By Jacqueline Atkinson
The 75th Golden Globes awards ceremony kicked off the Hollywood award season on January 7. To many of us, such a momentous day in Hollywood means nothing more than a blatant display of egocentric celebrity excess and elitism. This year, however, this ostentatious event was overshadowed by an empowering expression of women’s solidarity against workplace sexual harassment and abuse through a movement cleverly named “Time’s Up.”
The message of the movement? Appropriately, that “time’s up” on sexual harassment and abuse in all workplaces, including the entertainment film industry.
Many Globes attendees dressed in black – designer, of course – to protest of workplace sexual abuse. They came adorned with “Time’s Up” pins to show support for a movement that boasts a nearly $17 million legal defence fund for survivors of workplace harassment and abuse who may otherwise be unable to access legal assistance.
Though the movement has been percolating since late December, the Globes represented Hollywood’s first high-profile engagement with the movement.
Of course this is not the first time the Hollywood awards circuit has claimed a political agenda. Just last year following the election of Donald Trump, many celebrities donned ACLU pins at the Academy Awards ceremony in protest of Trump’s xenophobic travel ban targeting several Muslim-majority countries.
For many Hollywood women, the Time’s Up movement is not just a political agenda but also a deeply personal one.
Following a groundbreaking New York Times article published this past fall, many female celebrities revealed their personal experiences with sexual harassment and assault in the industry. The article described the devastating experiences of sexual harassment and assault that many female film entertainment workers suffered at the hands of now-disgraced producer and Hollywood mogul, Harvey Weinstein.
The article was promptly followed by actress and self-proclaimed activist Alyssa Milano’s social media popularization of Tarana Burke’s “Me Too” movement. Burke, the senior director of Girls for Gender Equity, first used the “Me Too” phrase as part of a grassroots campaign in 2006. She initiated the movement as an effort to support underprivileged women and girls of colour who have survived sexual harassment and assault, but who face difficulty accessing rape crisis centres and sexual assault support workers.
Milano quickly adapted aspects of the movement, namely that of solidarity amongst sexual abuse survivors, into the social media hashtag #MeToo. Many high profile female celebrities took the opportunity to tweet #MeToo, thus highlighting the depth of sexual abuse in the entertainment industry and furthermore, the effect the abuse has had on their personal lives.
While warmly welcomed by many, Milano’s popularization of the #MeToo movement has diverted it from Burke’s original vision. Burke did not intend to use the movement as a way to publically identify women as survivors of sexual harassment and abuse. Rather, Burke intended the movement to be used for the creation and cultivation of local programmes and resources for girls and women of colour to access when they have experienced sexual abuse. Burke initially felt anxious about Milano’s popularization of the movement because social media would not be a safe space for women to discuss and support each other in their experiences of sexual abuse.
It is difficult to argue #MeToo has truly created a safe space for women to discuss their experiences on social media, especially as women continue to be sexually harassed on these platforms. But it has nonetheless realized part of Burke’s intention in creating solidarity among women as survivors of sexual harassment and abuse. This solidarity among women is also a critical goal of the Time’s Up movement.
Many women, including those marginalized by structures of race and class, have been supportive of Hollywood women as they come forward with their stories of sexual violence in the workplace. In fact this solidarity produced the Time’s Up movement in the first place.
In November, the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas published an open letter standing in solidarity with the many women of Hollywood who spoke out against the workplace culture of sexual harassment and assault. Alianza, which represents over 700,000 Latina farmworkers in the U.S., documented its own members’ experiences of rampant sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace.
In response, on Jan. 1, 2017 a group of over 300 female actresses published an open letter thanking the the workers and proclaiming “We stand with you. We support you.” The letter announced the creation of a legal fund “to help survivors of sexual assault and harassment across all industries.”
The fund was created by attorneys Tina Tchen and Roberta Kaplan, who had identified a need for legal expertise in women’s efforts to challenge and name sexual abuse in the workplace. The attorneys were especially moved to act after several women in the entertainment industry, in particular Melanie Kohler who Kaplan is currently representing, receiving defamation lawsuits for naming their abusers.
Though named the Time’s Up Legal Defence Fund the fund will be independently administered by the National Women’s Law Center. This decision to operate by staff independent from the Time’s Up movement seems in line with the leaderless movement’s mission statement to operate as a “central hub supporting a wide range of initiatives aimed at promoting equality and safety in the workplace.”
Celebrity involvement in the defence fund has been strictly about supporting and promoting rather than initiating or facilitating. Several Hollywood actresses, including Time’s Up founding members Reese Witherspoon, Shonda Rhimes and Rashida Jones, took to social media to promote the movement and encourage donations to a GoFundMe established for the legal defence fund. Some actresses even invited women activists to attend the ceremony in solidarity with them, including Tarana Burke, who accompanied Michelle Williams.
Some argue this gesture, which resulted in only eight activist guests attending, was tokenistic since many Hollywood women know very little of the activists’ work. That said, Williams and Burke have stated that the gesture, like the movement itself, was truly about expressing the power of women supporting each other while bringing awareness to the incredible work these activists are doing.
Some of these participating Hollywood actresses have also been very active in the work of their activist guests. For example, Shailene Woodley attended the ceremony with Calina Lawrence, an Indigenous activist working with the Mni Wiconi (Water is Life) movement. Woodley met Lawrence while participating in the Dakota Access Pipeline protests.
Hollywood red carpet reporters were obviously uncomfortable with the change in focus from materiality to social justice, as evident from their ignorant questions and awkward commentaries. The change did, however, offer greater exposure for several activists who were able to speak about their work in their communities and bring more attention to the ongoing sexual harassment and assault that plagues all workplaces, not just Hollywood.
It was not just women, however, that participated in the Time’s Up display. Several male actors decorated themselves with Time’s Up pins and even swapped their usual white shirt tuxedo for a black shirt tuxedo.
When it came to speaking about the movement and the efforts of women in the industry to rise up against despicable behaviour, however, these same men had little to say. It is thus difficult to believe these actions represented any genuine commitment to changing Hollywood’s culture of sexual misconduct and abuse, particularly as more reports of male actors’ deplorable workplace behaviour begin to materialize. These include allegations of sexual harassment and assault against James Franco and Aziz Ansari, both winners at this year’s Globes and displayers of Time’s Up pins at the event.
Even for the actresses whose support for the movement is far more believable, a sea of black on the red carpet and a trending hashtag seems questionable at best as activism. Activism requires more than wearing fancy black dresses and tweeting #TimesUp. Truly working for social change requires showing up and doing the hard work many of the attending activists have devoted their lives to.
All this considered, can it really be said that the Time’s Up demonstrations at this year’s Golden Globes were anything other a lavish publicity stunt?
It is difficult to answer this question definitively, as only time will tell. It is safe to say, though, that the women of Hollywood have had enough with the gendered mistreatment and abuse they have had to endure for far too long. After all, while many of these women may be dripping in money and influence, they are still women and like many of us still suffer under patriarchy.
Time’s up on sexual misconduct and abuse by powerful men in Hollywood. We can only hope the women and men of Hollywood honour their commitment to ensure time’s up on the gendered violence in all workplaces, not just their own.
This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 10, No. 4 (Jan/Feb 2018).