Hollywood turns #MeToo into a celebration of its own response to #MeToo

As last week’s Screen Actors Guild Awards ceremony approached, the show’s organizers announced that it 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 inaugural 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, Ariz.), 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 favor of one about what an amazing job it is doing combatting 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-defense fund for working women is commendable. (Hundreds of industry women have signed on to 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 organizers 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 colors 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 recognizing 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 around, E hosts had come upon a blandly marketable term for this activism-themed display: “girl power.”

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, criticizing the industry is verboten, but using one’s platform to advocate for other people is so expected that it’s a cliche. (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.”

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 show 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 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 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 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.

Amanda Hess is a New York Times writer.