Identity and Activism: Jameela Jamil at The Cambridge Union

Alice Byrne 25 October 2020
Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons

Jameela Jamil sat down (virtually) at the Cambridge Union on Monday evening to talk about her wide-ranging career as an actress, radio presenter, model, writer and activist. Her transition into the world of acting occurred somewhat by chance: she moved to LA after a breast cancer scare and auditioned for a role on NBC’s ‘The Good Place’. Amazingly, she got the part, having never acted before.

Despite the fact that she is best known for her role as Tahani in ‘The Good Place’, Jamil declares that she identifies first and foremost as an activist, who only ‘moonlights as an actress’. She lives in LA, and some might find it hypocritical that she is part of the entertainment industry that she so vehemently criticises. However, in response to an audience member bringing this up, she describes herself as a ‘trojan horse’ –  she says she is only in a position to educate others about the damaging and dangerous nature of tabloid culture because she has ‘been through the mill’ herself.

Addressing young women in the audience, Jamil stresses the importance of learning the history of patriarchal oppression; according to her internalised misogyny is something we need to ‘immunise’ ourselves against so we are less likely to ‘catch it’. She recommends saying ‘no’ more, too: “No’ is my favourite word… after ‘fuck”.

“No’ is my favourite word… after ‘fuck”.

It is clear throughout that Jamil’s most passionate concerns lie with the experience and oppression of women. I had a chance to ask her about the treatment of female celebrities in the media, and the limited tolerance that the press seems to have for successful women. Not only does she recognise this phenomenon, she believes she herself has been a victim. She stated that at first, newspapers and media outlets ‘deify’ newcomer female celebrities, putting them on a pedestal so high that it only increases the height they fall from. This level of over-exposure can be seen in the media coverage of many female celebrities, but the one that comes to mind is Jennifer Lawrence, who was consistently labelled the Hollywood ‘cool girl’ and ‘endlessly relatable’. After this Icarus-like trajectory, which Jamil says lasts one to two years, the media ‘starts to destroy her’. The female celebrity is demonised with the help of smear campaigns, lies and clickbait, and then the press moves on to the next.

Jamil says that because she had been studying it for years when she experienced this media take-down herself, she was ready for it. When discussing that Time branded her one of the ’25 Most Influential People on the Internet’ in July 2019, she remarked ‘I knew I was fucked’.

Fitting with her theory, this year brought a range of criticism in the press for Jamil; at the beginning of 2020 a conspiracy emerged that she had Munchausen syndrome, which led to many people accusing her of faking her health issues. She also had a very public twitter brawl with Piers Morgan about the death of Caroline Flack. One of her most prominent recent controversies, however, was surrounding her coming out as ‘queer’ after receiving backlash for her acceptance of a role on the LGBT-interest show ‘Legendary’. When addressing this, she describes it as a ‘messy moment’, and suggests that the ‘guidelines are fuzzy’ when it comes to LGBT+ representation; as she states, we do not want straight people to take queer roles, but how do you know an actor’s sexuality without forcing them to come out?

the ‘guidelines are fuzzy’ when it comes to LGBT+ representation; as she states, we do not want straight people to take queer roles, but how do you know an actor’s sexuality without forcing them to come out?

Talking about her relationship with her South-East Asian heritage, Jamil regrets missing out on the rich culture of her ancestors. She says that both the lack of representation and misrepresentation of South-East Asian characters on screen led her to shun her entire culture; she ‘didn’t even eat the food’. When asked to give advice to actors of colour, she makes it clear that ‘it will be a harder journey’. Perseverance, hard work and making contacts with other people of colour in the industry is her recommendation to participate in the push for change.

A lot of Jamil’s activism comes out of her criticism of social media and its effect on young people. Her ‘i_Weigh’ campaign stemmed from seeing a meme which ranked the Kardashian sisters by their weights. She expresses her disappointment about how this is still how we measure a woman’s worth. In her own words, she ‘got mouthy’ on Twitter, and has stayed viral for the last few years. The success of this campaign is palpable: in September Jamil addressed Congress on the topic of ‘Preventing Disordered Eating, Weight Stigma, and Improving Mental Health in Schools.’

Her advice to users of Instagram and other social media platforms is to curate what you see on a daily basis. She refuses to airbrush or be airbrushed, and recommends unfollowing anyone who does use retouching on their photos. Even if we know a picture has been edited, she underlines that ‘it doesn’t matter how much we try to intellectualise the truth, it doesn’t stop our eyes seeing it’. As consumers, according to Jamil, we control the market and should follow who inspires us and doesn’t make us feel insecure.

Even if we know a picture has been edited, she underlines that ‘it doesn’t matter how much we try to intellectualise the truth, it doesn’t stop our eyes seeing it’.

It’s clear Jamil is, like many of us, concerned about the state of the world, and especially the political climate which surrounds both Britain and America: when asked at the beginning of the interview about living through the pandemic in LA, she states the country ‘is on fire’, both literally and metaphorically. However, she remains positive about the capacity of young people to make change. Perhaps this attitude stems from her role on ‘The Good Place’, a show heavily steeped in ideals of morals and ethics. She says she has learnt two things from appearing on the show: first; that ‘you don’t have to be a perfect saint: all you can try to do is be better tomorrow than you were today’, second; that we need to ‘work together’ rather than participating in ‘nit-picking and infighting’ in order to make progress.

When playfully asked whether she thinks she is headed for the ‘Good Place’ or the ‘Bad Place’, she responds immediately: ‘Bad Place! I’m in showbiz, and everyone in showbiz is an arsehole’.