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Sydney Sweeney Isn’t Responsible For Her Family’s Politics

A couple weeks ago, Euphoria star Sydney Sweeney was in the news for being one of the few up-and-coming actresses to have made it in Hollywood without a little nepotism energy. In fact, Sweeney’s family comes from the rural Pacific Northwest, along the border between Idaho and Washington. When Sweeney started booking gigs, the family made do in hotels around Portland and Los Angeles, before she started getting some real breaks.

It’s a rare success story for an industry that has become increasingly insular, with more and more roles going to the privileged offspring of their already famous and connected parents (just look up Sweeney’s Euphoria co-star Maude Apatow). It’s one of the perks of being famous. If you decide you want to act, your mom Reese Witherspoon can just put in a call. One of the other perks of coming from a family that’s already famous is that they know how to be famous. There are certain rules, only a handful of which would be comprehensible to non-famous people like you and me. And the Sweeney family.

Last weekend, Sweeney posted photos on Instagram of what she called a “surprise hoedown” to celebrate her mother’s birthday. The photos showed friends and family hanging out near a ranch in cowboy costumes, square dancing, riding a mechanical bull and looking like they all had a lot of fun. But fans noted a few details that consumed the internet for 48 hours. One of the biggest “issues” was a party attendee in a “Thin Blue Line” T-shirt — the American flag with a blue line in support of police.

“You guys this is wild,” Sweeney protested on Twitter, as negative comments mounted on Instagram. “An innocent celebration for my mom’s milestone 60th birthday has turned into an absurd political statement, which was not the intention. Please stop making assumptions. Much love to everyone and Happy Birthday Mom!”

In the age of social media, nobody mistakes such a shirt for an innocuous message. We understand the subtle politics of the things we wear, the signs we put on our lawn and the slogans we post on the internet, and how they might be perceived in a deeply divided country. So it’s probably not surprising that people read a political message into the T-shirt and reacted in kind.

But what is surprising is that people linked Sweeney to that political statement. Though the man in the photo is unidentified – we don’t know if he’s a family member, a friend or what — Sweeney took on the ire directed at his shirt, with jokes about the family being involved in January 6 starting to spread.

Let’s table the obvious strongly held principles around Blue Lives Matter merch for a second and ask what we really know here. The answer is: not much. We don’t know who this man is, or Sweeney’s relationship to him. We don’t know if she agrees with him. We don’t know her actual feelings about police brutality or racial justice. Moreover, we don’t know what sort of conversations Sweeney has or hasn’t had with her family members about important issues.

Furthermore, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that the Thin Blue Line T-shirt automatically comes with a bevy of far-right talking points like vaccine denialism, voter fraud conspiracies and other troubling theories. What exactly is Sweeney supposed to do in this situation? A good deal of American families — particularly White American families — have members who have unfortunately fallen for such baseless conspiracies. You can probably argue that we have a responsibility to talk to these family members and attempt to steer them back towards the truth, but does it follow then that if they don’t listen to us, we should cut them out of our lives altogether? Should Sweeney have summoned an HBO helicopter to take her away from her mother’s 60th birthday party?

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If you’ve ever tried to have a conversation with your family about divisive politics, you know how it tends to go. There is very rarely any sort of immediate transformation. Instead you debate, mostly talking past each other, hopefully remaining at least somewhat civil until one or both of you gives up. It’s a frustrating and often futile-seeming way to spend time. Truth be told, it’s a pretty exasperating way to expend your political energy. Donating to a cause you care about is probably a good deal more effective than trying to convince Uncle Terry that Biden isn’t being piloted by Martian spiders.

That doesn’t mean it’s not important or shouldn’t be done. What it does mean is that if we’re going to start cutting out family members anytime they refuse to see eye to eye with us politically, we’re going to start losing families pretty quickly. You can pick a lot of things in life, which means you can cut a lot of things out too. But you can’t pick your family, and cutting family out is a sad and difficult thing that ought to be reserved only for the worst case scenarios.

Occasionally, there may be times in which a family member starts believing certain conspiracy theories that do present a real danger to those around them. And in those cases, it may be justifiable to restrict the amount of time you spend together. That’s a hard thing to do, and probably should only be done in the most extreme of circumstances. And if you can stay with your family despite strong political disagreements, you’ll have a far likelier chance of helping them see your side of things little by little over time, because they’ll see that your love for them transcends their takes.

Again, we don’t know that any of this applies to Sweeney. But we should be careful about setting expectations that we immediately walk away from family if they don’t buy our politics. Indeed, if we truly care about the social causes our family disagrees with, remaining in relationship is the best way to lovingly persuade them over time. Pundits and politicians want us to think that anyone who doesn’t vote like us is an enemy. They say this explicitly, turning parents against their kids and husbands against their wives. They’ve been far too successful. Remaining in relationship with family members, even when we disagree bitterly about important things is an act of revolution, and is far more likely to end up transforming the world into the one we want than siloing ourself could ever be.

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