“Insecure” actor Jay Ellis says patriarchy paralyzes men from listening to women

“Insecure” actor Jay Ellis says patriarchy paralyzes men from listening to women
Image: Jay Ellis
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Jay Ellis, who stars as the boyfriend (and then ex-boyfriend) of Issa Rae in her hit HBO show Insecure, has been described by GQ as “television’s most divisive good guy.”

The relationship between Issa and Ellis’ character, Lawrence, has ignited real debate about how people who have been cheated on in romantic relationships should subsequently behave, sexually and emotionally.

“Lawrence put himself in a situation by sitting home and not having a job, and not providing and not being the man that he needed to be for himself. And also not being the man that he needed to be for his girlfriend,” Ellis told GQ. He also said he “just didn’t realize” how tough relationships can be for women until acting in a show about dating that’s primarily written by women.

In this interview with Quartz, Ellis discusses his three-step practice when it comes to gender equality, the best advice he received from his dad, and how Gloria Steinem informs his feminism.

1. Did you actively think about workplace gender inequality prior to the Me Too movement? And what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned from Me Too?

I think I’ve always thought about inequality as a broader topic in the workplace just by happenstance, but the last year or so has definitely made me take a more thoughtful and deeper dive into gender inequality specifically.

I’m still learning everyday, but the thing I try to take with me out of  every situation is a) to listen, to b) be compassionate, and to c) be an advocate for women who are being treated unfairly.

2. Do you identify as a feminist? Why or why not? How do you define your feminism?

Ha. Yeah. Happily. Gloria Steinem, and forgive me if I botch this quote, said “a feminist is anyone who can recognize the equality and humanity of both men and women.”[Editor’s note: He’s very close. What Steinem said is, “A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.”] Seeing the humanity in people is at my core. It’s what I was taught from a young age. It’s what I do for a living.

3. What do you do on a daily basis to advance gender equality?

I listen, and advocate for those who aren’t able to speak up for themselves. I also think about it in terms of inclusion in everything I do, from my writing and producing to my acting to the team I work with as an actor.

4. What’s the biggest threat to men in America today? Why?

I think we often put the biggest threat to ourselves. Ego and years of patriarchal programming have led us to a place where we think it’s weak or wrong to listen and consider others. We sometimes forget that we are not the end-all and be-all for every decision made in the world.

5. Do you talk about sexism with your male peers? If so, what strategies prove most effective, and if not, what inhibits you from doing so?

I often use role reversal and ask, “What if that was you? Or your daughter, wife, sister, etc.?” For good or for bad, I’m not sure I have any inhibitions there.

6. What is your biggest anxiety about being a man?

Being afraid to communicate.

8. Some men feel like they can’t win: They’ll be criticized by men for speaking up, and by feminists for not speaking loud enough. What would you tell these men?

If you’re truly concerned with getting criticism from both sides, then just do the right thing. There’s no substitute for it … [and] it will be an example for others like you. And hopefully, you’ll make the world, macro or micro, a little better for someone who is experiencing unfair or biased treatment.

10. What’s the best advice you’ve received from another man, and what’s your best advice for young men today?

My dad always says if you just listen, you’ll know what to do and when you’re supposed to do it. That goes from everything from romantic relationships to work. That would be my advice. Don’t always try to force in your way of thought, which was probably force-fed to you via media. Actually take time to hear what someone is going through and it will inform and enrich both you and them in ways you’d never imagine.