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The Golden Globes proved awards shows can be relevant in the era of #MeToo

Oprah Winfrey, Laura Dern, and others made the Globes into an opportunity to call for change.

Oprah Winfrey in the press room at the Golden Globe Awards on January 7, 2018
Oprah Winfrey in the press room at the Golden Globe Awards on January 7, 2018.
Trae Patton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

Even before actresses and actors committed to wearing black to Sunday night’s Golden Globes, it was clear that this year’s show would be a little different from its predecessors.

Hollywood stars often use awards shows to talk about social change, but in 2017, actresses and actors helped kick off a nationwide moment of reckoning when they reported harassment and abuse by producer Harvey Weinstein and other powerful Hollywood men. Since that initial revelation in October, dozens of women and men in the entertainment industry have come forward to report harassment at the hands of mostly male figures who abused their power, causing many to look inward at the industry’s problems. As Oprah Winfrey put it in her acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille Award on Sunday night, “Each of us in this room are celebrated because of the stories that we tell. This year, we became the story.”

Going into Sunday’s telecast, the pressure was high. Would stars merely pay lip service to gender equality in between plugging their latest projects? Or would they meaningfully address the problems plaguing their industry and American society at large? Ultimately, enough winners — most notably Winfrey herself — did the latter, allowing the Golden Globes to set a standard for the awards shows to come in what promises to be a difficult but potentially revelatory year for Hollywood and beyond.

The work of changing the entertainment industry and others won’t happen on an awards-show stage, but in bringing together industry leaders in front of an enormous TV and social-media audience, such a show can give actresses and others a chance to point out problems, offer specific solutions, and galvanize their peers for the work ahead. A show can only do so much, but Winfrey and others showed what it can do.

The show got off to a predictable start, until Laura Dern raised the bar

Sunday night got off to a reasonably promising start. As Vox’s Constance Grady noted, red carpet interviews were more substantive than usual, as actresses got a chance to talk about their decision to wear black, as a protest against harassment and assault. The activists who arrived as guests of several actresses also got a chance to speak (sometimes despite the efforts of interviewers determined to focus on celebs). “We want to say to all the women who are experiencing sexual violence in the workplace, that they are not alone, that we stand with them,” said Monica Ramirez, board director of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, who came with Laura Dern.

The show itself, however, was at first less interesting than the red carpet. Seth Meyers’s opening monologue had some strong moments, including a bit in which he handed off his most biting punchlines to Jessica Chastain and other actresses and actors in the audience. Meyers also gave a welcome shoutout to Hollywood’s less visible workers: “When you’re on a film set you meet hairdressers and camera people and script supervisors,” he said. “Most of the jobs on film sets are jobs for people who work long, hard hours. They are American dream jobs.” It was a worthwhile reminder that the people affected by harassment in Hollywood aren’t all rich and famous.

Early acceptance speeches were less inspiring. Elisabeth Moss, who in the past has shied away from discussing feminism in The Handmaid’s Tale, proclaimed in her acceptance speech for best actress in a TV drama that women “no longer live in the gaps between the stories. We are the story in print.” It was a moving sentiment, but something of a vague one.

Watching the telecast’s first hour, it was easy to conclude that the night was going to feature a lot of glancing references to gender equality and sexual harassment, and not a lot of real calls for Hollywood — or anyone else — to change. Then came Laura Dern.

Dern’s speech was short, but it was specific. She called on her audience to promote restorative justice, an approach that seeks to repair the harm caused by misdeeds like harassment, and that deserves more attention now as workplaces and entire industries struggle to change their norms and help survivors. She also asked the assembled crowd to “protect and employ” survivors who have spoken out about harassment and abuse — far from an empty request at a time when many still fear career repercussions for coming forward.

“Many of us were taught not to tattle. It was a culture of silencing and that was normalized,” Dern said. “May we teach our children that speaking out without the fear of retribution is our culture’s new north star.”

This year in particular, awards shows give stars the opportunity to make demands of their industry in front of a worldwide audience, and Dern used that opportunity to the fullest.

Oprah Winfrey showed what an acceptance speech could be

Dern seemed to kick things into a higher gear, but the evening unquestionably belonged to Oprah Winfrey. Honored with the Cecil B. DeMille Award for a career that has included pathbreaking work in both journalism and entertainment, Winfrey reminded everyone watching that one of her enormous strengths is connecting with and inspiring an audience.

“In my career,” she said on Sunday, “what I’ve always tried my best to do, whether on television or through film, is to say something about how men and women really behave.” Her Golden Globes speech was a commentary on how powerful men have behaved in the past and how others have endured their behavior. It was also an invitation to imagine a world in which that behavior is no longer condoned.

Winfrey’s speech also wove together the intersecting problems of racism and misogyny in a way that media coverage of harassment in Hollywood, much of it focused on white actresses, has sometimes failed to do. She began her speech by describing the impact, for her, of watching Sidney Poitier win the DeMille Award in 1964. “I’d never seen a black man being celebrated like that,” she said. “It is not lost on me that at this moment, there are some little girls watching as I become the first black woman to be given this same award.”

She continued with the story of Recy Taylor, a black woman abducted and raped in 1944 by six white men. Despite the investigative efforts of a young Rosa Parks, Taylor’s assailants were never punished, Winfrey said, and she “lived as we all have lived, too many years in a culture broken by brutally powerful men.”

“For too long,” Winfrey continued, “women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up.”

Hollywood awards shows have never been particularly adept at handling the reality of intersecting social oppressions, and last night was no exception — the praise heaped on Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, for instance, rang oddly to many who objected to the film’s portrayal of a racist police officer. “3 Billboards is about to become emblematic of how when it focuses in on its systemic misogyny Hollywood forgets that it’s also racist,” Vox’s Constance Grady wrote on Twitter.

Winfrey, however, showed how inseparable misogyny is from racism, and how it’s possible, and necessary, to confront them together. Her speech also accomplished what great speeches do: it fired people up for a long fight ahead. If Dern’s speech gave Hollywood a to-do list, Winfrey’s gave it a rallying cry, as “Time’s Up” became not just a project, but a promise.

The small moments added up

Winfrey is such an impossible act to follow that it was hard not to pity Natalie Portman and Ron Howard, who took the stage after her. But Portman made her own small stamp on the show, announcing the men nominated for best director with the quip, “and here are the all-male nominees.” It was one of many smaller moments that made the second half of the Golden Globes telecast feel like the beginning of something new.

There was Geena Davis’s joke that the men nominated for best actor in a drama had all volunteered “to give half of their salary back so the women can make more than them.” It would have been even better to see a winning actor actually pledge a donation to Time’s Up or another worthy cause, but maybe Davis’s dig will spur some post-awards show guilt-giving.

There was Barbra Streisand’s comment that she was the last woman to win a Golden Globe for best director — 34 years ago. “Folks, time’s up!” she said. “We need more women directors and more women to be nominated for best director.” Notably absent from the best director category in 2018 was Greta Gerwig, even though her film Lady Bird won for best musical or comedy motion picture.

And there was Reese Witherspoon’s heartfelt thank you to “everyone who broke their silence this year and spoke up about abuse and harassment.”

“We see you,” she said. “We hear you. And we will tell your stories.”

To make real change, Hollywood will need to do more than tell the stories of harassment and abuse survivors onscreen. It will need to support those survivors inside and outside the industry, not just with words but with legal help and job opportunities. That won’t happen at an awards show — it will happen in meetings of Time’s Up working groups, in courtrooms, and on sets. It will happen, in many cases, out of the public eye.

But a show like the Golden Globes does give members of the Hollywood elite the opportunity to hold their colleagues accountable, to demand change in front of an audience of millions who, more than ever before, are watching Hollywood power players’ every move. At their best, the Golden Globe winners and presenters did that on Sunday night. They set a tone for the other awards shows in the year ahead to follow.

As Jodi Kantor, one of the New York Times reporters who broke the Weinstein story, wrote on Twitter, “Tonight’s Golden Globes felt consequential, fascinating and new. Your move, Oscars.”

The Academy Awards air in two months, on March 4. By that time, we are all but sure to see more reports of harassment by powerful men. And hopefully, we’ll also see Hollywood and other industries begin to change to prevent abuse and protect survivors. The Golden Globes were a beginning. But there’s lots of work to do.

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