Is it possible for Hollywood to fix harassment problem while busy celebrating itself?
Each week allegations of sexual exploitation grow as the industry converts them to branding exercises
Hollywood’s film industry has skirted a conversation about its culture of harassment in favour of one about what an amazing job it is doing combating that harassment. Image: Taylor Callery/The New York Times
As last Sunday’s Screen Actors Guild Awards approached, the show’s organisers announced that the ceremony would be different this time around, for obvious reasons.
In a year in which “stereotypes have been shattered and precedents have been broken,” the awards show’s executive producer pledged to “capture the cultural mood by casting aside one of our own traditions.” With allegations of Hollywood sexual abuse piling up, the SAG Awards — the highest-profile industry summit explicitly tied to a union — decided to introduce ... the show’s first-ever host, Kristen Bell!
Is it possible for Hollywood to truly reckon with its issues while it’s so busy celebrating itself? It’s remarkable how slickly the entertainment industry — and its annual showcase, the winter awards show circuit — has adapted to the accusations against it.
Harvey Weinstein may have been cast out of Hollywood (exiled, for now, to a spa in Scottsdale, Arizona), but his complicity machine stretched its tentacles into agencies, law firms, fashion deals and, of course, awards shows. New allegations of exploitations and inequities are revealed every week. The details suggest systemic rot.
In response, Hollywood has nimbly absorbed its critiques and converted them into inspirational messaging and digestible branding exercises, just in time for the unfurling of the red carpets. Whatever talks may (or may not) be happening inside agencies or on film sets, the message that comes across is this: The industry has skirted a conversation about its culture of harassment in favour of one about what an amazing job it is doing combating that harassment. It’s engaged in just enough introspection to recalibrate and move on.
To pull it off, it’s leaning hardest on the very women it has exploited. The women behind the Time’s Up campaign — some of whom are assault survivors themselves — are undoubtedly sincere in their efforts, and their fundraising for a legal-defence fund for working women is commendable. (Hundreds of industry women have signed onto the effort, including producer Shonda Rhimes, writer-director Jill Soloway and actresses Natalie Portman, Tessa Thompson, Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon.)
But when an earnest effort is fed through the Hollywood machine, it is quickly repurposed for what Hollywood does best, which is to sell things — women included. The initiative has revealed as much about Hollywood’s still unexamined sexism as it has the abuses it intended to address. In short, that women are expected to clean up the industry’s mess, and look good doing it. And they don’t have much choice, either, because if they say nothing, they’ll be knocked for that, too.
Time’s Up organisers staged the campaign’s coming out party on the Golden Globes red carpet with an eye toward subverting the often sexist display. “This is a moment of solidarity, not a fashion moment,” Eva Longoria told The New York Times in unpacking the plan to make a unifying visual statement in all-black attire. “For years, we’ve sold these awards shows as women, with our gowns and colours and our beautiful faces and our glamour,” she added. “This time the industry can’t expect us to go up and twirl around.”
The industry had different plans. Hosts installed on red-carpet pre-shows assured viewers that they would still have “fun” while recognising the “moment.” E! ran a fashion segment that converted runway trends — bird decals, princess silhouettes — into all-black to see how they’d look when repurposed for anti-assault branding. As it turned out, the look mapped easily onto the celebrity body, often with skintight dresses, and E! happily fed actresses into its “Glambot” (the network’s photographic gimmick “presented by VW”) to capture them in vaguely pornographic slow-motion. By the time the SAG Awards rolled round, E! hosts had come upon a blandly marketable term for this activism-themed display: “girl power.”
The fashion industry has been eager to integrate its brands into the “not-fashion moment,” too. On Instagram before the Golden Globes, Laura Dern, one of the evening’s nominees, lifted a bedazzled wrist to the camera, with the caption: “Thanks @bulgariofficial for this amazing watch. Reminds me that Time’s Up.” The post satisfied several imperatives at once: It promoted her appearance at the show, endorsed a luxury brand and protested rape. Viewers at home could show their support by buying their own Time’s Up products, offered at various price points — from a $12 tote bag to a $380 designer sweater.
In this commodified atmosphere, it was difficult to process the appearance of other activists on the red carpet: The #MeToo founder, Tarana Burke, came as Michelle Williams’ date, while Meryl Streep brought along Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance.
The tactic bucked expectation — namely, that actresses tie their public personas to their relationships with men — and gave these pioneering activists exposure that’s hard to come by, but it also revealed the impossibility of dismantling an event bent on promoting a certain kind of femininity and luxury at once.
The image of white actresses paired with activists of colour suggested a kind of moral accessorising. And the meeting of celebrities and “regular” people came tinged with a preset narrative, one where the celebrity’s perceived exceptionalism is only enhanced by her engagement with the real world.
But when Ryan Seacrest interviewed Williams and Burke on the red carpet, E! made it clear which it valued most — women’s appearance, or what they have to say. The network shrank Burke’s image into a corner as soon as she began speaking and turned its gaze to actress Dakota Johnson. She twirled.
On social media, the transactional nature of celebrity activism is sharpened. Portman joined Instagram on New Year’s Day to promote Time’s Up, submitting herself to the expectations of modern-celebrity ultra-accessibility for the cause.
She followed a few dozen users: fellow activist-actresses, her husband and a suite of Dior accounts. By elevating Dior to that echelon, Portman ensured a space for the brand’s commentary just under a Time’s Up post: “Dearest Natalie, we are proud to have had the opportunity to partner with you to show our support for the #TimesUp Legal Defense Fund by making your dress.”
Nicole Kidman also joined Instagram in the midst of the campaign — the platform itself announced her debut in a news release — and her first photograph promoted her Golden Globes win, #TimesUp and Instagram itself, all at the same time.
Watching this sparkling protest unfold, it’s easy to forget what exactly is being protested. The ugliness of rape and abuse is polished into optimistic hashtags and spun into glamorous dresses. In glad-handing Hollywood, criticising the industry is verboten, but using one’s platform to advocate for other people is so expected it’s a cliché. (Weinstein himself was a master of linking his films to social causes, cynically pitching the award show ballot as a kind of morality test.)
In focusing the messaging of Time’s Up outward — as a campaign to end sexual harassment in all workplaces — actresses have stepped into a quite traditional role, actually, of the celebrity who is both superficially appealing and actually deep, an icon of beauty and virtue.
The campaign’s goal to extend protections to working-class women is admirable. But it’s canny, too: Turning the focus away from Hollywood makes Hollywood a lot more comfortable with the inquiry. It leaves an opening for the industry’s response to the reckoning to also be a dodge. The most electrifying moments of this protest have come when Hollywood women choose instead to model what it looks like to interrogate their own industry’s destructive norms: When Debra Messing broke red carpet geniality to speak out against E!’s underpayment of women, straight into an E! microphone, or when Portman presented the Golden Globes’ best director nominees as “all-male.”
We often speak of a celebrity’s influence in terms of “exposure,” but exposure can also be destructive, especially for women. In addition to installing a host, the SAG Awards seeded its show with female presenters, which Kathy Connell, the SAG Awards’ executive producer, called “a unifying salute to women who have been very brave in speaking up.” But when actresses present an award, they also present themselves — their looks, their clothes, their beauty “work,” their diets and ideally, their affability. In this environment, “celebrating women” also means shielding problematic men, who are suddenly afraid to show their faces lest they get smacked for their own bad behavior. On the SAG Awards red carpet, the embattled nominee James Franco slipped past the microphones, leaving his sister-in-law, Alison Brie, to awkwardly answer for him.
It goes without saying that all of this is quite easier for men. Just as they’re not required to uphold the same standards of beauty as their female peers, men are generally excused from carrying the moral weight, too. At the Golden Globes, they got by silently wearing Time’s Up lapel pins. By the SAG Awards, even that small gesture of solidarity had all but vanished. (Kumail Nanjiani and Joseph Fiennes were notable exceptions.) Even men’s financial contributions to the Time’s Up legal defense fund have been overshadowed by women’s. Many male celebrities haven’t even seemed to have done the due diligence of a PR consult. Justin Timberlake captioned his pre-Globes Instagram snap: “Here we come! And DAMN, my wife is hot! #TIMESUP #whywewearblack.” The bar is so low for men that this was, according to Instagram, the most-liked post of the night.
There is something about the rank hypocrisy on display that is actually useful. One way to push Hollywood toward change is to heighten its contradictions, drawing out the gap between its shimmering idea of itself and its darker realities. The image Hollywood builds for itself at these self-congratulatory events can be used as a bargaining chip for behind-the-scenes activist wins.
As the SAG Awards neared, pressure mounted for the guild to protect its workers by installing a real code of conduct to address harassment. And as “All the Money in the World” racked up award nominations, the revelation that Mark Wahlberg earned much more to participate in reshoots than his co-star Williams — reshoots necessary to scrub the film of Kevin Spacey, and make it palatable for post-#MeToo audiences — created such a PR nightmare that Wahlberg ended up donating his $1.5 million salary to Time’s Up.
Even the Time’s Up pin — so easy to wear, so difficult to justify — has proved a quietly brilliant tactic for flushing out men who fail to live up to its symbolism. When James Franco attended the Golden Globes earlier this month, grinned down the red carpet and bounded onstage to claim a statuette for “The Disaster Artist,” he wore the Time’s Up logo pinned to his lapel.
As the night unfolded, female acting students and collaborators began filing complaints on Twitter about Franco’s own behavior, noting the hypocrisy of the pin. When Franco appeared on Seth Meyers’ show days later, he was grilled over the allegations. A Los Angeles Times report came next. Franco skipped the Critic’s Choice Awards, and when he turned up at the SAG Awards last Sunday, his very appearance made news. This time, he didn’t wear the pin. Aziz Ansari, who himself weathered his own hypocrisy scandal after wearing the pin at the Golden Globes, didn’t even show up. All of a sudden, a Hollywood awards show is a perilous place for some men to be.
Still. When I watched Franco get questioned by Meyers, I thought about an incident from a few years ago, when Matt Lauer began a “Today” show interview with Anne Hathaway by interrogating her about a paparazzi upskirt photo taken as she exited a car, capturing her image without underwear.
Hollywood is still a place where women are punished more for doing nothing than men are for doing just about anything. For a woman, getting old is as much of a career-ending affront as an assault allegation is for a man. When Meyers opened his Golden Globes monologue by greeting the “ladies and remaining gentlemen,” I thought of all the women who don’t “remain” in Hollywood, either, pushed out through abuse or just discarded. One of those women — until recently — was Rose McGowan.
McGowan, who made her name starring in 1990s indie films and later the TV show Charmed, spoke out this fall about being assaulted by Weinstein in 1997, during what she was led to believe was a business meeting in his hotel suite. She’s now emerged as the most prominent actress to take aim not just at Hollywood abusers but at Hollywood itself. As Time’s Up organisers walk red carpets, she’s sniping from the sidelines. (McGowan and other accusers of Weinstein were not invited to the campaign’s Golden Globes coming-out party.) On Twitter, she’s called out “fancy people wearing black to honour our rapes.” Of Meryl Streep, she wrote: “YOUR SILENCE is THE problem. You’ll accept a fake award breathlessly & affect no real change.” And after CAA opened its doors to hosting Time’s Up organizing meetings, McGowan accused the agency of sending “many into the Monster’s Lair” itself.
McGowan’s commentary is both a necessary critique of the smooth-edged Time’s Up tactics and a way to differentiate her own activist content. In the coming days she will release a memoir, “Brave,” and an E! documentary series, “Citizen Rose.” The first trailer for “Citizen Rose” aired during E!’s Golden Globes preshow, and again before the SAG Awards, and its opening line — “I was in the middle of my second movie for his company, and I get assaulted” — is itself more real and more damning than anything that’s been said at these Hollywood events.
In the weeks before the show’s debut, McGowan knocked the Time’s Up activists who failed to support it: “Nauseating Hollywood ‘progressives’ celebrities suddenly so concerned with their images as sex harassment fighters but won’t even retweet to support BRAVE or Citizen Rose.” It seems absurd to judge another person’s support of assault survivors on whether or not they tweet about your TV show. But in Hollywood, where product and cause are inextricable, it makes a kind of sense.