I was initially skeptical of last night’s “blackout”—a sartorial show of solidarity and quiet protest against harassment, abuse, and unequal pay—as I felt the women of Hollywood are in a unique position to do more than simply don black and tout a sexy hashtag on Instagram. Part of me wondered why these women—especially those behind the Time’s Up initiative, like Reese Witherspoon, Natalie Portman, Rashida Jones, Eva Longoria, and more—would even bother showing up. Wouldn’t a boycott make more of an impact, especially if they were up for an award as Witherspoon was? At the very least, perhaps they could plan on wearing a shade that’s less mournful, like, as the Washington Post’s Robin Givhan wrote, “retina-searing fuchsia or yellow,” colors that inevitably scream, “I want to be seen” and “I want to be heard.” The planned blackout felt similar to the empty symbolism of the post-election safety pin fad or the recent onslaught of trendy “feminist” tees hitting the runways—in other words, a hollow gesture that could easily be written off as an opportunistic byproduct of selective activism, even if the women at the forefront of the movement did, in fact, form a legal fund to support victims of sexual abuse and harassment.
It wasn’t until I watched Issa Rae’s Instagram story that I realized there was something bigger and more significant at play last night. The Insecure creator and star, who was up for Best Performance but lost to Rachel Brosnahan of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, snapped a video of a group of women outside of the Beverly Hills venue dressed up like handmaids and holding up signs that said things like “Silent No Longer” and “Believe Her.” It mirrored what happened back in June, when women sporting red robes and white bonnets staged a protest outside the U.S. Capitol after Planned Parenthood was on the brink of being defunded. In a strange twist of irony, Hulu’s adaptation of the 1985 Margaret Atwood novel scooped the award of Best Television Series, Drama, and its protagonist, Elisabeth Moss, won Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series, Drama. “Margaret thought it was relevant when she wrote the book 30 years ago, and unfortunately it’s still relevant now,” Moss said.
And then there were the activists, like Ai-jen Poo of the National Domestic Workers Alliance; Native American rights advocate Calina Lawrence; Marai Larasi of the black feminist organization Imkaan; and Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement and senior director of Girls for Gender Equity. They accompanied actresses like Meryl Streep, Emma Watson, Michelle Williams, and Shailene Woodley, and they, too, wore black. “It’s a virtual blackout on the red carpet!” an NBC host said gleefully. And speaking of pre-show coverage, it was a (predictably) clunky and painful affair; something about watching Giuliana Rancic and Ryan Seacrest fumble over such a weighty topic is proof that we’ve still got a long way to go. Take, for example, the moment when Debra Messing and Eva Longoria called out E!—on E!—for pay inequality and their treatment of Catt Sadler. Or when Michelle Williams consistently pivoted the conversation from her film, All the Money in the World, to harassment. “It hasn’t been on my mind,” she told Seacrest of her nomination. Or when Burke, who was Williams’ date, appeared on camera to talk about the initiative but was minimized to a small corner of the screen while a close-up of Dakota Johnson’s velvet Gucci gown was shown. Or when Natalie Portman took the stage to announce the “all-male nominees” for the Best Director award—a subtle and necessary jab at Hollywood’s pervasive patriarchy. Or the fact that, save for Denzel Washington, virtually no men were asked about #TimesUp or #MeToo (in fact, Seacrest seemed almost relieved when he interviewed men), and that only a few wore pins or entirely all-black ensembles. Last night, it was women, once again, who carried the brunt of men’s actions, and damn it, they were going to show up. As Scandal‘s Kerry Washington poignantly put it, “We shouldn’t have to give up our seats at the table for bad behavior that wasn’t ours.”
This female-centric momentum extended beyond the red carpet. Big Little Lies, HBO’s drama series starring Reese Witherspoon (who also produced it), Laura Dern, Nicole Kidman, Zoë Kravitz, and Shailene Woodley, swept numerous awards. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a television series about a woman who decides to be a stand-up comic in the ’50s, won Best Television Series (the show is particularly timely given the Louis C.K. allegations and lack of women in comedy). While they didn’t take home any gold, it was cool to see women like Issa Rae, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Greta Gerwig, and Octavia Spencer get nominated and recognized.
Last week, we said there really is no winning when it comes to women and the red carpet. But last night’s blackout was significant. Hardly any fashion media outlets are publishing their obligatory best- and worst-dressed content and are instead shifting the conversation to the solidarity shown, and that’s pretty major. One thing’s for sure—the women had the floor last night, and they were heard. Change is often messy, awkward, and sometimes slow, but this is usually what it feels like. As Oprah said during her acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille Award, “speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have” and using our voices—whether we be on stage accepting a Golden Globe or not—is what will bring us increasingly closer to the new day that is steadily making its way over the horizon.