The phrase “Hollywood activism” summons decades of liberal self-indulgence and empty gestures: “We Are the World” sing-alongs, star-studded PSAs, awareness-raising ribbons at award shows, Bono. It might look good and it might even draw attention, but no one really expects it to change much of anything. When a group of Hollywood actresses announced they would honor the #MeToo movement by wearing black to the Golden Globes, it was quickly written off as a hollow pageant.
It turns out that was a mistake. The dresses were a small part of something larger—the Time’s Up campaign, which was announced earlier this week and calls itself “a unified call for change from women in entertainment for women everywhere.” So far, it seems to have come closer to achieving that goal than any of us expected.
The #MeToo movement has sometimes been criticized for reflecting not so much our concern for sexual assault survivors as our fascination with the lives and misbehavior of celebrities. Of course, activists have repeated the statistics about sexual harassment ad nauseam. And journalists have exposed entire and less visible industries, from food service to Silicon Valley. But in those stories, both the victims and the accusers tended to be relatively anonymous—known to people in their fields but not outside of it. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that #MeToo took off in part because many of the accusers happened to be powerful, visible, and well-liked women.
“Our current harassment discussion is woefully class-skewed,” the author Barbara Ehrenreich tweeted in November. “Too much about actresses and not enough about hotel housekeepers.”
But more and more women began to enter themselves into the conversation. In November, the Alianza Nacional de Campesinas published an open letter in which it expressed solidarity and support for the Weinstein accusers and other women up against sexism and harassment in Hollywood, even as they reminded those women that they were relatively fortunate: “Countless farmworker women across our country suffer in silence because of the widespread sexual harassment and assault that they face at work,” that letter read. “We do not work under bright stage lights or on the big screen. We work in the shadows of society in isolated fields and packinghouses that are out of sight and out of mind for most people in this country.”
These corrections are fair and essential, which is why it’s a relief to see that the Time’s Up campaign has taken those concerns on board, offering solidarity to women in less glamorous industries. The open letter that announced its formation was signed by a mile-long list of recognizable names: Reese Witherspoon, Kerry Washington, Gal Gadot, Mariah Carey, and on and on. But its content explicitly extends support to farmworkers, janitors, waitresses, garment and factory workers, domestic workers, home health aides, and immigrant women coerced into sex with threats of deportation, along with “women in every industry who are subjected to indignities and offensive behavior that they are expected to tolerate in order to make a living.”
Time’s Up accepts the privilege of the famous women behind it and harnesses it to remind us that fame can be its own superpower: “[We] recognize our own privilege and the fact that we have access to enormous platforms to amplify our voices,” the women write. However, “now, unlike ever before, our access to the media and to important decision makers has the potential of leading to real accountability and consequences.”
Sure, that’s exactly the kind of well-meaning jargon plenty of feminist efforts put up front in order to assuage concerns about their intersectionality. But Time’s Up has backed it up with actual proposals to deal with structural inequities. Yes, there’s the call to wear black to the Globes. (“For years, we’ve sold these awards shows as women, with our gowns and colors and our beautiful faces and our glamour,” Eva Longoria tells the New York Times. “This time the industry can’t expect us to go up and twirl around.”) But there’s also a legal defense fund, staffed by high-profile lawyers, that gives survivors access to up to $500,000 of Meryl Streep’s money to take their abusers to court.
The initiative reportedly also includes proposed legislation, which will not only penalize companies with a persistent pattern of unaddressed harassment, but to address the plague of non-disclosure agreements stifling harassment victims—a very real and widespread problem, which, as advocates have warned us for some time, will entrench harassment even further by forbidding victims to report it. Nor does it seem the initiative is being led solely by wealthy white women; though the collective is leaderless, one of its working groups is a commission on sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood headed by no less than Anita Hill.
Our current sex harassment discussion is woefully class-skewed. Too much about actresses and not enough about hotel housekeepers.
— Barbara Ehrenreich (@B_Ehrenreich) November 9, 2017
Every woman deserves a sympathetic hearing for her harassment. But it is also true that most of us find it very easy to sympathize with our favorite celebrities and very easy to overlook the harm done to those whose experiences are less visible. That’s precisely why harassment often has a much more severe impact on working-class women. It is far riskier for a housekeeper to become the focus of a high-profile sexual assault case than it is for a movie star. When Tarana Burke tweeted the #MeToo hashtag, it was treated as a niche phenomenon, or ignored. When Alyssa Milano did so, it became a phenomenon.
Plenty of observers have worried aloud that the #MeToo moment has a built-in expiration date. The history of feminist progress is one steps forward, ten steps back; bigger movements than this have come and gone, undone by cultural indifference, by infighting, by men’s hostile rewriting of women’s narratives (your grandmother never burned a bra, but the specter of underpants arson has been used to terrorize two or three generations away from “crazy” feminist activism), or by the simple fact that it is exceptionally hard to rally a group as diverse as women around a single issue. Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas, which functionally created our modern understanding of “sexual harassment,” was in 1991. Now, nearly 30 years after that watershed moment, we are still just beginning to understand and combat the damage sexual harassment has done to countless women’s careers and lives.
The energy of #MeToo does stand to be transformative—as long as we insist on actual transformation, not just the nebulous goods of “awareness” or “visibility.” Women have been making themselves visible for months: At Women’s Marches, in hashtags, on the cover of TIME Magazine. But visibility only lasts as long as it takes for people to lose interest or switch their focus to the next big story. Visibility aims to make you feel something. It doesn’t necessarily ask you to do.
To get beyond “visibility,” we need to insist on real change to the material conditions of women’s lives. We need to change the field of play in order to win the game. Time’s Up, it seems, has heeded the call to get down on the ground, where most women work and struggle, and actually affect change in their day-to-day lives. It’s more than anyone expected from “Hollywood activism.” But, then again, the world has a habit of underestimating angry women. Maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised.