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Jameela Jamil Wants You to Know You Can Make Mistakes and Survive

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Photo credit: (holaillustrations)

Jameela Jamil is best known for her role in the Golden Globe-nominated series The Good Place. She has also been an English teacher and a journalist. Today, she also works as a television host and judge. But it is her role as an advocate, she says, that supersedes all the rest. She joined us recently for a conversation about why advocacy is so important to her, what she has learned about how to speak up effectively, and how her commitment to remain bold is meant to demonstrate to other women that they too can speak up – and make mistakes – and they’ll survive. 

CONFERENCES FOR WOMEN: You occupy many roles as an actress, writer, host, and advocate. But you have described yourself as an advocate first and everything else last. Why does being an advocate come first?

JAMEELA JAMIL: It’s my lifelong obsession: the pursuit of what is fair, what is right, and what is just. I was involved in advocacy long before I ever considered a career in show business. 

It landed in my lap, which is a very uncharming story, but it’s true. I was discovered in a pub while I was an English teacher. And then I sat down with an agent who became my agent, and she said, “What do you want to do with this opportunity?”’ I said I wanted to become a documentary filmmaker about issues involving injustice. She told me that would be very possible, and that’s what I went on to do. And it became very obvious to me at 22 that this would be an amazing way to reach more people with the message of justice. 

CFW: Given that there’s been so much insanity in our world in recent years, and there are more and more things to speak out about, how do you navigate that, and how do you not get overwhelmed?

JAMIL: At first, when I came out talking about feminism and diet culture because I had an opinion and I was using my platform for that, people who were longing for people to use their platform for other causes flocked to me, and were like, ‘Speak up about this, speak about that and this injustice and that injustice.’ And I completely understood why they were saying that because so few celebrities pre-2020 were using their platforms for anything that could be considered controversial or divisive. And I was a candid maniac. 

I wanted to please and appease everyone by speaking about every issue. But all that kept happening was, predictably, I didn’t have enough experience and knowledge to be able to stick the landing and perfectly do each cause justice and ended up spreading myself too thin and being less effective across the board and also having a near nervous breakdown with being overwhelmed because there are only so many causes that you can do a good job promoting, which is why it’s so much of a better climate now that more celebrities are involved in advocacy because it can’t fall on just a few of us – often women of color –  to talk about every issue on the planet. We should all just pick a few things we can be effective at resolving or helping to resolve and sort of rotate who does what. That would be ideal. Otherwise, I am just posting and reposting infographics, and that’s not advocacy at all. I want to follow up on the work I do with meaningful action. 

To answer your question, everything I’ve said about a learning curve is true. But I’ve also learned that I only have so many resources, time, and energy to use what I have to raise awareness effectively. So now I just pick subjects I feel confident I have enough knowledge to speak on. 

CFW: Are there lessons from your experience that would be helpful to women who want to speak up but don’t have a platform?

JAMIL: Yes, it’s not all about having a platform. To have influence, you just have to have anyone around you whose mind you can open. You don’t even have to go into trying to change someone’s mind. If you can just open someone’s mind to another way, that is a remarkable opportunity for change.

And so, there are people in your home who have voting rights.  There are people in your workplace and your friendship groups – all of whom have the vote that can make the difference between people having rights and not having rights. You have tremendous influence if you can change or open their minds. I don’t think you should ever feel as though you are redundant without a large Instagram following. It’s so important that we don’t leave it to those of us who have large platforms only to be the ones influencing other people because some of us are only stupid actors. We should not be given too much weight as oracles. 

Also, when it comes to anyone trying to advocate for a cause, I’ve learned from experience that you should be careful in how you communicate. Right now, I’ve become someone who has finally learned the art of nonviolent communication, or at least I’m learning it. And I think before, I used to use quite blunt, callous language that was from a place of anger and rage and frustration. But unfortunately, when I did that, I alienated many people because my language was dismissive, abrupt, and cutting. It ended up that the people who heard me were only the ones who already agreed with me. I don’t think it was effective in changing anyone’s mind. It made people defensive and put their backs up. That’s something I’ve changed a lot in the last few years, and I have found it overwhelmingly easier to communicate with people I disagree with and change or open their minds by speaking with them peacefully, which isn’t always the easiest way. But it is what I find the most effective way.  

CFW: The Guardian has described you as both adored and vilified for speaking out. How did you understand that? 

JAMIL:  I don’t think you can be a woman, have an opinion, and not be vilified. But I don’t think I was helpful with my language. But what was annoying was that even when I used very mild language, it was always described violently by the headlines. “Jameela Jamil destroys,” “Jameela Jamil slams,” and “Jameela Jamil smashes” as if I’m a WWE wrestler. However callus or blunt my language was, it was always vastly exaggerated and hyperbolized by the media. It made me look like an even more violent communicator. But I do think I didn’t do myself any favors with my very naughty English language. 

CFW: You spoke with Viola Davis at the 2022 Massachusetts Conference for Women and were candid, funny, and bold. What has helped you be as bold as you are?

JAMEELA: To bring the last question into this one, one of the reasons that women get vilified when we speak out is to make an example of us and discourage others from doing the same. It’s a tool. It’s by design. It’s not something that just happens to me. It happens to any woman with any opinion. They get gaslit and called crazy, and all kinds of campaigns come out to discredit them and make you doubt them so that you won’t listen to their words. 

And I think because I have such a firm understanding of that – not only having been a journalist but also being the subject of journalism – I’ve got to watch in real-time how that machine works: Build her up, build her up. Hyperbolize how amazing she is. Make it seem as if she believes all the hype about herself, and then tear her down and rip her to pieces. 

This doesn’t just happen in the media. It can occur in the workplace. It can happen in schools. We are fascinated with the schadenfreude of watching a woman be humbled or fall from a height. We have been trained to find that entertaining and something we can’t ignore. 

And I think a lot of us– I’m sure myself included – have had an internal misogyny that feels almost a relief when a woman gets taken down a few pegs because she was being weaponized against us to make us feel inferior. So when we see her dragged back down, it’s, like, “Ahh phew, she’s human just like us.”

But because I understand how toxic and terrifying that cycle is, I feel determined not to be used as an example. I won’t shut up and go away and allow the silencing tools to work. I want to remind people that it’s all survivable – all these reputation smears. You just have to keep going. That’s what men do. They keep going even when they really shouldn’t carry on. It’s extraordinary. 

I want to remind women to keep going and not apologize for having brains and hearts. It doesn’t mean we can’t be responsible for how we enact those feelings. I can say I need to tweak my method of communicating, but that doesn’t mean I should stop communicating or stop fighting for what I believe in. So, I put myself out there for other women. I don’t feel a lot of shame about myself. It doesn’t mean I don’t recognize what needs to change, but I have been gifted with a deficit of shame. It’s hard to stop because of that. I’m like a cockroach. I think that it’s valuable for women to see someone keep surviving and coming back like the Terminator.

I want women to see that you can have opinions and survive. Most importantly, you can make mistakes and survive. So I’m so bold on stage, so myself, because I want people to see it’s survivable to be yourself and not be this perfect depiction of what a woman is allegedly supposed to be. I’m unusual, but so are a lot of people. I think a lot of women are masking, and I hope to be a part of helping them feel they can be set free. 

Jameela Jamil
Jameela Jamil

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