WOMEN

Amber Tamblyn Is Done Asking Powerful Men For Permission

The actress' new book, "Era of Ignition," explores her journey from professional object to activist subject -- and asks us all to do better.

Three-quarters of the way through my interview with actress, author and activist Amber Tamblyn, I realize she’s in the back of a taxi. We’ve been talking about the 2020 election, white womanhood, the memories of sexual abuse dredged up by a president who has openly bragged about sexual assault, and, of course, her new book Era of Ignition. All this is to say that the man driving Tamblyn through Manhattan has just received a surprise crash course in intersectional feminism.

“You have a good day,” I hear her say to the driver as she slides out of the car. “Thank you for listening to my feminist conversation.”

After the door slams, she returns to that feminist conversation with a wry laugh: “I’m like, sir, you just got all of that for free. All of that, I just taught you. You’re welcome.”

Tamblyn has been in the entertainment business since she was very young. She first appeared on both the big and small screens in 1995, in “Live Nude Girls” as a young version of Dana Delany's character, and on “General Hospital,” a gig that lasted six years. But she really became a recognizable face after 2005’s “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” in which she played beloved teen lit character Tibby Rollins. She also booked the title role in the TV show “Joan of Arcadia,” which ran from 2003 to 2005 and for which she received Golden Globe and Emmy nominations. All of this happened before Tamblyn turned 23.  

Alexis Bledel, Blake Lively, America Ferrera and Amber Tamblyn during the premiere after-party for "The Sisterhood of the Tra
Alexis Bledel, Blake Lively, America Ferrera and Amber Tamblyn during the premiere after-party for "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants."

As Tamblyn describes it in her book, “while other teenagers were going to school to get an education, I was going to a film studio to play a heroin addicted former model whose mother had died of cancer.”

Now, at age 35, Tamblyn exudes a different kind of hard-won confidence. She’s not here to cater to the desires of men ― not in her personal life and certainly not in her professional one. After Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss and a campaign that Tamblyn had been heavily involved in, she decided she was done “feeling secondary to the creative expansion of men in the entertainment business.” 

“The only thing I had ever known how to do was channel someone else’s art, someone else’s muse, live someone else’s life,” Tamblyn writes of her experiences as a young actress.

Era of Ignition is half memoir, half activist manifesto. Tamblyn offers personal stories about her career, her political activism, her relationship with her husband David Cross, and motherhood, woven together with statistics and explicit calls to action. She discusses what it means as a white woman to be in solidarity with women of color, and does not shy away from pointing out where we white ladies have gone wrong, both historically (e.g. the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave white women suffrage) and today (e.g. every time a white woman gets immediately defensive when their blind spots are challenged). Tamblyn asks us ― and herself ― to do better. She even includes a five-point Male Ally Manifesto, which instructs men to “listen more than you assert.” (Solid advice.)

Like so many women and nonbinary people in this country, Tamblyn is angry, and this book is her answer to that anger.

“What do we do with with those feelings?” Tamblyn said when we spoke on the phone last week. She immediately answered her own question: “What has been happening in the last two years is exactly what we do with it. And that is the ignition.”

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

You write about the United States being in the midst of what you call a “crisis of character.” What is that crisis of character, and how did your own period of self-reflection and reinvention dovetail with this national moment?

Well, I don’t think it was a coincidence that these two things sort of happened at the same time. I think the nation is having this existential crisis and trying to figure out who we are and what our values are, but also what we will stand for and what we really won’t tolerate anymore. And I think that people are feeling that both in a big cultural way, but also in a very personal way. I’m sure [for] you, even as a writer, the last two years have probably been insane. Am I wrong? 

The nation is having this existential crisis and trying to figure out... what we will stand for and what we really won’t tolerate anymore. Amber Tamblyn

[laughs] No, you are not.

So you know what I’m saying? Every decade or so, there is this condensed momentum. And I think we’re in one of those big ones right now. I’m not sure that without that [momentum], my own [personal] revelations would have been able to ― not just come to light ― but for me to really be able to act on them and to say, here are the things I’m going to change. Here are the things that matter to me. This is how I want to live my life. I don’t want a limit based on how people have always perceived me. I want to live it based on my own value and my own power.

I was reading Rebecca Traister’s book Good and Mad when it came out last year, and it was so inspirational because Era of Ignition was almost done. And I was like, this is so great because it’s an informational tool about the history, current and past of women’s anger. But what do we do with the anger? What do we do with with those feelings? And what has been happening in the last two years is exactly what we do with it. And that is the ignition.

You write in the book about your experience of being at the Javits Center [in New York] with the Hillary Clinton campaign on election night in 2016, being in D.C. on Inauguration Day ―

Oh, the worst!

― and for the Women’s March. I was struck by that section because I was also at Javits, and you and I were actually together on Inauguration Day. You were on a panel that I moderated.

Oh my God, how did we get through that?

Amber Tamblyn, left, with Amy Schumer and others at the 2017 Women's March on Washington.
Amber Tamblyn, left, with Amy Schumer and others at the 2017 Women's March on Washington.

I was glad to have a distraction that day. But I know that those moments had a profound impact on me. And I’m wondering if living through those very intense days impacted your personal journey.

I know [people might] be like, “Get over it, the election was two years ago.” But I can’t. When I look at it, I think a lot of the inspiration for the rage that we feel, whether you loved [Clinton] or not, whether you thought she was an awful person or not, it cannot be denied. The negative mythologizing of Hillary Clinton as this monstrous creature, as a war criminal, as somebody that was just bordering on some sci-fi novel, it played into women’s rage and into, I think, why so many women are running [for president] and why so many women also ran for Congress and won.

Every woman, whether or not they were running for high office, has experienced what she went through, at their level, in their own personal life. And that is what made me feel like I was finished with asking for certain types of permission anymore, and finished with feeling secondary to the creative expansion of men in the entertainment business.

And I assume that was like a particularly acute feeling given that you were involved with the Clinton campaign, not just in 2016 but in 2008. It sounds like that was both a completely profound experience and also a really, really deeply painful one. Do you feel like you would throw yourself into a campaign in 2020?

I don’t know. I will say, I am very inspired and thrilled to see the unprecedented number of women who are running, and I believe that a woman will be the next president. I’m not going to do anything until the primaries [are over]. And I think one of the biggest things for me is to stay really positive and focus on the positive of all of the candidates, including Bernie Sanders. Because the most important thing to me right now is to get the current president out of the White House, period. And there are very good candidates who are running. There are people who have great policies, who are good people, who are not grabbing women by their genitalia, have not been accused by over two dozen women of sexual harassment and assault.

I think one of the biggest things for me is to stay really positive and focus on the positive of all of the [Democratic presidential] candidates, including Bernie Sanders.

In the book, you write about the moment you first heard the Trump “grab her by the pussy” tape, and how it drove you to post on Instagram about an incident of physical and sexual assault, where an ex had literally done that to you. What made you share that story publicly?

I think all women ― probably men too ― remember where they were when that news came out. I was pregnant. I was like, “My daughter could grow up to be a woman that someone does that to, and then [he] becomes the president of the United States.” [I felt the] same thing with [the confirmation of Judge Brett] Kavanaugh, when I was seeing Christine Blasey Ford. My daughter could grow up to be Christine Blasey Ford. That’s what our daughters get to look forward to. That fear. And that’s what mothers get to look forward to. That fear for their daughters.

And it was debilitating in the moment. It crushed me. And the memories flooded in very quickly. Not everybody is able to jump out of that and go, “That’s not OK.” And then you laugh them off, you just put them away. You tell yourself other versions of the stories to make it better so that you don’t have to deal with the emotional ramifications of it. There are a lot of ways in which we cope and protect ourselves, which is a natural human instinct. But for me, that [post] almost just felt like as an involuntary reflex, like a muscle just spasmed. Like, “Here’s a literal version of the time this happened to me.”  

I want to talk a little bit about the moment that you first read that first New York Times piece about Harvey Weinstein.

I knew what was coming out. I knew a large amount of it. Not all of it. But I think it was just kind of surreal. But it did feel like this tidal wave that came through our small town. Hollywood and the entertainment business [are like] this small town. And after the devastation of the wave like that, you’re kind of looking around and being like, are there any survivors? And you’re just kind of waiting like, who’s going to say something? Who’s going to say something first?

You did tweet something in that moment.

Yeah. But the truth of the matter is, I’m not a big movie star. I didn’t have something to lose in a way that a lot of women really did if he had survived that article.

Something that I keep circling, given that it’s been a year and a half since this wave of Me Too kicked off, is what does restorative justice look like in these cases? Is it even possible? Does it matter? Men like Louis C.K. have already begun their “comeback” tours.

So this is always such an interesting question for me. My knee-jerk reaction [is]: “I don’t really care about their redemption right now.” To me, I’m much more interested in elevating the work and the material and the voices of people who are coming up and who are incredible and who haven’t pulled their dicks out in meetings. Awkwafina and Ali Wong and Ava DuVernay ― [who is] obviously a huge director, but she championed so many new directors that are coming up. That is where I like to put all of my energy.

What’s so frustrating about the redemption narrative is that if you want redemption, there has to be atonement. And I don’t think that these men are doing that. Their lives have been ripped from them. That’s really tough. I empathize. But there is always a path forward and to the greater good of the culture that you purport to love and care about. Especially as a comedian as brilliant as someone like Louis C.K. is. He could be actually learning and figuring out why all of this is an issue.

I’m much more interested in elevating the work and the material and the voices of people... who are incredible and who haven’t pulled their dicks out in meetings.

Before we wrap up, I’d love for you to touch a little bit on the role that race plays in this book, and in the early conversations about Time’s Up. I also found it notable that in a memoir, you included voices that weren’t your own in conversation with you.

It’s really important for white women to really not be afraid of our failures and to be open to being criticized. In the criticizing is where we will find clarity. I think it’s important to be able to own it, which is why I talk about that I’m not afraid to be called a white feminist, which I know is a term that makes white women’s skin crawl. But we have to have ownership [of] and also respect for our failures. It is OK to fuck up. It’s just not OK to not try.

To me, it was so important to put a literal dialogue in the book with [journalist] Meredith [Talusan]. And to really say, when you sit down and you talk, that’s often when you can understand someone else. And that’s often when you can hear ― and you should hear ― how you might’ve failed another person. Even the most woke-up humans have to accept the fact that we are not perfect and we fuck up and we often harm. And we can only get better if we own those parts of ourselves.

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