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I didn’t think there would ever be a situation where I’d feel the need to come to Shia LaBeouf’s defense. But Sunday night gave me one.
LaBeouf and his Peanut Butter Falcon co-star, Zack Gottsagen, presented the award for Best Live Action Short Film at the Oscars this past weekend. Gottsagen took his time with his words. He struggled to open the envelope after the nominees were announced. As Gottsagen stared at the screen, trying to get out the words “And the Oscar goes to…” LaBeouf gave a little laugh and a smile before stepping away and allowing Gottsagen to finish the sentence.
Twitter went mad.
Because Gottsagen has Down Syndrome.
“did Shia LaBeouf just laugh at the down syndrome man on stage…on live television????”
“why was Shia LaBeouf so impatient with the boy on stage? laughing at and pushing him along? So distasteful”
“Ok, Shia LaBeouf is canceled.”
Oh, the righteous indignation was in full force.
Never mind the fact that in the one tweet, Gottsagen is the “down syndrome man,” and “the boy” in the other. (Gottsagen is in fact 34, one year older than LaBeouf.)
The way Gottsagen is referred to in tweets that are seemingly supposed to come to his defense is ironic and problematic. But also problematic is the fact that people feel they can pass any kind of judgment on LaBeouf, make any sort of virtue claim about his behavior, based on 45 seconds of TV and with zero understanding of the relationship that exists between Gottsagen and LaBeouf.
I actually thought he handled the whole thing pretty well.
Because if I was on one of the biggest stages in the world, on live TV, presenting an important award, and I was waiting for my sister to get those words out, I probably would’ve grabbed the envelope from her and done the whole thing myself.
Like Gottsagen, my sister, Jovita, will also be 34 this year. Unlike Gottsagen, she hasn’t starred in any movies recently.
Like Gottsagen, she has Down Syndrome.
I love my sister. She has this loud, almost violent laughter that you can hear throughout the whole house. She carries around pictures of movie stars she finds particularly attractive. She can tell you facts about celebrities that you never thought you needed to know. She pops into my Sunday afternoon skype calls with my parents to ask how I’m doing, and more importantly, how my cats are doing.
But Jovita is also stubborn as hell. And when she’s upset about something, she will let. you. know. Woe to you if you buy her a coloring book for Christmas and she already has it.
And while there are a lot of things Jovita can do – she works, rides the bus, uses a debit card, cooks basic meals – some things are harder for her. She struggles with numbers, can’t always think through the consequences of certain decisions, and has a hard time getting her sentences out when she really wants to tell you something.
The reality of being Jovita’s sister is shaped by all these things. She’s my sister, and I love her. She’s my sister, so sometimes she drives me up the absolute wall. She has Down Syndrome, so I want to cheer her on. She has Down Syndrome, so I want to protect her.
That’s our relationship, and the ways I engage with Jovita stem from that relationship. It’s good, and it’s hard, and it’s complicated, and it’s all couched in a bond and a history that folks looking in from the outside don’t have and can’t ever really understand.
But it’s incredibly easy for folks on the outside to think they know what’s best for someone. To think they know how to defend someone they’ve decided needs defending.
So we tweet in outrage that LaBeouf laughed at his co-star.
We slam Meghan Markle for holding her baby incorrectly.
We declare teenagers in MAGA hats to be bigots.
We are indignant. And our indignation makes us feel good. Here in the safety of my living room, I have done something. I have let the world know that I am indignant. I am politically correct. I am woke. I am a good person.
It was just Shia LaBeouf who was asked to present the award on Sunday night. He said he would only do so if his friend, Zach Gottsagen, could do it with him. After the indignation rolled in on Twitter, Gottsagen’s mother set the record straight.
“Their friendship is really, really beautiful. I would hate to see any misconception out there. Shia…has been nothing, nothing, nothing but supportive.”
In the 36 hours since that article came out, many of the indignant tweets have quietly been deleted by their owners.
But the best course of action, dear twittersphere, would simply be to hold off on your indignation in the first place. And maybe instead use your 280 characters to stir up a calamitous uproar celebrating the fact that on Sunday night, for the first time ever, a person with Down Syndrome presented an Oscar. Next to his good friend who smiled, laughed, helped, and made room.
We could all stand to make a little more room for each other.