The crossover between acting and advocacy is not a new phenomenon. Fredi Washington left Hollywood and became active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Jane Fonda traveled to Hanoi to denounce U.S. bombing campaigns. Liz Taylor helped found The Foundation for AIDS Research and served as chairman of the first major AIDS benefit. More recently, Emma Watson, Ashley Judd, and Angelina Jolie have taken center stage in efforts to further gender equality, raise awareness about sexual harassment, and aid humanitarian causes. Each leading lady looked down at the soapbox lifting her into public view and loaded the batteries into her bullhorn.
Charlize Theron fits in comfortably with her cohort. In 2007, she founded the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project to assist with AIDs prevention and education in South Africa, was named a UN Messenger of Peace in 2008, and has been an outspoken advocate for the LBGTQ community. She has spoken openly about growing up in apartheid South Africa, her struggles as a young ballerina-turned-actress, and the trauma of being sexually harassed by a director. As far as celebrities go, Charlize has capitalized on her celebrity, using her platform to advance causes that are important to her.
But Charlize Theron is more than an actress-turned-advocate. She leads by example. And she does it through her choice of roles.
The problem with movies, Charlize told The Guardian, is “You’re either a really good mother or you’re a really good hooker … [it] goes right back to the Madonna/whore complex. You can’t be a really good hooker-mother. It’s impossible.” She chooses to portray women who are not Victoria’s-Secret-model beautiful, who don’t have fairytale endings, and who have long since given up on Prince Charming. They’re real people -- real women -- who have experienced trauma and faced adversity. As Charlize said in an interview with the New York Times: “I mean, you’d be an idiot not to put it together that I like women who can struggle, and get out of their situations. They’re not victims, but they’re also not superheroes.”
Take her role in Monster, which won her an Academy Award for Best Actress in 2003. Charlize portrays Aileen Wuornos, a desperately poor prostitute/serial killer with antisocial personality disorder and borderline personality disorder who, after being sexually assaulted and beaten, murders several of her clients. The role was difficult not only from a technical perspective, but a personal one; her childhood was characterized by the turbulent trauma stemming from a verbally abusive father.
As Charlize told The New York Times: “I am not fearful of the darkness. If anything, I am intrigued by it, because I think it explains human nature and people better.” Aileen Wuornos was a way for Charlize to explore that darkness, and to draw attention to it. She noted that people like Aileen Wuornos often get “label[ed] and, like, shove[d] under a rug. Nobody wants to examine that human. Nobody wants to look at that person and say, ‘But why did this happen?’ I’m fascinated by the why. Because in many ways, I am here today because of the why.”
In North Country, Charlize plays Josey Aimes, a mother who flees north to Minnesota with her two children to escape her abusive husband. After landing a job at the local iron mine -- where she is one of very few women miners -- Josey is subject to sexual harassment, humiliation, and abuse by her male co-workers. Once again, the situation was not entirely unfamiliar to Charlize. As she told Roger Ebert, her mother experienced discrimination as the only woman in the road construction business.
And then, of course, there’s Mad Max. In what may be Charlize’s most memorable role yet (see the Rough Cut Mailbag), she takes on the persona of Imperator Furiosa, a ruthless one-armed lieutenant who makes it her mission to escape from a tyrannical leader, rescuing five sex slaves in the process. Charlize explained to The Guardian that Mad Max “show[s] the truth of who we are as women … Women thrive in being many things. We can be just as dark and light as men. We’re more than just nurturers, more than just breeders, we’re just as conflicted.”
In an interview with Elle, Charlize described what drew her to the role: “I think there’s an equality in this role as opposed to just being a girl in these movies. I think women are just eager to feel like they’re on an equal playing field. I don’t want to be put on a pedestal. I don’t want to be anything other than what we are. I just want to be a woman, but an authentic woman, in this genre or any other genre.”
Many of Charlize’s roles evince this desire to show women as they are, nuanced and complex; not just housewives or supportive mothers or glamorous seductresses. Look at her portrayal of a depressed and overworked mother in Tully. Her badassery in Atomic Blonde. Her decision to play Megyn Kelly in Bombshell. Her message rings out loud and clear in each movie: women are “not victims, but they’re also not superheroes.” We struggle, together and alone. And when we watch Charlize act, we get to see a piece of ourselves -- a piece of our shared humanity -- reflected on the big screen.
After she won her Oscar for Monster, Charlize told Oprah that her greatest aspiration is “[t]o continue to do work that matters to me. Human beings are still so undiscovered, and I want to add to our discovery in my work. I want to bring characters like Aileen to life -- to give us patience for how different we all are. If I can do that, I’ll be happy.”
She must be beaming.