Piers Morgan over his editorial in the Daily Mail regarding Beyoncé's Lemonade; Morgan said Beyoncé was perhaps disingenuous in the way she used political imagery, and you hit back at that. In that moment I felt like I got a glimpse of your whole thing: You're a celebrity ally who has access and is able to mansplain to other celebrity men.
Yeah, exactly.

I don't think the things I'm saying are so groundbreaking.

How do you choose who to respond to on Twitter and who to ignore?
That's a good point. I'm wondering more and more, especially since Twitter is useful for me for getting information. But I realized I don't have to read everyone's comments to me to get what I need to get out of it, which is to give what I need to give. I'm only reading my comments like twice a week now, and occasionally I'll respond when I see something like Piers's . I've had a thing with him before, a couple months ago, [about reverse sexism]. When I responded to Piers, I saw it as an opportunity to say something [about reverse sexism and reverse racism] that a lot of people needed to hear. It felt like an efficient way to get that message out there. I think he's starting to come around; I feel optimistic. But I don't know if it's the most productive thing to focus on the bigots and the racists. I mean, someone has to do it, and God bless the people who do. But I'm looking to galvanize men, or white people, who feel like they care about [feminist] issues. How do I get them to take action and get them to go beyond just saying, "Racism is bad, sexism is bad." How do I get them to actually put themselves on the line? That's what needs to happen to actually make a difference. If you're not uncomfortable, you're not creating change.

Do you see Twitter as an effective tool for activism?
For me, I see it as a bat signal. It's a way for me to broadcast that I am interested in these issues and I want to be of service.

When you made a feminist T-shirt that benefited NARAL, your tweet about it on International Women's Day sparked some backlash from certain women, who thought you were perhaps "taking up space" or overshadowing actual women on a day for women. How do you feel like you adjust to and take criticism coming from other feminists?
At first, not well. It's tricky when you feel like you're taking a stand and you get criticized by people within the movement, and you're facing criticism from the opposing side as well. I'm like, "But I'm trying!" Though that doesn't mean that they're wrong. It's important to take what they say into consideration. At the end of the day, I still have women and women of color who do think it's great that I [made a feminist T-shirt], but I understand that anytime I get any positive news about me, it could be a frank reminder to women that my privilege allows me to have these opportunities.

For example, when I read The New Jim Crow, it completely changed my perspective, and I wanted as many people to see it as possible. When deciding to post a photo of it to Facebook, I originally just took a picture of the book. I realized that wasn't going to get the degree of response that I wanted, so I took a photo of my face next to the book. I knew that a photo of my straight white male celebrity face next to a book about criminal justice reform and anti-racism would get more eyeballs. It ended up getting the most traction of any Facebook post I've ever done. It had 100,000 likes, with a reach of, like, 8 million. Tons of people tweeted me with pictures of the book saying that they went out and bought it. My parents were in Florida, and they met a stranger who pulled out the book and said that they got it because they saw it on my social media. But then the question is, should I have just posted the book knowing less people would have seen it, or do I use my privilege in a way that potentially makes me look douchey [but helps in the long run]?

I feel like that photo solidified your status as a "woke bae," in Internet terms. It was iconic.
Yeah, and even that [term]—as much as I appreciate that—is unfortunately based in the fact that there is a rarity of men of privilege who are speaking on these things. I frankly wish [my activism] didn't require or necessitate that response, but I think the response is proportionate to how little men are speaking about these things.