At this year's Teen Choice Awards, Ashton Kutcher tried to give a motivational speech to a bunch of hyperventilating 14-year-olds ... and it was bad. Like painfully bad. His words were not only barely audible (never underestimate the vocal power of a a prebuscent teen), but also completely void of any humility or understanding of how society actually works.
Ashton Kutcher, after confiding that his real name was Chris (yawn), made a superficial point about "opportunity" and how it comes from working hard. "I've never had a job in my life that I was better than. I was always just lucky to have a job. And every job I had was a stepping stone to my next job. And I never quit my job until I had my next job ... Opportunity looks a lot like hard work," he said after talking about how he used to dust the floors of a Cheerios factory. Ohmygosh, he wasn't born an actor? He was once a regular person with a regular job? Mind blown.
Then, leaving out the part where he built his career on modelling, he said that looks don't matter, and that smart is the new sexy. I guess looks don't matter ... you know once you've already relied on them to get ahead.
My deep-seated feelings of ickiness were confirmed when right-wing broom-heads in chief Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck started praising Kutcher's speech. Rush Limbaugh called it "profound," while Glenn Beck praised the actor for taking "the American position" and showing teens that government is totally unnecessary because everyone can make it.
The problem with a celebrity telling teenagers that opportunity only comes from hard work is that they're erasing all of the other stuff that actually goes into success in our society. Life is not an equal playing field. The reality is that some of the reasons why certain kids make it and others don't is due to much deeper systemic problems than just "hard work."
Ashton Kutcher is a white, heterosexual, able-bodied, and attractive cisgender male. His stardom is dependant on those very markers and have (at least partially) defined his success. To take all those things out of the equation is disingenuous. He's reaped the benefits from a culture that values all those things. By telling teens to stop caring about their looks or their position in society is putting the responsibility on teenagers to combat a culture that he actively perpetuates.
The onus shouldn't be on kids to stop caring about their apperance, but on adults like Kutcher to change the culture that sends them these messages.
Many of the kids in the audience won't be as lucky as Kutcher. Only a small minority of them will rise to the top of the corporate food chain. So what does his message tell the others? That they haven't worked hard enough. That it's their fault.
Don't get me wrong. I'm all for teaching teenagers the importance of hard work. There are ways of sending kids this message without turning yourself into a diluted and pretentious messiah. There's a way of doing it without being in complete denial about your own privilege.
Ashton Kutcher might have come from modest roots, and very worked hard to get where he is. I really do think that's great and that he's a good role-model for teens with big dreams. However, it seems hypocritical to preach to a crowd of teenagers with very different experiences about the importance of hard work and the irrelevance of appearance. The risk is not that teens might actually end up working hard, but rather that if they fail when they do, they will blame themselves instead of a society that too often is the one that fails them. By recognizing his own privilege, Ashton Kutcher could have taught a much more valuable message to a crowd full of attentive teens.
Then again, maybe it's too much to ask from someone who doesn't understand why brownface is offensive. Can we make Anil Dash's takedown of Kutcher's racist Popchips ad go viral instead of Kutcher's reductive "opportunity" speech?
Now that would give some teenagers some food for thought.