Sydney Sweeney and her family’s MAGA controversy, explained

Sydney Sweeney has likely been happier. The Gen Z breakout star of the buzzy HBO shows “Euphoria” and “White Lotus” was swarmed with criticism recently after fans noticed a man wearing a Blue Lives Matter shirt in one of the photos she posted on Instagram to commemorate her mother’s 60th birthday over the weekend. Critics also pointed out that photos from the celebration showed partygoers donning MAGA-style hats emblazoned with “Make Sixty Great Again,” according to photos from her brother’s public Instagram account.

“You guys this is wild. An innocent celebration for my moms milestone 60th birthday has turned into an absurd political statement, which was not the intention,” Sweeney tweeted on Saturday. “Please stop making assumptions.”

The symbol of a thin blue line running through an American flag invites the viewer to make very specific assumptions about the person draping themselves in it.

Celebrity pile-ons tend to be over the top, and this one has been no exception. But Sweeney’s naivete is also unconvincing. The symbol of a thin blue line running through an American flag invites the viewer to make very specific assumptions about the person draping themselves in it. Why would Sweeney be surprised at objections to an emblem that signals authoritarian militancy and hostility to an inclusive society?

The photo in question — the final one in a series of photos of the party — is casual; nobody is looking at the camera, Sweeney’s eyes are closed and she hasn’t settled into a pose as she stands apart from her mother. The Blue Lives Matter shirt is partially obscured. (The man in the photo has not been identified by Sweeney or reporters, but it’s reasonable to assume it’s a friend or family member of Sweeney’s mother.) The image is not meant to be a declaration of Sweeney’s own political commitments.

@sydney_sweeney via Instagram

Yet many social media users and pundits decided it is. Some commentators saw the shirt as an expression of her own political beliefs or an endorsement of the controversial symbol. One commentator declared the entire affair a “White supremacist party.” Some users advised Sweeney you severe ties with her family members. These kinds of responses are characteristic of the typical Twitter pile-on: obliterating nuance, ignoring possible intentions, assuming knowledge about her personal life and litigating immensely complex questions — like how we should navigate relationships with family members and friends with objectionable views — with the Manichean worldview that thrives on Twitter but rarely informs real life.

But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t space for legitimate questions — and criticism. Yes, Sweeney’s plea that the public “stop making assumptions” makes sense insofar as there are huge limitations on what we can assume about her life. But it isn’t unreasonable to make assumptions about the person wearing a Blue Lives Matter shirt, and questioning the implications of casually posting a photo featuring the message it stands for.

As a talented actress who makes a living in an industry that revolves around using images to convey meaning, Sweeney should certainly know better. Remember, this isn’t a standard Republican Party logo, but a symbol that emerged in response and opposition to Black Lives Matter, a movement that called for an end to brutal state-sponsored violence against Black communities. Over time it has evolved into a signifier of right-wing militancy and that views anti-racism as an existential threat to the nation. White supremacists at the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally unfurled the flag alongside Confederate flags in 2017. Some police chiefs have banned the flagbecause, as one of them from Wisconsin put it, the flag has been “co-opted” by extremists with “hateful ideologies.” And it has become a staple of the iconography of the hardcore MAGA set, a political movement which seeks to overturn democracy in the name of white nationalism. While some might try to argue that the image is merely meant to signal support of the police, it is undeniable that over the years it has become entangled with a specific kind of anti-democratic politics.

In other words, it would be rather odd for the millions who follow Sydney to not take notice of a symbol that represents a harshly reactionary ideology and start asking questions. These symbols will incite a response because they’re meant to.

If Sweeney does not support these views and placed the photo carelessly, she has the freedom to declare distance from them, whether through her statements, or by taking the image down. She has chosen not to do that. Unless she does, she should understand why many people will have questions about her political identity and how she could be using her huge platform as a popular actress to normalize a dangerous political movement. Sweeney’s intentions might’ve been “innocent,” but that flag isn’t.

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