There was no way this year’s Golden Globes could have gone off as usual. With the entertainment industry belching up sex criminals nearly every day for the past three months, there was enormous pressure on the women of Hollywood to inject meaning and purpose into the awards-season kickoff. For one night, with everyone watching, they hoped to make the gendered subtext of Hollywood—beautiful young women, monied old men, sexual coercion, casting couches, pay gaps, a white man behind every script and camera—boldfaced text.
To some extent, they succeeded. From host Seth Meyers’ opening line (“Good evening, ladies and remaining gentlemen”) to a rousing late-night speech from Oprah that nodded to blue-collar survivors of sexual abuse, the evening was threaded through with the theme of gender equity. Almost every woman who won an award found a way to connect her project with the current movement against sexual harassment—an easy task, considering that most of the big winners (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, The Handmaid’s Tale, Big Little Lies, Lady Bird, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) tackled gender politics head-on. Some of the attempts at topicality felt forced—see: Salma Hayek trying to get the audience to yell “Time’s Up” in unison and presenter Geena Davis joking that all the Best Actor in a Motion Picture nominees should give half their salaries to the women in their films—but it was satisfying to imagine the men in the audience feeling uncomfortable for a night. Even with a male host, for the first time, it felt like women were controlling the somewhat muddled narrative.
The big protest action of the evening, however, was a total bust. Time’s Up, the recently convened coalition of women in the industry committed to fighting sexual harassment, had asked all women to wear black to the event. With the notable exception of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association president and a couple scattered no-namers, they all did. And so what? The action might have had some real impact if it actually affected the audience’s viewing experience or asked some small sacrifice of the participants. Imagine if the men had to wear green to show solidarity, instead of just swapping out their white shirts for black, or worn bags over their heads for the entire night. Or what if the women had worn matching T-shirts instead of gorgeous gowns? What if every woman brought another woman, instead of a man, as her plus-one? What if the women refused to get onstage, or ceded their speeches to lesser-known survivors of abuse, or didn’t show up at all? Industry leaders and viewers would have been forced to take notice and reckon with the power of hundreds of organized women. Instead, the show proceeded smoothly, with the unremarkable omission of most of the color spectrum.
The blackout looked particularly silly on the red carpet, which is only capable of supporting an entire subindustry of fashion designers and critics, not the seedlings of social movements. The typical chatter of the E! red-carpet correspondents usually sounds benign, if inane; on Sunday, with #MeToo looming over every interaction, it seemed unconscionably brain-dead. Wearing black “is a big statement, but a positive one, don’t you think?” one host asked her counterpart, without specifying what the “statement” might be. (Sexual assault is bad?) Later, they asked viewers to tweet the hashtags #ratherspank or #rathermakeout to indicate whether they’d rather be Jennifer Aniston spanking Kate Hudson or Amy Poehler making out with Bono—a rather strange choice of game considering the major topic of the day. To kill time, the network did a whole series of flashbacks about celebrities who’d previously showed up in black dresses—“Nicole Kidman has worn black at least twice!”—effectively divorcing the meager attempt at protest from its purpose. One deeply weird segment had each host pick a random dress they’d like to see a celebrity wear, then change the color of the dress to black and photoshop it onto the actress’s body. Another bit showed how to make black dresses “stand out” by choosing the right accessories. To E!, the protest was nothing more than a gimmick, a fun demonstration of how limitations can breed creativity. Despite Eva Longoria’s insistence that “This is a moment of solidarity, not a fashion moment … this time the industry can’t expect us to go up and twirl around,” celebrity media focused on the clothes and barely uttered a peep about Hollywood’s culture of sexual exploitation. What else did Time’s Up expect when it centered its protest on the clothes women wear?
A few A-listers did make admirable efforts to cede some of the spotlight to activists with deeper ties to movements for workplace and gender equity. Meryl Streep brought Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers’ Alliance as her date, Poehler brought Saru Jayaraman of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, and Michelle Williams brought Tarana Burke, who started the #MeToo movement a decade ago. These activists didn’t get the platform of the awards show itself, but they were able to say a few words to some red-carpet reporters. Other actresses used their red-carpet interviews to remind viewers of creative contributions lost to sexual abuse and the people who covered it up: Eva Longoria called out Asia Argento, and Natalie Portman mentioned Mira Sorvino, Annabella Sciorra, and Ashley Judd, all women who’ve said their careers suffered or stopped short after Harvey Weinstein harassed or assaulted them.
The night’s theme also emboldened celebrities to confront their interlocutors with some extra cheek. Debra Messing, bless her, told E! reporter Giuliana Rancic that she was “so shocked to hear that E! doesn’t believe in paying their female co-hosts the same as their male co-hosts,” invoking Catt Sadler, who recently quit the network after 12 years when she learned that her male co-host was making double her salary. Natalie Portman implicated her own peers when she inserted the term “all-male” in her introduction of the Best Director nominees. When Al Roker called Mariah Carey “young lady” and asked her if she ever got tired of winning awards, she noted with an accusatory lilt that she had never before been nominated for a songwriting Golden Globe. “Many times men forget that women also write songs, so tonight we’re here in celebration of that as well,” she said.
These were the few charged moments at an event historically run on decorum, consistency, and platitudes, in an industry ill-equipped to be the leader of any even negligibly controversial movement. By those standards, Time’s Up exceeded most reasonable expectations. If all Time’s Up does is raise a few dozen millions for legal defense funds and encourage famous women to sass red-carpet reporters about sexism, it will have done good. But any lasting change will require the participation of men—who, as my colleague Willa Paskin noted, barely addressed #MeToo at all on Sunday—and the capacity to sustain their momentum after the black dresses go back in the closet and the memory of Weinstein, God willing, fades. A movement that kicks off with wardrobe coordination risks mutating into a meaningless trend. Word has it designer Prabal Gurung already plans to put “Time’s Up” on his $195 T-shirts.