Beyond the Black Dress: Five Ways to Stop Sexism in Hollywood

When you have millions from the public and your peers applauding your fashion choice, I doubt you need to muster up the courage of a lion to wear a black gown to the Golden Globe Awards as a protest. But, what about the woman living the metaphorical black dress, feeling alone in her fight for years? What is not easy is deciding to sell your home to cover the costs of fighting Harvey Weinstein, like Rose McGowan. What is not easy is falling from the corporate ladder for speaking up. What is not easy is wearing the black dress of silence because of fear and shame of what happened to you. What is not easy is being ostracized from friends and church members for shining a light on darkness. What is not easy is when your family brands you as the Black sheep for not keeping their secret.

I want time to be up—not for show—for real. I want the message to move beyond actresses wearing black attire to the Golden Globes, so it does not become a magnificent feat of fashion coordination, but true solidarity.

You, who live miles away from Hollywood, who choose to speak out, are our prophets. You, who never dreamed of being an actress, but fought to pick of the pieces of a dream turned nightmare from sexual harassment or assault, are our guides.

You are the whispers of wisdom,

The still small voice of truth,

The canary in coal mines from years ago, refusing to die.

But, instead, you live to call us higher.

I am learning more and more that sometimes the answer we seek to the our deepest problems are not found in the masses saying, “Yay,” but in the single minority, calling out, “Nay.”

After learning about Time’s Up, “a unified call for change from women in entertainment for women everywhere,” and new revelations of more abusers and victims in Hollywood, here is my, “Nay.”

Below, I share 5 ways (of numerous ways) Time’s Up can ensure time is really, truly up on sexism in Hollywood.

1) Tell the truth.

If Time’s Up is serious about reform, Hollywood will call for names-not just actors—not just Weinstein-all of the power players involved in sexual harassment and abuse in the industry. We need to tell the truth, the whole truth, so help us all. Is it possible for people to be unaware about the secret sins of someone in the industry? Of course! Yet, I do not believe that Harvey Weinstein is the only industry big-shot who contributed to a toxic Hollywood. After all, it is called the Hollywood casting couch, not the Weinstein casting couch. Other power players in the industry remain unscathed, while Weinstein and a slew of actors become scapegoats to look as if the industry is being rocked to its core. In other words, it appears that we are being thrown a few bones of justice and initiatives to placate the masses.

If the celebrities desire reform, then I think they will not continue to ignore predatory behavior. For example, when Terry Crews, a Black actor, came forward about sexual assault by well-connected industry agent Adam Venit at an Adam Sandler party, who only received a month suspension and a demotion, the silence was palpable. Crickets are still chirping until today. Hollywood’s response raises questions for me about the Time’s Up reform. If we do not begin to closely examine those in power and hold all parties involved in the industry to a higher standard, a Time’s Up legal fund for victims will offer treatment without a cure because there will be more victims. Part of the cure is the truth.

Furthermore, I think it is time to tell the truth about women who choose to be complicit with broken systems, no matter if it is for their dreams. I suspect there are women who ignored or even played along with the system to advance or maintain their careers to varying degrees. Has McGowan even accounted for her complicity in the very broken system when she chose to work in a film directed by a convicted child molester? We can be victims in one area and enablers in another at the same time because we are human. So, are we to believe that Hollywood is the only industry where women willingly use their looks or their bodies to get ahead? Is Hollywood heaven or something? If this is the case, Hollywood is more pristine than Jesus himself. Of course not. While holding men accountable and raising the standard is paramount, I think the same applies for women, for example, who willingly choose (not coerced or forced) or even seek out ways to sleep their way to “success.”

2) Leave feminist racism and sexism on the cutting room floor.

Hollywood’s treatment of Rose McGowan shows not just the dangers of unchecked patriarchy, but also the toxicity from a feminism dominated by White women. In a sexist and racist society or industry, being White reaches a limit when the system gets challenged Rose McGowan reached these limits and felt the intraracial backlash from Tinseltown’s White feminists and patriarchy when she spoke up. Historically, White people have lost their livelihood and their lives, standing against slavery and Jim Crow policies maintained by their White peers. And, for every White feminist fighting for abolition and suffrage, we had plenty of White women reaping the economic benefits of slavery through a White patriarchal system. So, when White women lean on their race advantage within a sexist and racist industry, they reinforce a system detrimental to not just Women of Color, but to all women.

When White actresses ignore how the already limited lead actress roles are typically cast as predominantly White, it creates a system of survival of the privileged, not the fittest. As part of the Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative, researchers studied 700 popular films from 2007 to 2014 and found that over 70% of the leads in films were White. Combine this finding with the ratio of males to female leads is 2.3 to 1 and we see that Hollywood has a system that primarily favors White men and secondarily favors White women. For White actresses to question the racial disparity in the acting opportunities would cause more competition and threaten their survival. I see the irony in different White feminist actresses expecting equality from White men, in the name of sexism, but maintain silent complicity in the racism against actresses of color. Just so we are clear: Often when White feminist actresses discuss women’s issues in Hollywood, the interpretation of their colorblind progressiveness means White women’s issues. Why didn’t they call for solidarity when their colleagues of color challenged racism in the Academy Awards? Remember #OscarsSoWhite? The painful aspect of existing within a corrupt White patriarchy is that all of us can develop limited vision. Instead of fighting for crumbs of limited roles thrown to us by men, we can expand our vision by going for the entire loaf or becoming baking our own bread.

The fact that Women of Color are involved in Time’s Up or wear black dresses in solidarity against sexual harassment in their industry does not suggest that the mountains of racism and sexism have tumbled. Women of Color choose to engage for a range of reasons, from a sincere desire to change the system to a political move to stay in Hollywood’s good graces. Because they have to contend with both sexism and racism, even certain White women are not the only ones who choose survival strategies within the industry. Some Women of Color will support a broken a system, as long as they get their piece of the pie. Please do not allow the smaller cadre of Black and Brown faces to fool you into thinking that Time’s Up is a racial and ethnic cornucopia of social justice for all women in Hollywood. When the Grace Lees, Shonda Rhimes, Elizabeth Banks, Mira Nairs, and Ava DuVernays become the norm and not the exception, then we shall know that time is really up.

3) More Women! More Money!

We need more diverse women behind the scenes and on screens. Family films with women working behind the scenes had more feale speaking characters. In Gender Disparity On-Screen and Behind the Camera in Family Films, Smith and Choueiti discovered that women involved in the writing process demonstrated a notable 10% difference for on-screen girls/women. Having diverse women in more positions of power and behind the scenes will help create a more equitable and safer industry for women.

Previously, I mentioned telling the whole truth. As one of Hollywood’s secrets, there is an old belief that an independent lead actress in film does not generate as much box office success than without one. Researchers have found that industry gatekeepers adopt practices and systems to reduce risk of box office losses such as limiting female lead roles. Out of sheer economics, I can see how it makes sense to minimize risk as a company. Otherwise, the business will flop worse than The Nutcracker in 3D (Yes, I watched the entire movie).

The sad reality is that women independent leads in movies make less at the boxoffice, but wait there’s more. Here is where focusing on the what can perpetuate inequities, whereas focusing on the why can alleviate them. The beauty I notice in focusing on the why is that studios can hit gold in the box office and in the industry. In their study on the effect of female presence on movie box office returns, researchers noted a gender-neutral direct correlation between production budget and box office revenue. Studios often gave movies with an independent female presence less money, and thus, leading to lower returns. Audiences tended to watch more of the big budget films, regardless of the gender leads. In other words, films perform based on the budget, not according to gender. I told you there was more. In other words, it is time for the industry to cough up the change and the female lead roles. Everyone wins, from the institution to society.

4) Boycott.

I think actors and actresses (and even behind the scenes individuals) can boycott all projects to ensure true reform measures are established. In addition to encouraging solidarity through the color of attire, stars can encourage their colleagues- even the animal talent- to refrain from projects until the industry heads change their song and dance. Unlike sacrificing a gown choice, the real sacrifice comes from refraining from work.

I know this sacrifice would be a tall order. Boycotting in Hollywood risks losing one’s place in the current pecking order. Solidarity becomes critical to making progress. All it takes is for one weak link to seize the opportunity to make a name for herself/himself to replace a starlet on strike. If we are deeply concerned for change in the industry, then boycotting is a worthwhile a strategy to at least consider, especially if other avenues of change begin fall on deaf ears. Therefore, for critics to argue that boycotting (even awards shows) silences the victims is to spit in the face of anyone who has engaged in peaceful protest from Gandhi to Rosa Parks. History has taught us that when industries feel the pain of sinking profits, they are willing to revisit their racist and sexist ways.

5) Cease from sexually explicit and nude content in television and film.

Television and movie stars, particularly the higher-ups, need to help change the culture and workplace environment by ceasing sexually explicit and nude content. I am confident that Hollywood can tell and create compelling and entertaining stories without nudity or sexually explicit content. I think perceiving otherwise demonstrates a lack of imagination and God-given creativity. Seriously, Hollywood gives new meaning to leave something to the imagination. In the United States, I am concerned that we are becoming desensitized to content that should raise eyebrows and red flags. Over the years the line has become blurred. Over a matter of decades in television and film, the industry went from one extreme of a married couple sleeping in separate beds in sitcoms to now sexualizing young adults in children’s programs. The Gina Davis Institute on Gender in Media found that 13-20 year old actresses are just as likely as 21-39 year old actresses to be shown in sexy attire & with some nudity. I think it is time to tap into our creative genius and create forms of entertainment with much better stats. Time is up for the industry taking advantage of women and girls and for women condoning it as normal.

I think refraining from roles with sexually explicit and nude content is a powerful stand for women as agents because it disrupts the power differential that exploits women’s desire to work in their field. Have you ever noticed how many “A list” women celebrities wait until they are higher in their careers before doing nude scenes? It is almost as if they avoided these roles early on or were highly selective about the choices out of career concerns. I think it is even more telling is the extreme difficulty it is for women to cross over from the adult film to the mainstream film industry. We still have a game of respect that revolves around women’s bodies and it impacts actresses in their male dominated field. Also, I think Time’s Up can address these well-known actresses performing with lesser known actresses who are given roles with nudity or sexually explicit content in the same film or television shows. Do they care about the impact on these lesser-known actresses in their career trajectory? Are they comfortable with another woman being exploited, when they did not make the same choices earlier in their careers? Before I hear rebuttals about art, we do not see a long history of the same dynamic for men in film and television.

Leveling the playing field of by calling for more male nudity defeats the purpose. I try to avoid fighting stupidity with stupidity two wrongs make a right in my approach to these matters. As for workplace dynamics, women do not need expose themselves in front of men and women, as they gawk and film us for the sake of contemporary entertainment. It promotes the very harassment and abuse that supposedly has run out of time. I think the better alternative is a no naked people running around any workplace- Hollywood or not policy. Additionally, male actors can take a stand against nudity and sexually explicit content, given that they have much more roles and opportunities. They can use this power as leverage to create less hostile work environment. It is a no-brainer. However, as long as women agree with our own subjugation and objectification, we limit freedom and equality. We need not forget our power to create an industry—a world where we are truly free to be women with our strengths and our talents.


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