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Sady Doyle The Golden Globes show we can't make progress on gender equality if men stay silent

At the awards show, justice took one step forward and then was walked two or three visible steps back.

James Franco accepts the award for Best Actor in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy, for "The Disaster Artist."Paul Drinkwater / NBCUniversal
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The 2018 Golden Globes were always going to be a tough night: A seemingly never-ending chain of sexual assault and harassment scandals has consumed the entertainment industry since last fall, and Harvey Weinstein, a man who largely engineered the “awards season” as we know it, has been accused of countless sexual violations.

But award shows are a chance for Hollywood to celebrate itself; ideally, they’re also a chance for the viewers at home to get caught up in Hollywood’s relentless self-mythologizing, to look at pretty dresses and spot their favorite stars and enjoy a little vicarious glamour. Now that we’ve learned that the whole structure underlying that glamour was toxic, like a bounce castle at a child’s birthday party filled with poison gas, it’s hard to turn your mind off and enjoy the dresses.

What was left was the uncomfortable spectacle of an industry being forced to re-imagine itself — caught awkwardly between the old way of doing things and the changes that progress demands.

That show was characterized by a jagged, awkward energy, in which social justice would take one step forward and then be walked two or three extremely visible steps back. Laura Dern, for instance, gave a speech on the importance of believing survivors — then Best Actor went to James Franco, who allegedly asked an underage girl to come to his hotel room in 2014, according to images she posted online of their exchanges. (He denies the allegations.)

Natalie Portman gloriously dunked on the all-male slate of nominees for Best Director, but the show also paused for a tribute to Kirk Douglas, causing social media to light up with rumors from an anonymous blog in 2012 that he had sexually assaulted Natalie Wood. (Though speculation abounded that the allegations were made by Robert Downey, Jr., he denied that he was behind them and Douglas has never responded.)

Reese Witherspoon won a Best Miniseries award for “Big Little Lies,” a show about the hidden toll of domestic violence; the award for Best Actor in a Drama Motion Picture went to Gary Oldman, whose ex-wife has accused him of beating her with a telephone receiver. (Oldman denies the allegations as well.)

And, most noticeably, just about every woman who received an award, along with a healthy chunk of those women presenting, felt the obligation to turn her moment into a reflection of sexual harassment, gender inequity, the #MeToo movement and the ensuing #TIMESUP campaign.

But, when men accepted an award, they pretty much thanked their agents and left.

The problem wasn’t just that men who have been accused of assault and harassment were still winning awards, but the fact that some men’s work was politically relevant in ways they did not seem to understand. For instance, “The Room” — the legendary B-movie which is the subject of Franco’s now-award-winning “Disaster Artist” — is a profoundly misogynist picture about a man whose life is destroyed when his scheming girlfriend accuses him of domestic violence. Alexander Skarsgaard played the abusive husband in “Big Little Lies,” and took home an award for his performance. Neither man seemed willing to connect his own work to the wider moment.

Sam Rockwell, one of the few men pressed to talk about #MeToo on the red carpet who stars in a movie about the aftermath of a brutal rape in a small town, stammered out a vague answer about the movement that said nothing about sexism: “I don’t really know the answer to that. But I suppose the issue is bullying.”

The issue, as a matter of fact, is men — male power, male predators and the men who cover for the predators in their midst or turn a blind eye to the damage they cause. It’s extremely disheartening to learn that men still don’t feel any obligation to question their own power, or to change how they engage with female colleagues.

The women at the Golden Globes, for the most part, soldiered mightily to make the ceremony into a worthy reflection of its cultural moment. Sure, it may have been easy to roll one’s eyes at some of those gestures: The campaign to wear black dresses was mocked from its inception; certain #TIMESUP celebrity spokeswomen also paired with high-profile activists like Ai-jen Poo and Tarana Burke on the red carpet, which, depending on who you asked, was either a moving demonstration of cross-class solidarity or a creepy, white feminist instance of rich women using human beings as accessories.

But the cumulative impact of all those women’s gestures was very real. It was a major paradigm shift in the entertainment industry when Laura Dern insisted that “speaking out without fear of retribution is our culture's new North Star,” when Oprah leaned into that iconic you-get-a-car-and-you-get-a-car cadence to honor “all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue” and when Debra Messing talked about “intersectional gender parity” on the red. Concerns and issues that have long been relegated to the feminist fringe were front and center in one of the most closely watched entertainment events of the year.

That, more than anything, was why the Globes felt so widely uneven. Half of the room was trying to turn a once-frivolous event into a protest; the other half of the room was seemingly pretending that the protest didn’t exist.

The #MeToo movement of past months is not unique, necessarily — feminists have been talking about sexual assault and harassment for decades — but it is unusually visible and long-lasting, in a way that’s caused many of us to hope it might be transformative. If that transformation fails to happen, the Globes last night give a good picture of why: Women are pressuring themselves to do more and know more and raise their consciousness and fight harder, while men remain complacent, apparently waiting for the storm to pass and the old order to be restored.

The awkward feeling of the Golden Globes on Sunday could be a good thing: It could be the necessary ugliness of progress, of old traditions dying so that new rules can be made. It could also be the beginning of the backlash.

But the outcome will likely depend on whether the men of Hollywood choose complacency or transformation. Apathy can be the cruelest form of backlash: while women run themselves ragged, trying to change the world, all men have to do to sabotage that change is to stay still.

Sady Doyle is the author of "Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock and Fear... and Why" (Melville House, 2016). She founded the feminist blog Tiger Beatdown, and her work has appeared regularly in Elle, The Guardian, and In These Times, among others. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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