Susan Sarandon, Melissa Barrera, and the Troubling Pattern of Punishment for Advocating for Palestine

feature image photo of Susan Sarandon by John Nacion / Contributor via Getty Images; photo of Melissa Barrera by Michael Buckner / Contributor via Getty Images

We’re continuing to see people punished for speaking out against Israel, genocide, and the mass killings of Palestinian civilians. Today,The Hollywood Reporter reported that bisexual actress Susan Sarandon was dropped by her talent agency, United Talent Agency (UTA), for speaking at a pro-Palestine protest.

At a rally in New York City’s Union Square on November 17, Sarandon gave a speech in which she empathized with Jewish Americans’ fears of the rise of antisemitism while also noting that this is how Muslims in America feel all the time. This is not the first time Sarandon has spoken up for social justice. She’s been critical of cops in the past, stands with trans people, and was critical of Hillary Clinton’s murky record on LGBTQ rights. She has been antiwar for over two decades.

It’s unclear where exactly UTA draws the line when it comes to its clients’ politics. The talent agency represents a wide swath of clients across the ideological spectrum, including people who have spoken out in support of Palestine in various capacities. They also rep vocal Zionists, including stars like Mayim Bialik as well as Sarah Silverman, who said on her podcast in 2021 that she supports Zionism and who made a now-deleted post on Instagram attempting to justify Israel’s decision to cut off electricity and water in Gaza.

Sarandon has since offered an apology on Instagram, apologizing for the specific wording she used while reiterating what her real meaning was:

So far, there has been no update as to her representation.

In addition to Sarandon being dropped by UTA, news also broke that Spyglass had quietly fired Melissa Barrera from the next Scream movie for her pro-Palestine social media posts. Barrera has been vocal in her naming of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza as a genocide and in her opposition to Israel’s apartheid rule over the Palestinian people. A Variety report on talent agency shakeups over employees taking pro-Palestine stands attempts to suggest Barrera played into an antisemitic trope about media control, but that really takes her post about media bias and social media algorithms completely out of context. Even if Variety is trying to say it’s what sources said about Barrera’s posts, there should at least be an addendum that includes the full text of Barrera’s post. The insinuation that Barrera is spreading an antisemitic trope is an absurd reach and one that conflates being critical of Israel with antisemitism.

That same Variety report details the forced resignation of top Creative Artists Agency (CAA) agent Maha Dakhil, who came under fire for posting about witnessing genocide on her Instagram story. Dakhil was seemingly asked to issue a public apology and step out of her role on the agency’s internal board, but thanks in part to advocacy by her client Tom Cruise, was allowed to remain at CAA as an agent.

The report also notes some agents at UTA have apparently called for writer Ta-Nehisi Coates to be dropped for being a signatory on the open letter from participants in the Palestine Festival of Literature calling on “the international community to commit to ending the catastrophe unfolding in Gaza and to finally pursuing a comprehensive and just political solution in Palestine.” Even though the agency decided to drop Sarandon, Coates is still represented there for now.

In anonymous accounts, a Middle Eastern actor told Vulture recently that what happened to Dakhil “scared the shit out of us.” The actor goes on to say: “I’m very careful not to use words like genocide, occupation, colonialism, open-air prisons — despite believing they do accurately describe what’s happening in Gaza.”

Journalists are being fired or forced to resign for speaking out against genocide. Sarandon was dropped for making statements that align with what her politics have been all along.

Meanwhile, the media bias Melissa Barrera was actually talking about in her post that apparently others have decided to erroneously label “antisemitic” is very much alive, and shadowbanning of pro-Palestine content has forced a lot of Instagram users to employ “algospeak.” Even Variety‘s biased reporting on Barrera’s posts is evidence of that exact media partiality she’s openly criticizing!

I’m curious to see if there will be ripple effects to Spyglass’ decision and if more actors will speak up or choose silence. Queer singer Kehlani has been bold in her demand for more celebrities to speak up. Sarandon, Barrera, and Barrera’s Scream co-star Jenna Ortega all signed an open letter calling for a ceasefire, which shouldn’t be considered controversial. Ortega has also posted on her own social media account in support of Palestine.

News of Ortega’s departure from Scream VII dropped one day after the Barrera news broke, but Variety is reporting it has nothing to do with the Barrera decision but rather her filming schedule for the upcoming season of Wednesday. The timing is…odd. And if Ortega’s participation was in question well before Barrera’s firing — the narrative the trades are going with — it seems like it would have been announced before now. I’m interested to see if Ortega speaks to the decision at any point.

In an official statement about Barrera’s firing, Spyglass said:

“Spyglass’ stance is unequivocally clear: We have zero tolerance for antisemitism or the incitement of hate in any form, including false references to genocide, ethnic cleansing, Holocaust distortion or anything that flagrantly crosses the line into hate speech.”

There are no specific references in the statement to posts made by Barrera. Also, the statement reads as tacit genocide denial. Scream VII‘s director Christopher Landon also made a “statement” on Twitter that has since been deleted but read, vaguely: “Everything sucks. Stop yelling. This was not my decision to make.”

To make matters even murkier, a new Hollywood Reporter story has come out citing sources who say the firing was not made in response to that specific social media post about shadowbanning but rather came a full month before the news broke, when Barrera began posting in solidarity with Palestine. “Before her firing, sources say her deal to return as Sam Carpenter, the lead character she introduced in 2022’s Scream, had been finalized,” THR notes. The same story claims Ortega’s deal had not been in place and that her departure had to do with salary negotiations rather than the original story of scheduling conflicts. The timing of the Ortega announcement, however, still seems odd.

Barrera has continued amplifying reports and images about the violence in Gaza since news of her firing broke and has yet to shift the focus to herself, which is definitely the right way to show solidarity, especially as a celebrity. In fact, 1,300 actors have now signed an open letter accusing various institutions of censoring and punishing artists who have spoken in support of Palestine, and while the letter lists Barrera’s firing as an example, I haven’t seen Barrera post about the letter herself, as she continues to center the genocide rather than Hollywood.

Over half a century after the Hollywood Blacklist torpedoed the careers of actors and other creatives for any association with the Community Party, we’re now seeing people in the film and television industry being punished for criticizing Israel and standing in solidarity with Palestine.

This story was originally published on November 21, 2023 and has been updated.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

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  1. I appreciate you naming this (“Barrera has continued amplifying reports and images about the violence in Gaza since news of her firing broke and has yet to shift the focus to herself, which is definitely the right way to show solidarity.”), because while I do have a lot of concerns about the ways that people speaking against genocide is being punished, it, of course, doesn’t compare to actually being killed. So I appreciate that Berrera and this article continue to keep the main thing the main thing.

  2. I’m genuinely disturbed that Autostraddle has decided to publish an article that acts as though Susan Sarandon’s statement was benign. What she said was “There are a lot of people who are afraid of being Jewish at this time, and are getting a taste of what it feels like to be a Muslim in this country.” It is disgusting to pretend that anti-semitism is some new rising phenomenon and not something insidious that has always been a part of America. Since when do we progressives pit the hate faced by one group against the hate that another group faces? Anti-semitism is evil. Islamophobia is evil. These beliefs are not mutually exclusive.

      • My reading skills are fine thanks! And I watched the full video of what she said. If it’s helpful for you to substitute out any other groups that are under threat from white supremacy into the direct quote I posted above, then you should give it a try – you might find it helpful for understanding why what she said is wrong.
        She diminished the threat of anti-semitism by 1)pretending it’s new. (You and Susan should google Tree of Life.) 2)comparing it to the threat that another group faces to diminish it.
        She also retweeted a neo-nazi, but I guess if defending Susan Sarandon is the hill you want to die on, that’s your prerogative.

        • Of course antisemitism is nothing new, but yes jewish people don’t face the same level of discrimination muslim people do RIGHT NOW : nothing antisemitic about this, it’s just a fact.

        • “She also retweeted a neo-nazi”

          Zionists cheered John Hagee at the their pro-genocide rally. AIPAC and their mutuals donate to multiple anti-democracy / pro-insurrection, anti-LGBT, anti-abortion, anti-education, anti-immigrant, anti-black candidates. Zionists do the exact same thing throughout Europe.

          What Susan Sarandon and Melissa Barrera have done is mild in comparison.

    • Agreed. Autostraddle has had a mixed record with Jewish issues itself.

      While I’m Pro-Palestine, we also need to cognizant of antisemitism on the left. Who does it actually help when Jewish leftists are pointing out antisemitic tropes and then it’s treated like this must have suspect motives? It’s baffling that suddenly a marginalized group is treated like they must not even know what bigotry against their group looks like! Whatever happened to, listen to an oppressed group about their own oppression? People want it to be as easy as one side is always the oppressor in every context and the other side is always the oppressed in every context, when clearly the right-wing Jewish leadership in Israel (many of whom descended from Holocaust survivors themselves) are an obvious counterexample!

      I’ve seen so much “”activism”” where people were mindlessly spreading antisemitic propaganda, including blatant blood libel, without a second thought and then justifying it with the current geopolitical situation. That doesn’t help Palestinians. That doesn’t help women, ethnic minorities, LGBT folk that all do face major issues in both Israel and Gaza (because, reminder, it’s not as though Israel DOESN’T have serious homophobia issues).

      I want you guys to think about this for maybe five seconds. For five seconds, think of your own marginalized group being a substitute in what you’re spreading. Think of other marginalized ethnic groups in its place too. If you feel weird about it, like it seems off or possibly racist when applied to those groups, maybe do a little more research into what you’re posting. Look widely for many different sources with many different viewpoints, since that’s how proper research on any issue works.

      If you live in a social media bubble, then it’s on you to educate yourself. And not just on what the loudest people in the room are saying, or the ones using the most emotional appeals. You need to be thinking critically not just on the bullshit Israeli propaganda but ALL propaganda. Several nations invested in the Israel/Palestine issue have their own propaganda about the subject and it’s not just from the Pro-Israel side.

      Please don’t fall for the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” fallacy. If you’re anti-Hamas, that doesn’t mean Israel is your friend and vice versa. Oppose authoritarianism, oppose islamophobia and antisemitism, oppose horrible ideologies no matter where they are.

      • I always want to take a second to applaud people who take the step of showing how their pro-Palestine views not only *don’t necessitate* antisemitism, but are *incompatible* with antisemitism and all forms of bigotry as a whole when taken to their logical conclusion, so thank you! It’s been really stressful and disturbing to see people falling into extremist rabbit holes so long as the right buzzwords are thrown around to make them feel like they’re “fighting for the right side,” especially when they’re making justifications for terrorism, hate crimes, atrocity denial, or other needless cruelty. And you’re so right about the need for people to seek out different viewpoints and accurate information–the way misinformation is spreading like wildfire and context gets lost between different factions of social media has set everyone even more on edge than usual, and people need now more than ever to get comfortable with questioning input that only serves to provoke a more visceral reaction from them or leaves room for inaccuracy that they still want to pass around because they feel like it “serves the cause,” because that kind of behavior is having serious consequences for Jewish and Middle Eastern people around the world.

      • “Whatever happened to, listen to an oppressed group about their own oppression?”

        For one, oppressed groups are not a monolith and can have different opinions about what constitutes oppression. Two, not all oppressed people are correct, well meaning or sincere.

        I have no doubt that, for example, Bialik sincerely believes that people are only protesting against Israel due to anti-semitism.

        However many Jewish people disagree with her stance – and given Bialik’s previous controversies & propensity for reposting Bari Weiss, I see no reason to automatically believe her take on this, despite her status as an oppressed person.

    • This is a very well-put reply to exactly what gave me pause reading her comments, too! I’m baffled at her choice to bring the history of antisemitism and Islamophobia in *America* into a moment that’s ostensibly about speaking on the political upheaval happening on a completely different continent, and every explanation I can come up as to why we’re seeing people across the world and across the political spectrum treating this moment as a Rorschach test for their own biases and preconceptions about Middle Eastern and Jewish people in their own countries are… not very flattering, to say the least.

    • 100%, most of Autostraddle’s coverage on this topic prefers to pretend antisemitism and the legitimate Jewish fear of violence (Texan rabbi held hostage in his synagogue, Tree of Life shooting, stabbing of rabbi in Detroit) do not exist. I think it’s a clearly chosen abandonment of the queer Jewish community at a time when we need nuance and solidarity.

  3. One piece of context that this article is missing regarding Susan Sarandon is that she also retweeted noted neo-Nazi Jackson Hinkle’s post insinuating that the Israeli government was responsible for the murder of its own people on October 7 (I can confirm I saw the RT circulating, and have seen screenshots confirming, though it looks like it’s gone from her page as of November 21), as well as at least one additional conspiracy theory denying the slaughter of babies by Hamas. This obviously is far removed from Melissa Barrera’s comments and those of other public figures, but I do think it’s worth pointing out, especially considering Sarandon’s history of gravitating towards the conspiracy-minded side of the far left.

    • Israel have also slaughtered babies. Silverman called for the bombings to accelerate. Bialik has gone on several extremely offensive social media rants conflating criticism of Israel’s attack with anti-semitism.

      I acknowledge that Sarandon may have deserved to be dropped; in my opinion Bialik & Silverman did as well, and yet they remain. The hypocrisy of UTR is astounding.

    • I do not have twitter and do not know how it works. But it seems to me, that such things occur unintentionally. For example, I am not interested in neo-nazis. For me, if I see the name Jackson Hinkle, he is not for me “a noted neo-nazi”, he is just some guy named Jackson Hinkle. If he does not have swastika or something on his page, it probably will take some time for me to understand that he is a neo-nazi. I think, this is what happens a lot with celebrities and their deleted tweets. This hit “retweet”, then go back to it, do some research, probably other people point to them that the person they made a retweet from, is not good, and then they delete this retweet. I think, the ideal move in that case should be to say on your page: “hey, 2 days ago I retweeted this, and since then I made some research, and the information is not true, sorry for that!” But it takes, probably, more courage and effort, than to just delete what turned out to be false. At most, we can accuse a person of sloppiness, some kind of negligence in their Internet behavior, but NOT of the bad intentions. If she deleted something, then it means she does not agree with it. I think we should give other people space and right to explore the world around them, learn, improve. It is normal. We do not know immediately all the answers. As the AS article says, she speaks a lot of good things, and she does not want to delete this speech she gave at the rally. It seems to me more important than deleted re-tweets. Sorry for broken English, not my first language!!!

      • Regarding the re-tweet of that noxious jackwagon, Jackson Hinkle, if you are a public-facing figure with thousands of followers, you have a responsibility to do a spot of research when you’re co-signing the opinion of someone you don’t know face-to-face. A quick google search would have told Twitterfingers over there everything she needed to know.

  4. I feel like we need to start treating “do I agree with this thing a person said?”, “do I condone this thing a person said?”, and “do I disagree with punishing someone for saying this?” as three different questions that sometimes have three very different answers.

  5. I would distinguish Barrera from Sarandon in that the latter’s comment was historically inaccurate and unproductive, at best. (I’m speaking about the comment, not Sarandon as a person.) Barrera has been a lot more well spoken; I have no doubt that one of the reasons she’s more precise/thoughtful is that she’s used to being over-policed for her language as a WOC.

    That said, the amount of punishment Sarandon is receiving is excessive and it is telling that no punishment has been dished out to Hollywood figures who have shared Alex Jones-style conspiracy theories about Gazans’ deaths being faked or accused the BBC, UN, and Red Cross of being infiltrated by Hamas.

    Then there’s Juliana Margulies, who gave a bizarre podcast interview in which:
    1) she LIED about a student event run by a Black lesbian club saying no Jews were allowed (in fact they said no zionists, so Jewish activist Naomi Klein would be welcome, Zionist gentile Hitler fan John Hagee would not)
    2) she said she was offended by this AS A LESBIAN because she plays one on TV
    3) she said, of these Black lesbians, “You fucking idiots, you don’t exist, like you’re even lower than the Jews.” Perhaps she is trying to say they’re more oppressed, but in addition to making her support of Black lesbians transactional and her sheer contempt for them, her wording was incredibly fucked up and no better than Sarandon’s problematic comment.

    Yet Margulies won’t be fired for this shitshow of a public statement while Sarandon got dropped immediately.

    • I think it’s pretty clear that Margulies didn’t mean black lesbians don’t exist or are “lower than the Jews” in general, but that they are viewed that way by Hamas.

      It’s still pretty funny/terrible that she felt offended as someone who plays a lesbian on TV. I’d hope that was just a very dry joke, but who knows how the very rich and out of touch think?

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