After Stranger Things won the trophy for Best Ensemble Drama at the 2017 Screen Actor’s Guild Awards on January 29th, David Harbour’s fiery speech about fighting bullies and injustice earned a standing ovation from a stunned crowd. No one captured the shock that comes from an unexpected “stay woke” message than Winona Ryder. Her bewildered but eventually enthusiastic reaction was hilariously meme-worthy, but it also mapped out the long, sometimes awkward road to becoming a halfway decent ally.
If you watch the speech again, it’s clear that as Harbour starts his speech, Ryder and the rest of the cast are ready for a pat “thank Netflix, thank the fans, thank family” speech. That did not happen, and when Harbour starts to address the growing unrest in the country, Ryder just isn’t ready for it.
Ryder is clearly uncomfortable with being so blindsided. She’s here for the awards, not to fight against the establishment! Harbour takes no notice and presses on, forcing her to make the best of it, especially since nothing can shield her.
But there’s nowhere to go and no end in sight for this screed. So, there’s no choice but to dig in and start listening. It’s around here that her visible discomfort starts to give way.
And soon, she’s more or less on board.
Without pretending to know Winona Ryder’s personal politics (she clapped at similar speeches made during the evening), I think it’s fair to read her show-stealing reaction as basically what any privileged person might go through on their way to becoming an ally. There’s discomfort at acknowledging the suffering of others, insincere gestures made to feign understanding, a real attempt to listen and empathize, and enthusiastic support for the fight against injustice. All this is incredibly relatable, even if you’ve spent the last few weeks protesting. The hope now is that Harbour, Ryder, and their castmates follow through in every way they can.
The SAG Awards show was filled with speeches like Harbour’s, with Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali and Veep star Julia Louis-Dreyfus among the most vehement speakers. The increasing use of awards shows as political platforms speaks to how frightening the country’s situation has become. Let’s be clear. There’s already plenty of reason to criticize Hollywood for its solipsistic tendency to pat itself on the back for fighting oppression, especially when it’s only a year removed from #OscarsSoWhite. There’s also no reason to assume that speeches alone can fix anything. Allyship — the work that comes with centering the lived experiences of the marginalized in the fight for equality — is more a hard, lifelong project than any kind of fixed status. But a shock to the system is a good place to start, and Winona Ryder accidentally painted a perfect picture of what that start looks like.