It was the clapback heard ’round the world. On Nov. 5, two days after the U.S. Presidential election, Swedish environmental activist, Greta Thunberg, reached out to President Trump on Twitter with some words of youthful advice. Trump had recently tweeted his strenuous objection that certain states were counting mail-in ballots that were tipping the race to President-elect Joe Biden.
“So ridiculous,” Thunberg wrote in response. “Donald must work on his Anger Management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! Chill, Donald, Chill!”
So ridiculous. Donald must work on his Anger Management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Donald, Chill! https://t.co/4RNVBqRYBA
Her tweet instantly went viral, and not just because the 17-year-old was speaking truth to power. What specifically delighted her followers was the fact that she was using Trump’s own words against him. Almost one year ago, in December 2019, Thunberg made history by becoming Time’s youngest-ever Person of the Year for her international campaign to raise awareness about climate change. Far from congratulating her, Trump mocked her online, tweeting a message that ended with “Chill, Greta, Chill!”
So ridiculous. Greta must work on her Anger Management problem, then go to a good old fashioned movie with a friend! Chill Greta, Chill! https://t.co/M8ZtS8okzE
Rather than rise to the bait, Thunberg bided her time and dropped her clapback when it would have maximum impact. According to Nathan Grossman, director of the new documentary, I Am Greta, that social media strategy is classic Greta.
“It was just a matter of time until she was going to strike back,” he tells Yahoo Entertainment, with a knowing laugh. “She’s much more chill than Trump is. And it shows her humorous side, which is something you see in the film. We’ve seen her be very stoic in interviews, but she’s also very ironic and funny, which explains how she’s been able to gain lots of followers with comments like that.”
Grossman has spent enough time in Thunberg’s company to recognize her multifaceted personality. He started filming her in 2018 — well before she became the global face of the environmental activism — and kept the cameras rolling through her triumphant appearance at the UN Climate Action Summit in September 2019. In order to attend that event, Thunberg famously crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Europe to New York City on a small sailing yacht rather than fly the friendly skies in a fuel-guzzling airplane.
Footage from the voyage is included in I Am Greta, which debuts on Hulu on Nov. 13 after premiering at the Venice and Toronto film festivals earlier this year, and captures the normally stoic Thunberg in uncharacteristically vulnerable moments. “I miss home,” she says tearfully at one point. “I miss having a regular life, with routines. It is such a responsibility; I don’t want to have to do all this. It’s too much for me.”
Scenes like that one are a potent reminder to viewers that, for all her determination and devotion to her cause, Thunberg is still a young person navigating her own personal problems at the same time that she’s attempting to solve a global problem. (As she’s disclosed in the past, Thunberg was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder and selective mutism when she was 11 years old.) That, in turn, makes it all the unfortunate that there are so many voices who seem invested in tearing her down. Besides Trump, Thunberg has been the frequent target of conservative critics like Dinesh D’Souza and Michael Knowles, who called her “mentally ill” in a 2019 Fox News interview. (The network later apologized for Knowles’s comments.)
Even after spending two years telling Thunberg’s story, Grossman remains astonished by the amount of vitriol she receives on a regular basis. “I’m surprised by the extreme hatred she’s getting, because a lot of the things she’s mentioning aren’t new,” he says. “These facts have been reported by the United Nations and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But Greta had this ability to point out that they were going to affect the future of her life and the lives of many young people, and I think the climate change-denying part of the world started to attack her because they didn’t want to discuss those facts. It’s like smoke and mirrors in a sense.”
Grossman also sees Thunberg’s youth as being one of the triggers for her critics, in much the same way that Parkland shooting survivors David Hogg and Emma González became targets in the right wing mediasphere after they spoke out in favor of gun control. Similarly, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is frequently on the receiving end of attacks by politicians and commentators who seem unnerved by her popularity among younger, more progressive voters.
“If you’re a young person who doesn’t even have voting rights or economic power, you need to scream louder and protest louder because it’s your future at stake,” he explains. “And when it comes to climate change in particular, the younger you are the more you’re going to feel its effects. Older people tend to be the ones attacking Greta, and they want to shove this issue into the future because it’s not something that will affect them. But I think that gives young people and their worries even more legitimacy — they’re the ones who have to live in that future. And they’ve never asked to be the generation that has to solve this.”
According to Grossman, Thunberg is well aware of the hatred her outspoken activism has engendered among adults, who then act like children when they write about her on the Internet. Far from backing down, though, she continues to raise her voice and discuss the issue of climate change in unequivocal terms. During her address to the UN, she memorably accused a roomful of diplomats and politicians of stealing “my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” repeatedly exclaiming, “How dare you!”
“Young people have grown up with the Internet and social media, so they understand that crazy hate accounts are, sadly, a part of the digital landscape,” he explains. “When the movie premiered at the Venice Film Festival, 500 people saw it in the theaters, but thousands of people were logging onto IMDb saying they’d seen it and that it was a piece of s***. It says a lot about the digital world, and that we shouldn’t give too much attention to that. Greta and many young people understand that better than older people, who still think that everything on the internet is real.”
At the same time, someone who screams so loudly for so long risks losing their voice. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Ocasio-Cortez expressed uncertainty about her political future, in part due to the hostile treatment she experienced during her first term. “I’m serious when I tell people the odds of me running for higher office and the odds of me just going off trying to start a homestead somewhere — they’re probably the same,” she said. And there are definitely moments in I Am Greta — like Thunberg’s confession that the climate fight is “too much for her” — that makes viewers wonder how long she’ll continue to lead the movement she helped start.
Asked whether he thinks Thunberg might step back from the spotlight, Grossman admits that “other things” like school will likely come to occupy her attention in the near term. “But I think we will continue to hear her voice on this topic,” he stresses. “When I was following her, I didn’t know if she was going to practice what she preached, but it’s been so fun to see how, over and over again, she’s fixated on wanting to stand for something and do it.”
One thing she likely won’t do is have a face-to-face encounter with Trump before or after he leaves office. “Greta has said before that she doesn’t think Trump would listen to her, so I’m not sure she would spend the time trying to convince him,” Grossman says, adding that despite her endorsement of Biden in the presidential election, Thunberg generally eschews political party affiliation, seeing a dispiriting lack of will to confront climate change on both sides of the aisle. “Biden has a more [progressive] agenda on climate change than Donald Trump has — it’s hard not to,” he notes. “But we need to be very mindful and monitor how the political world addresses climate change in the coming year, because we need to treat it as a crisis. We need to make sure our newly elected officials do that.”
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