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little black dresses won’t change the world, but the solidarity of the women wearing them will

Hollywood loves a Good Cause, but with the #MeToo movement uniting the most visible women in the world, their new #TimesUp campaign surpasses mere PR stunts to focus on the real roots of inequality.

by Sophie Wilkinson
|
10 January 2018, 2:03am

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We learned our lesson in 2017. It was never going to be the dream 12 months we longed for after the horrors of 2016 (including, but not limited to: Trump’s win, Brexit, the zika virus, Bowie, Harambe), but merely a fresh new year of fresh new bullshit. So, in 2018, we’re too vigilant to proclaim all our problems solved on week two. We also know that pinning our hopes on Hollywood stars is a Bad Idea. But hear us out -- the black dresses worn by women actors at the Golden Globes on Sunday meant something, and it’s important.

The historic Women’s March a year ago was a galvanising moment, but all feminists know that the road to gender equality is long -- and possibly grew even longer with the election of a self-confessed pussy-grabber to the Presidency. The work of a feminist is long and hard, but occasionally we witness a watershed moment. When the sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein ignited activist Tarana Burke’s decade old #MeToo campaign, spreading it far and wide on social media and mainstream news platforms, it was clear that a real shift was taking place.

Now, we know Hollywood loves a Good Cause. Its stars even occasionally unite around a single issue, like the script writers’ strikes. But #TimesUp, a new campaign calling time on “sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace” feels different. Moving beyond the usual PR-friendly platitudes, the campaign highlights the root causes of gender-based inequality and violence, across all industries, not just those in the spotlight. Publishing an open letter in both the New York Times and the Spanish-language LA newspaper La Opinión, a Who’s Who of the most powerful women in film co-signed a call for more diversity in industry power centres and for the media to listen to women working in “less glamorised and valorised trades” than the Hollywood film industry.

"When the sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein ignited activist Tarana Burke’s decade old #MeToo campaign, spreading it far and wide on social media and mainstream news platforms, it was clear that a real shift was taking place."

Addressed to their “Dear sisters”, the #TimesUp letter signatories not only called for change, but began to make it happen with the launch of a Direct Impact Fund that will benefit women from all walks of life, by funding legal representation. Reese Witherspoon, Shonda Rhimes, Jennifer Aniston and Meryl Streep each donated $500,000 to the online crowdfunder, Oprah and Taylor Swift contributed $100,000 respectively and other amounts come from Keira Knightley, Rashida Jones, Jessica Chastain, America Ferrera, Courtney Love, Uzo Aduba, Anne Hathaway, Natalie Portman, Kendall Jenner, Cate Blanchett, Ashley Judd, and many more. The legal fund is $1 million over its initial target of $16 million, and will surely continue to grow.

Alongside the high-profile open letter and much-needed legal fund, the #TimesUp campaigners also asked film stars to wear black to the Golden Globes, to amplify the message, and not one woman on stage wore anything but black. But what good, many have asked, is wearing a certain colour of dress -- especially dour, mournful black? Well, for one, it goes with everything (a joke!) -- though when more people have probably seen the best women actors’ outfits than the films they starred in, the impact of their appearance shouldn’t be underestimated.

Visibility and solidarity are key to the success of any movement. And while a designer dress is unlikely to be politically radical in and of itself, looking at a room full of women who are literally wearing their solidarity on their bodies surely creates an environment where stronger statements can be more confidently made. Like when Natalie Portman introduced the “all male nominees” of the Best Director category -- knowing that the camera would cut to each of the five men nominated for best director (ahead of, for example, Lady Bird’s Greta Gerwig), so all their awkward reactions to their arbitrary elevation over their female cohort could be noted. Or when Debra Messing called E! out on its gender pay gap, in a live TV interview with E!. Oprah’s speech -- delivered in a far more statesperson-like way than anything the actual ‘leader of the free world’ ever uttered -- has already had a similarly galvanising effect.

As well as wearing black, eight of Hollywood’s most visible women brought a women’s rights activist as their guest. From the UK, Emma Watson gave Marai Larasi, the leader of UK black feminist organisation Imkaan, the space to say: “There is a wall of silence against women and girls and every time somebody speaks out, it just creates a bit of a crack in that wall.” A painfully neat illustration of the work still to be done came when Tarana Burke -- who attended the awards with Michelle Williams -- was very literally sidelined by E!’s red carpet coverage. As Tarana explained that #MeToo is something she “started out of necessity”, her face was minimised to a small corner of the screen so that a shot of Dakota Johnson posing for the cameras could take centre stage. “People… would most like to have us pitted against each other,” Tarana continued, unaware, at that moment, of what she was narrating.

"As feminist stripes become a yardstick by which to measure a woman’s worth, it is important that while considering the value of Hollywood women wearing black, we also assess the actions (or rather, relative inaction) of Hollywood men."

It’s easy to call out red carpet activism, especially when it promises to make a feminist statement. Fiji water’s pledge to donate $1000 to a female directors’ fund every time someone famous was photographed with their product, for example, fell wide of the mark. And it’s certainly easy to take women down for their outfit choices, as the insidious, gleeful lists of ‘hits and misses’ prove. But, while a sea of black dresses won’t solve the issue, as Reese Witherspoon explained to the New York Times: “A show of solidarity at an awards show is one very small piece”. These dresses (and suits), worn by the most gazed-upon women in the world, have kept the issue of gender inequality in the headlines, and not only that -- they also promoted a substantial legal fund that will benefit less visible women, who are so often forgotten.

As feminist stripes become a yardstick by which to measure a woman’s worth (as if the narrow parameters of acceptability that women -- famous or not -- must exist within, weren’t stifling enough), it is important that while considering the value of Hollywood women wearing black, we also assess the actions (or rather, relative inaction) of Hollywood men. Though many did indeed wear black to the Globes, that, frankly, is what they always wear to a black-tie event. It’s like asking them to bleach their teeth, drive Priuses or drink kombucha. Perhaps they didn’t want to barge in on a women-led movement, but it’s hard to give the benefit of the doubt to a group who, from the off, saw just three of its members donate to the #TimesUp legal fund.

When the campaign insists that “time’s up on silence”, it doesn’t just mean the silence that washed over terrible men’s open secrets, but also on the terrible silence of their male colleagues -- a complicity that only bolsters the boy’s club status quo. Let us not congratulate Justin Timberlake for wearing a #TimesUp pin badge just one year on from starring in a Woody Allen movie. Rather, let’s ask how, for example, James Franco, Gary Oldman and Christian Slater -- each with germane incidents in their own pasts -- are showing their full commitment to the campaign? If women who’ve long seen their appearance leveraged -- to the benefit of the industry and it’s male power players -- now want to use that same asset to draw attention to a gender inequality and workplace abuse, while amplifying the voices of activists and benefiting more marginalised women, then who exactly, other than the bad guys, is it hurting?

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

Tagged:
Culture
Film
Hollywood
activism
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#metoo
#timesup