The new year started on Monday with a major announcement from several Hollywood A-listers. Full-page ads in the New York Times and the Spanish-language newspaper La Opinión heralded the creation of Time’s Up, the entertainment industry’s women-led response to the wave of sexual misconduct accusations that dominated the news in the last months of 2017.
Some of the big names attached to the initiative, including Ashley Judd, Reese Witherspoon, and America Ferrera, are actresses who’ve recently recounted their own experiences with sexual harassment and assault. Some, such as Shonda Rhimes, Eva Longoria, and Rashida Jones, have long been vocal advocates for gender and racial equity in Hollywood. Time’s Up is the first attempt in the industry to channel the know-how, connections, and social capital of all these women—300 female producers, directors, actresses, agents, writers, lawyers, and executives—into a focused effort for substantive change.
In that sense, the initiative’s birth is a remarkable feat in and of itself. Getting 300 people on board with a public statement and agenda would be a heavy lift for any nascent organization, let alone one populated by people with their own respective assistants, publicists, managers, and packed travel schedules. The fact that these women have been organizing at weekly meetings and all-day workshops since October, and appear to be gaining momentum toward some of their objectives, is a promising sign for the group’s capacity to turn hopeful words into action. The industry has never before seen a structure of such breadth and scale for the explicit purpose of gender-based power-building. There’s no telling what the members may be capable of once they pool their resources and influence together, the way men in the industry already do through the “old boys’ club” model.
The main pillars of Time’s Up’s agenda are designed to attack the longstanding epidemic of sexual harassment from several sides. There’s a legal defense fund that currently sits at $13 million, earmarked to support women in blue-collar jobs who want to report instances of sexual misconduct. The group intends to lobby for legislation that would crack down on companies that enable serial harassers and use nondisclosure agreements to prevent victims from telling others about their abuse. One of Time’s Up many working groups is an initiative called 50/50by2020, which is pushing entertainment companies to pledge to make their leadership teams half women in the next two years. The vision advanced by these goals is one of bold institutional reform: a multi-industry shift toward women in decision-making positions, legal accountability for wrongdoers, and fewer ways for business leaders to shirk the mandate to maintain a safe workplace.
But there is good reason to doubt that Time’s Up will meet its ambitious targets. One of the group’s first coordinated acts was to encourage women to wear all black on the red carpet at the Golden Globes on Sunday, ostensibly to raise awareness about sexual harassment. If this is what Time’s Up counts as activism, the initiative is doomed. The gender politics of the statement are askew: Since almost all men already wear black tuxes to the event, Time’s Up is asking action only of women. And if any women don’t get the memo or decide that their dress color is a counterproductive means of protest, those women will almost certainly focus of the next day's media coverage, instead of the men who have made Hollywood a living hell.
The women who do wear black will earn applause for doing literally nothing to combat sexual harassment and abuse. “This is a moment of solidarity, not a fashion moment,” Eva Longoria told the New York Times of the black-out. “For years, we’ve sold these awards shows as women, with our gowns and colors and our beautiful faces and our glamour. This time the industry can’t expect us to go up and twirl around.” If the moment is not about fashion and twirling in pretty dresses, why did Time’s Up confine its first public protest to the color of the gowns on women’s bodies?
Sexual harassment in Hollywood is no long a problem of awareness. Dogged reporters and cultural critics have raised more awareness about the topic in recent months than a carpet full of black dresses could ever manage to do. Now that everyone is aware of the problem, it will take money and expertise to solve it. The celebrities who’ve signed their names to the cause have the former, and there are dozens of established gender-justice organizations that have the latter. Time’s Up knows this: Its multimillion-dollar legal defense fund will be managed by the Legal Network for Gender Equity, a nationwide network of lawyers organized by the National Women’s Law Center to help match victims of sex discrimination with attorneys who can take their cases.
To live up to its mission, Time’s Up will have to prove that it is somehow uniquely able to fight sex discrimination and abuse, that it has something to add to the generations of expertise amassed by the nonfamous activists and unglamorous organizations who have committed themselves to this work. It makes sense to enlist boldfaced names to fight harassment in the industry that employs them, but there’s nothing to suggest that the group will succeed where others have failed at, say, legislative reform. Movements for gender equity need many things; “money” is probably at the top of that list, with “more working groups” near the bottom. So far, the biggest impact Time’s Up has made is undoubtedly its $13 million contribution to the legal defense fund, raised in part through donations from Rhimes, Witherspoon, Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg, and Kate Capshaw. When one organization’s smartest move is giving another group its money, it might be better off as a fundraising apparatus.
That $13 million also includes gifts from ICM Partners, the Creative Artists Agency, William Morris Endeavor, and United Talent Agency—for-profit companies that are capitalizing on this moment to earn goodwill in the industry. Some are in desperate need of such a reputation cleanse. Several allegations that have surfaced against Weinstein and other Hollywood power players have implicated agencies that set up meetings between unsuspecting young actresses and known abusers. Judd told her agent at William Morris about Weinstein’s harassment in the ‘90s. Witherspoon said that after she was assaulted by a director at the age of 16, “agents…made me feel that silence was a condition of my employment.” At Creative Artists Agency, the Times reported last month, at least eight agents knew about Weinstein, mostly because actresses they represented endured his abuse. The agency allegedly took no action to protect their clients and continued sending women his way, with no warning, for private encounters. (CAA issued a statement after the report that said, in part, "we apologize to any person the agency let down.") These agencies were integral to Weinstein’s ecosystem of victimization, because he knew they’d prioritize money over the safety of the young women on their rosters. They deserve accountability. Instead, thanks to Time’s Up, they get to be allies.