Time’s Up?

Sophie Smith

All the frocks at the Golden Globe Awards this year were black, bar three. The unofficial dress code was to publicise Time's Up, a new organisation campaigning against sexual harassment, workplace discrimination and the gender pay gap. Its founders are a mix of A-listers from film and TV, and A-listers from politics and law (including Christina Tchen, Michelle Obama's former chief of staff, and Roberta Kaplan, who brought Edie Windsor's case to the Supreme Court and thereby the Defence of Marriage Act to an end). The red-carpet blackout was a spectacle. Time’s Up’s muscle is a crowd-sourced legal defence fund to support working-class women pursuing harassment cases. The money isn't only for lawyers. Recipients will get help with filing fees, travel, and the other hidden expenses that keep poor women from seeking justice in the courts. After three weeks, the pot is $16.5 million.

In 1972, the Vietnam War ongoing, Jane Fonda was the first woman to wear a black suit to the Oscars. 'It was not a time for showy dresses,' she said, looking back. 'It was a time for seriousness.' You might worry that the equating of suits with seriousness concedes too much to men: some women at the Golden Globes wore tuxedos, but Time's Up didn't stipulate that they should.

The stars’ protest went beyond what they wore. For decades, black feminists have asked that white and powerful women stop speaking for the marginalised, and start sharing their platforms with them instead. Eight celebrities brought activists to the Golden Globes as their plus ones. Many of them were advocates for those most likely to be subject to sexual harassment and least likely to be able to do anything about it: agricultural workers, waitresses, cleaners, and other precarious groups. Meryl Streep brought Ai-jen Poo, the director of the US National Domestic Workers Alliance. Emma Watson brought Marai Larasi, the executive director of Imkaan.

Time's Up announced itself on New Year's Day in a letter addressed 'Dear Sisters', expressing 'solidarity' with:

every woman employed in agriculture who has had to fend off unwanted sexual advances from her boss, every housekeeper who has tried to escape an assaultive guest, every janitor trapped nightly in a building with a predatory supervisor, every waitress grabbed by a customer and expected to take it with a smile, every garment and factory worker forced to trade sexual acts for more shifts, every domestic worker or home health aide forcibly touched by a client, every immigrant woman silenced by the threat of her undocumented status being reported in retaliation for speaking up.

While recognising the 'heavy weight of our common experience of being preyed upon, harassed and exploited', the signatories highlight their 'privilege' and their 'access to enormous platforms'. They call for 'greater representation of women of colour, immigrant women, and lesbian, bisexual and transgender women'.

When the Weinstein story broke, some feminists worried that the response would focus on the experiences of rich, white women, rather than on the long struggles of working-class women. Back in November, Sarah Leonard proposed in the New York Times that 'the women who are newly speaking out in the limelight should now rally alongside those who have been fighting sexual harassment in the shadows.' She highlighted the work of the Restaurant Opportunities Centre and the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas. The co-founders of each were the guests of Amy Poehler and Laura Dern.

The Golden Globes are an interesting choice for a protest. The awards are hosted by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Technically, members should be journalists who've lived in Southern California for two years, working for a non-US based publication, writing at least four 'exemplary' pieces a year. A full list of its 90 or so members is hard to track down. The president is Meher Tatna, an Indian woman – apparently 60 per cent of HFPA members are female – who writes regularly for Singapore's daily freesheet the New Paper. But other members include the bodybuilder and three-time Mr Universe Alexander Nevsky, who allegedly writes for Russia's popular state-owned weekly Arguments and Facts, though a search for his name there mostly turns up articles on the eponymous 13th-century Orthodox saint.

In 2013, images surfaced of around twenty actors holding the Siberian newspaper Kopeyski Rabochi, print circulation roughly 9000. The pictures went viral on the Russian social networking site Vkontakte. The stunt wasn’t organised by the paper: ‘Our readers are more interested in news about miners, retired people and utility costs,’ the editor said. Instead it was the work of Jack Tewksbury, a New Yorker who apparently got his HFPA membership in the 1980s after writing briefly for the Quebec Chronicle-Telegraph, and started to write film reviews for Kopeyski Rabochi in 2008. On his IMDB page there are 99 pictures of him, dentures luminous, gripping the shoulders of various confused celebrities. The only one who looks unfazed is Oprah Winfrey.

Putting on a convincing smile is one of the things that make Oprah a consummate politician. Another is her charisma. As one Twitter commentator put it, she makes Obama 'look like a potted plant'. The people still talking about the Golden Globes are talking about the acceptance speech she gave as the first black woman to receive the Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award. She dedicated it to the themes of the protest: the abuse and assault that 'that transcends any culture, geography, race, religion, politics or workplace', the product of 'a culture broken by brutally powerful men'. And she too talked about the domestic workers and the farm workers, the women in factories and restaurants. The room got to its feet; #oprah2020 began trending on Twitter.

'It’s easy to sneer at Hollywood doing politics,' a Guardian headline said, 'but the Golden Globes nailed it.' Michael Schulman in the New Yorker called the ceremony a 'decisive feminist takeover'. Was it? The best drama award was given to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, a film about a viciously racist white cop who is redeemed not through a confrontation with his prejudice but by helping a white woman track down her daughter's murderer. The best director nominees were all straight white men, even though Jordan Peele's Get Out was nominated for best comedy, a category won by Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird.

Kirk Douglas, an accused rapist, got a standing ovation. Both lead actor awards went to men accused of assault (Gary Oldman and James Franco). Not one of the men who won an award used their platform to remark on the protest, though Franco (and others) wore a Time's Up pin. Accepting the award for his performance in The Disaster Artist, a film celebrating a notoriously misogynist character, Franco thanked a long list of men – 'you know you're my brothers' – before thanking his mother, for 'giving' him his actual brother. All the Money in the World was nominated for three awards after last-minute reshoots to replace Kevin Spacey, accused of sexually assaulting a minor, with Christopher Plummer. Mark Wahlberg was paid $1.5 million for the extra work; Michelle Williams reportedly got $80 a day in expenses. The two share an agency. Wahlberg has now donated his fee to the Time’s Up legal defence fund.

Reese Witherspoon announced that she ‘will now officially divide time like this: “Everything that happened before @Oprah speech : Everything that will happen after”.’ The workers she stood alongside might disagree. Monica Ramirez of the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas pointed out that 'Farmworker women ... have a long history of combating workplace sexual violence.'

The problem with thinking in terms of breaks and moments is that it risks obscuring not just how tedious the work of politics can be, but also the mismatch between the occasional swiftness of democratic politics and the slow rate of structural change. On the whole – in the absence of war, revolution or crisis – socioeconomic shifts come incrementally. Oprah reminded her audience that Rosa Parks worked for the NAACP long before she kept her seat on the bus. That moment after which nothing could be the same was the result of slow-burning grassroots organisation.

History may not be the only thing at issue between these groups of women. The Time's Up movement uses the language of radical left-wing politics. But it has yet to do radical left-wing politics. Whether or not this happens will determine whether Time's Up’s invocations of ‘solidarity’ and ‘structural change’ represent something more than the mere co-option of leftist rhetoric. Talk of 'exploitation' is a case in point. Sexual exploitation is itself bound up with wider power differentials, not just between men and women, but between rich and poor.

If Time's Up’s supporters want, as their joint statement suggests, 'to transform both the written and unwritten rules that devalue the lives and experiences of women', then at some point they're going to have to think about capitalism, and about their own positions as capitalism's beneficiaries. If they don't, they'll soon find themselves at loggerheads with the women they're currently claiming as allies. They'll also find themselves with some odd bedfellows. 'Let’s all come together,’ Ivanka Trump tweeted after Oprah's speech, ‘women & men, & say #TIMESUP!'


  • 17 January 2018 at 6:40am
    Joe Morison says:
    It’s too easy to be depressed about the state of the world: Trump, Brexit, the seemingly unstoppable rise of the 1%; but there have always been Trumps and at least he’s constrained by a robust constitution; and there have always been spasms of national stupidity and if Brexit does happen then it’s sure to be reversed in at most a generation; and there have always been grotesque inequalities of wealth but at least the rest of us are outraged about it instead of seeing it as part of the natural order. In contrast, the Time’s Up phenomenon is something quite wonderfully new. Women (and children) have been putting up with this shit since at least we turned from hunter gathering to agriculture, and now for the first time their voice is being heard. Along with the growth in gay and trans rights, it is enough to restore one’s faith in the modern world.

    Sophie Smith is absolutely right to say that if the movement is to realize its ideals, it is going to have to tackle the obscenity that is the economic organization of the world today. Capitalism is the dominant model, but in the end it’s the age old exploitation of the weak by the powerful; this is what we all have to fight. Like Smith, I look at the Time’s UP movement and see real hope that this could be the start of something bigger. I expect it’ll be two steps forward and one backwards, because progress usually is; but I think it’s here that our best hope lies.

    • 22 January 2018 at 6:32pm
      Jmn2048 says: @ Joe Morison
      Jim, I really appreciated your intelligent, thoughtful and optimistic comment. I also happen to think that your outlook is the correct one to have at this time. Cautious optimism?

  • 22 January 2018 at 7:20pm
    Alices Restaurant says:
    Didn't the Brontes and Austen already write about this stuff, but with less Cultural Marxism marching and whining?

  • 22 January 2018 at 9:08pm
    John Cowan says:
    I note that all the 1+s you name are in fact bosses, even if their companies are not for profit (which as is well known doesn't necessarily make them progressive when it comes to their own workers). So don't be too impressed by their skin color.

  • 23 January 2018 at 1:30pm
    Martha12345 says:
    Confusing: "Kirk Douglas an accused rapist'". There was an indictment. A trial? Was he found guilty? Not guilty?

    Do you mean Kirk Douglas was alleged to have committed rape?

    Does accuracy matter?