On Fox’s Raising Hope, which returns tonight at 8 PM, Martha Plimpton plays Virginia Chance, a housekeeper and young grandmother to the titular Hope, her son Jimmy’s daughter, who he unexpectedly conceived with a one-night stand who turned out to be a serial killer. The show’s portrayal of a multi-generational working-class family is one of the true originals on television, and Plimpton is marvelous as Virginia, who alternates between managing her own aging grandmother, Maw Maw (Cloris Leachman), who is struggling with dementia, her job, and managing the misadventures of Jimmy and her husband Burt. And off-screen, Plimpton is a vigorous feminist advocate who’s penned editorials on the War on Women and wears the A Is For… campaign’s scarlet A on her dress at public events and awards ceremonies to call attention to the wave of legislation that would limit women’s abilities to make decisions about their own health. We spoke in August about what makes for good political art, where the rising tide of animosity against women comes from, and the subtleties of Raising Hope’s perspective on poverty and feminism. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I wanted to start by asking you to talk a little bit about your political evolution. I know you grew up in this incredible family of actors and intellectuals. I’ve read interviews where you talk about how Hair shaped your musical tastes…But I was curious if we could step all the way back about where your politics come from.
Well, I grew up in New York, in Manhattan. I was raised by primarily single women–my mother was a single mom, my grandmother was a single mom, my Nana, who’s sort of like another grandma to me.. She helped raise me–she was a single mom. And they were all sort of liberal and, you know, feminist, and you know, my grandmother was a New Deal Democrat, and everyone in my family had been Democrats for generations, that I’m aware of – my immediate, my direct line of descendants…I was born in 1970. My mother was something of a hippie, and she was an actress. And we were surrounded by artists and actors and writers and show people, and these are people who tend to be liberal in their approach to life and in their politics.
And, of course, in the ‘70s there was some exciting shit going on, you know? There was the end of the Vietnam War, and Watergate, and the legacy of the Civil Rights movement, and the women’s rights movement. And I grew up in New York which meant that Bella Abzug was a common fixture on the evening news, and I knew who Gloria Steinem was from the time I was very little, and I knew who Martin Luther King was from the time I could speak, and it was just considered part of being a human being to be politically conscious and aware of the circumstances of others. This was just how to live a decent life, was to pay attention to what was going on in the world and what’s happening to people who are hurting, or people who are struggling. And it’s hard to say what the source of that is in my family, but it’s certainly always been there.
My mother actually worked for Bella Abzug in the 70s and I have some pretty goofy family stories, so I can only imagine what it would be like to see her as an elected official.
Now my Nana was a life-long New Yorker, she was born in the Bronx, and she moved to the West Side with her two daughters, and she was very politically active and she was a bookkeeper of the New York contingent of Freedom Riders in the ‘60s. She worked to get those rubber mats – you know those mats on the playground that never used to be there? Her daughters’ school was the first one to have those rubber mats, and those eventually became standard throughout the city. And Bella Abzug wanted my Nana to go into politics. She said, “You know, you really need to think about running for City Council.” And my Nana, who was a very active and a very passionate woman, said, “No, absolutely not. I’ve got two daughters to put through college. If you think I’m going to run for City Council you’re crazy.” She wanted to work in the background, you know what I mean? She wanted to work from the ground up. But I love that story, it makes me really proud that Bella tried to get her into politics.
That’s one of the things that’s always struck me – that it’s hard to have somebody get into politics when they have family commitments, as well. It’s one thing to do things locally. When you were growing up in New York, the city was full of really terrific, politically engaged art. I was wondering if there was anything you went to, or any of the people you met who were sort of particular inspirations or models of how to live a life as a politically engaged artist?
Well, yeah, the first show I ever did, when I was eight-years-old, was a film workshop of a play called Runaways. It was a musical that was written and composed by a woman named Elizabeth Swados, who was this very interesting theater maker, who came from that world of downtown crazy artists who were making sort of revolutionary, weird work. You know, stuff that was that was like I said avant-garde and sort of bridged the gap between radical, political, and poetic, and historical. Runaways was about street kids. And at the time there was a lot more work being done about people on the margins, you know?
The ‘70s were a sort of peak period for artists who wanted to explore issues of class and culture, and in the theater that was particularly true. And so most of our friends–most of my mother’s friends–worked in that area, and you know, came from that world…I don’t know if they necessarily saw their work as being overtly political, but I think that it was informed, you know, clearly informed by their desire to make people pay attention to political ideas, if that makes any sense.
No, it does. I mean, one of the things that’s been sort of very interesting for me–writing about the intersection of politics and culture–is that people seem to have gotten less comfortable with that idea, and started conflating a work having political ideas as being partisan. I don’t know if that’s something you’ve observed. Do you think people have gotten sort of more anxious or skittish? I mean, certainly there’s a huge gap between the New York theater scene and a mainstream Hollywood production, but there does seem to be a real anxiety about anything being labeled “political.” People go for “epic” or “allegorical” instead.
Maybe that’s true in mainstream work…You know, I don’t particularly like polemics in art. I don’t necessarily connect with polemical work. It tends to turn me off–not because of the point of view and not because of the person expressing their political agenda, but because I think it tends to make for bad art. From my perspective anyway, I think art has to, for me, for my tastes, this doesn’t hate to apply for everyone art…it has to be emotionally connected to something that either has an allegorical element or a poetic element. It has to feel human…Polemics often feel alienating to me, as a human being. I don’t feel they allow for vague or weakness a lot, or doubt. To me, what draws me into a work of art is how much it sort of seems to be asking questions, rather than merely answering its own questions. So, and to me the audience–the audience experience and the audience being there–is integral to that. If the audience isn’t necessary to help make the work what it is, I lose interest. I don’t like being preached at.…I feel unnecessary when I watch it. I feel like my participation isn’t required.
Because there are highly political works that do not purport to be political but do not wear their agenda on their sleeve. You can think of many great playwrights–Eugene O’Neil, Arthur Miller, August Wilson, [and] Lanford Wilson. These are works that start inside the human being first. The human being is the source, not merely the idea, you know? The idea itself, alone, is sterile.
I wonder if some of this is that some creators aren’t willing to acknowledge that–particularly in mainstream culture–that certain conditions or certain storylines are political. If someone gets pregnant and doesn’t want to be that’s not just a random, disconnected state, that is a political issue. If someone is poor–that it may be that they’ve made personal choices, or they had a string of bad luck, but the conditions under which they live their lives and get through are political conditions.
Yes, that’s true. However, just like I said, from my perspective, you still have to start with a human story. Conditions are political. The conditions are political and certainly they can be overtly or subtly expressed – either one. But I find when they’re overtly expressed they lose a lot of their punch. They lose a lot of their ability to actually get inside the viewer’s heart, and that’s what you want with art, right? You want to get inside the viewer’s heart. That’s where change happens, inside every person’s heart. It doesn’t always work to go at it from a purely intellectual or purely activist place.
Sure I definitely agree with that.
The other day, there was a discussion happening about heroism and about whether people who work to improve the lives of others–either through community activism or social service work or whatever–are heroic, whether or not those people are heroes. And to me, the question has more to do with…is it heroic to see small change made in the lives of people through others whose hearts remain open despite the exhausting, miserable, lonely nature of life, you know? And it brought to mind some poems by Pablo Neruda – “Odes to Common Things.” Those poems, which are about a salt shaker or a pair of socks, you know–mundane objects, everyday objects –are in some ways of the most political poems I’ve ever read. Art is political, but when its aim is to propagandize, it’s no longer art. It’s propaganda.
Given that conversation, I actually wanted to ask you sort of about your use of Twitter, which is, I think, really striking. It seems like a forum you enjoy a lot.
I enjoy it sometimes. I don’t always enjoy Twitter.
Well, it seems like you use it somewhat differently than other actors and writers. You broadcast some, but you’re engaging in a lot of conversations. And I was wondering if you could talk about how you evolved to sort of using it that way and what it’s – to a certain extent it makes you a little more open, more vulnerable to some of the scarier things that bloggers and writers catch on the internet. I guess I’m just struck because on Twitter you feel to me more like a blogger than an actress, and I found that really refreshing.
Well, thank you. I will say that I am cautious on Twitter, as everyone should be all the time. To be aware of how many people are reading it and be conscious of the fact that people are going to be offended no matter what, on either side. And so I want to be myself and be honest, but at the same time I’m not particularly interested in engaging in flame wars and things like that. And I try, I do my best not to post things that –I look over them and I make sure I want to post them before I post them. I tend not to post things on the fly. I tend to think about it before I post, for precisely that reason.
Twitter is a funny thing, you know? It’s a very powerful tool and it’s also – can be really horrible. It can really bring out the worst in people, and I found that really interesting. I found what people feel they have a right to say on Twitter really fascinating, whether it’s because they are operating under a pseudonym, or because they feel it’s faceless and anonymous, or because they feel they can’t be touched, there will be no consequences. The level of cruelty on Twitter can be astonishing. Really astonishing. And I do wonder about its value when I see that. I wonder about whether or not it’s such a good thing. That it provides this outlet, this way to expressing hate – a new way to express hate. And I’m not sure we need that as a society.
On the other hand, it can be a fantastic tool, you know? It can be a democratizer. We’ve seen that all over the world. And it can be a great way of getting information out, it can be a great way of finding information, it can be a great way of connecting with people. So, it’s a double-edged sword, but it’s something you have to use, I think, with caution. It can be a weapon, you know what I mean? And people will use it as a weapon. And so you have to be conscious of that.
Well that was something you and I were talking about at the Fox party is that I think one think we’ve seen, both sort of an image among amateurs on Twitter and to a certain extent in some of the recent dust-ups over the things that comedians like Daniel Tosh have said, is that there’s this weird sort of premium on cruelty in our society, or sort of the ability to be insensitive. Do you think that’s something that’s sort of enabled by social media?
It’s a strange question. It’s a chicken-egg question. I don’t know. I think in general in our country we’re seeing an increase in cruelty…This is not unusual in a time of economic stress, when people are struggling, and when people are afraid for themselves, financially, for a lot of ugly things to come out of them. And there’s a lot of wanting to sort of place blame on anyone other, you know? A lot of things get focused on the unfamiliar and fear of the unfamiliar…So there’s a lot of cruelty in this country right now. There’s a cruelty in the political dialogue in this country that has never existed in my lifetime. And I do find it frightening. I do find that upsetting, and I do find that dangerous, because it’s not just about polarization – it’s about the normalization of polarization. It’s about the normalization of something that is pathological. And that is disturbing to me.
When I say pathological, I don’t meant to say that “differing political opinions is a pathology.” It’s not. What I mean by that is there is…this notion that we’re somehow seeing a balanced representation of something. What we’re seeing is a balanced representation of imbalance. And we’re pretending something that is actually crazy [laughs] is normal. It’s not normal. It’s a phenomenon. And we need to pay attention to it. We need to be conscious of it. I think that the idea that crazy is the new normal is taking over a lot of areas of our lives, and social media is just a platform for that. It doesn’t create it. It’s just another place for it to be expressed, you know?
Yeah, you were talking about how people – when they feel powerless they kind of reach for things they can control – particularly people who are not them. You’ve been incredibly eloquent over the last six months on attacks on women’s reproductive rights, on attacks on women generally. Do you think that’s one of the symptoms of that sense of powerlessness?
Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, it goes hand in hand with – it falls under the category of “social policy,” right? Women’s health, for whatever reason, falls under this category “social policy.” Culture wars is the expression, I think. Why this happens, why certain people do this, I don’t want to take their inventory or psychoanalyze them. I can’t. I don’t know. But it does tend to happen. I mean, when people, when some people feel that their external circumstance are out of control, what are the ways in which they feel the most comfortable reasserting their power? That’s in the home, that’s in domestic issues, that’s in who they want in your house, you know what I mean?…It’s who you want in your house. And women make a very easy target, historically. It’s always been the case. If there’s a problem, it’s usually because women are fucking things up. Women are throwing off the balance of power. And anything that throws off the balance of power, and people feel insecure economically is a threat.
Women who seek to control their own physical destinies are normal. What’s abnormal, and again this goes back to this subject of normalizing the abnormal , what’s abnormal is to think that in preventing women from having control over their own physical destinies that there will be calm and peace. There will not be calm and peace. Women who are prevented from realizing their full rights under the law suffer, and society suffers as a result. We know this. I could list for you the statistics, everybody knows them. But rationality doesn’t seem to enter into the discussion. You know what I mean? And…people don’t seem to be willing to hear those rational solutions. So, like I said far be it for me to psychoanalyze anybody else.
But as someone who writes about culture all day but who also sits in her office I’m surrounded by the four major cable news networks all the time, one thing that strikes me as really similar about both politics in Washington and creative decision making in Hollywood is that you have men in both places who are very confident in their ability to determine the best interests of women and the best uses of women. And I was wondering if that’s sort of struck you as well. We’ve talked about how hard it is to have women in Hollywood who have real power over how they’re portrayed, and what kind of – who can really pick roles. I was wondering if that was a parallel that had struck you, too?
I don’t like to compare Hollywood to a lot of other things. Hollywood is its own animal. First and foremost, it’s a business. It’s an industry, like every other industry. And so it follows the rules of its bottom line, and it does it according to a long line of traditions. And so I think it’s a different conversation – Hollywood, then let’s say public life, or normal, everyday life in America. It’s just a different animal, you know? Everything is blown up to a thousand times its normal size – literally and figuratively. And also, I don’t necessarily want–nor do I think we should want–a perfect balance of perfect cultural happiness in our entertainment. I just don’t think that that’s necessarily good for entertainment or creativity. You know what I mean? I’m a little bit of a…I’m a little bit of a capitalist in that sense in terms of people’s freedom to make what they want to make.
On the other hand, that doesn’t mean I’m not frustrated and exhausted and bored by some of the cultural norms that get mass produced, but I choose not to consume them, and I encourage others not to consume them if they can. For example, The Real Housewives. I think that that is an atrocious development and I won’t have anything to do with it. I don’t watch it, and my friends that watch it appall me. I love them, but I find them appalling. You know what I mean?
It’s been interesting listening to you over the past forty minutes because it sounds like so much of what you care about in entertainment and in sort of politically engaged, if not political entertainment, is what you’re getting to do on Raising Hope, which is an unbelievably generous, open-hearted show, but that it’s also very clear about poverty and economics. And I thought in last season’s episode where you talk about teen pregnancy was just perfectly calibrated. I was wondering if you could talk about how the show fits into everything we’ve talked about today.
I am really impressed with Greg Garcia’s apparent lack of interest in overt politics, and we don’t really discuss it on set. I’m the one that sort of gabs about it, but Greg does not make that stuff known: we just don’t really discuss it. I think it’s clear from the show that he has an interest in human beings, you know? His interest is in human beings who are struggling to make a good life for themselves, and so he is inherently sympathetic in that regard to the everyday the natural politics of living, you know what I mean? And it comes out as a result of that natural empathy that he has as a writer, and that’s a tremendous achievement because that’s hard to do. Like we said in the beginning of our conversation, I prefer that approach–the one that comes from human beings first. ..It’s a fine line, it’s a delicate thing, and while I know that Greg doesn’t necessarily have a political agenda let’s say, at the same time, I do feel that there are little morality plays in each episode in which the care and comfort of others is important to the characters in the show. And yes, maybe that is a little political.
The episode where everybody in the family is kind of discovering the joys of an education that they never had I thought was just one of the most touching illustrations of the pleasure of learning.
I think one of the ways in which this comes out in our show that I love, and one of the reasons why I love doing it is because very often in sitcoms, the mom will be this very sort of passive, reactive character who’s just kind of responding to the antics going on around her. And she sort of exists to give everyone else context and give everyone else a sense of place, right? On our show, Virginia–and this is my inner feminist coming out–on our show, Virginia is an equal participant in the action. Her personality and her character come from an individual place, that isn’t just in the context of her family. She comes from somewhere, she has weirdnesses, she’s a hoarder, she’s a closet performer, she’s got elements to her character that exist outside the context of her husband and child and family. And that is very uncommon on television. Very. Particularly in sitcoms, family sitcoms. So that’s an example I think, also of Greg’s interest in people, having a sort of ancillary political effect.