This is the Time’s Up Oscars, the first one where the #MeToo movement is a major player, and no one can predict just how the tricky balance between celebration, industry penitence and the host Jimmy Kimmel’s jokes will pan out on 4 March. This being Hollywood, however, already the chief speculation is about the clothes. The previous dress code of Time’s Up — that actresses should wear black to protest against sexual harassment — dominated both the Golden Globes and the Baftas: only Frances McDormand decisively broke ranks at the latter, and she got away with it because so many of her screen roles are about being stubborn.
Don’t count on an all-black hat-trick for the Oscars, though. Stylists and designers can do wonders with a little black dress, but they are wondering how much protest chic the fashion industry can handle before the funereal gear signals mourning for lost profits. There have been anonymous whispers from members of the Time’s Up campaign to the New York Times that colour will be permitted back in.
Yet if rainbow hues do make a reappearance, other familiar elements will definitely be absent. The most notable, of course, is the banished ogre of Harvey Weinstein, whose films won a combined 81 awards over the years, but who has now been expelled from the Academy in a kind of negative lifetime achievement award (to give some idea of how difficult that is, both Roman Polanski and Bill Cosby remain members). This year, Weinstein is reportedly working with life coaches and sex addiction therapists at a luxury facility in Arizona.
According to gallant Hollywood tradition, too, the Best Actor from the previous year usually hands out the gong for Best Actress — but Casey Affleck, last year’s Best Actor for Manchester by the Sea, will also be otherwise engaged on Oscar night. By mutual agreement with the event organisers, Affleck is staying well away from the Best Actress after it emerged that he had settled two lawsuits from women accusing him of sexual harassment in 2010.
There will, however, be one celebrated new arrival, at least in its freshly contemporary form: feminism, which in previous years has not been officially present at the ceremony. Only five years ago, indeed, the f-word was one that many celebrities were wary of embracing publicly, lest they be thought of as angry man-haters who scorned the art of depilation, which comes close to a religion in Hollywood circles.
In those days the preferred rhetoric was all about humanism and strong, beautiful women. In 2013, the singer Katy Perry said: ‘I’m not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women.’ The same year Susan Sarandon, the Hollywood queen of liberal causes, replied when asked if she was a feminist: ‘I think of myself as a humanist because I think it’s less alienating to people who think of feminism as being a load of strident bitches.’ Sarah Jessica Parker also chose humanism as far back as 2011: ‘I took a line from the playwright Wendy Wasserstein’s book. She said: “I’m not a feminist, I’m a humanist.”’ Carla Bruni put it more bluntly: ‘We don’t need to be feminist in my generation.’
At the time, I must confess that this kind of judicious positioning drove me crazy. If feminism meant seeking equality of treatment for women, I thought, then why would anyone not be one in an era when a girl such as Malala could be shot for daring to attend school in Pakistan, FGM was still widespread, and jokes about gang rape were considered edgy fun for Channel 4?
The effects of purging feminism from Hollywood could be seen clearly on stage at the 2013 Oscars, when the host Seth MacFarlane sang an excruciating number called ‘We Saw Your Boobs’ in which he salaciously listed female stars who had appeared topless on screen, some in rape scenes. (A few female celebrities such as Charlize Theron and Naomi Watts looked furious, but those clips had been specially pre-recorded: the gals were in on the joke!) How I longed at that moment for a major female star to walk out with an Andrea Dworkin–style frown, telling the Academy to stick its statuette where the sun don’t shine.
Well, those days are over, and in many ways it’s good news. There’s no danger of Seth’s lurid ditty getting the green light today: instead, there are rumours that a section of the ceremony will be set aside for a reverential honouring of the Time’s Up movement. The bid to give Time’s Up its own VIP slot is partly in the hope that — this being the 90th anniversary of the Academy Awards — the declamatory theatre of #MeToo doesn’t hijack the thing the Academy loves best: teary-eyed, nostalgic moments of epic self-congratulation.
Still, if you’re going to bring an ideology to the Oscars party, feminism is the hottest political stance in celebrity culture right now — and that goes for men too (apart from Mel Gibson, for whom it is probably too late). Ryan Gosling and Mark Ruffalo are fully signed up. Penelope Cruz recently revealed that she tweaks the endings on her children’s bedtime stories so that when the prince proposes to Cinderella, she refuses in favour of becoming an astronaut or a chef.
Katy Perry, Carla Bruni and Taylor Swift are now considerably more woke, declaring themselves feminists after all (back in 2012, Taylor was in denial, brushing away the label with the phrase: ‘I don’t really think about things as guys versus girls.’)
Margot Robbie is a recent convert, confessing that a couple of years ago: ‘I was almost scared to say I was, because it had so many negative connotations, like “If you’re a feminist, you hate men.”’ Thanks to TED talks, she said, she had realised that ‘men can be feminists too’.
Even those who have been slow to pick up on the small print of the changing Hollywood script, such as Kate Winslet, have eventually realised that resistance is futile, and possibly career-denting. As late as last September, Winslet was still saying: ‘Woody Allen is an incredible director. So is Roman Polanski. I had an extraordinary working experience with both of those men, and that’s the truth.’ At the London Critics’ Circle Film Awards in January, however, she duly began speaking of ‘men of power’ in Hollywood and her ‘bitter regrets that I have made some poor decisions to work with individuals that I wish I had not’.
This is the new orthodoxy, and it has its inconsistencies, but I’m not saying that the complaints by actresses over sexism in Holly-wood are bogus: many are no doubt experiencing the rush of relief that comes from finally being allowed to spill cinema’s nasty secret without sabotaging their own careers.
By the time a female star appears at the Academy Awards, she already has a measure of industry clout. That isn’t so on the way up, where young, unknown actresses have long experienced uncomfortable situations at the hands of certain male ‘-creatives’ and executives. Hollywood boasts more than the average quota of men who never got a second look from the prom queen at school, and then suddenly find that they are in the exciting position of being able to command her to lose weight, parade in a swimsuit or join them in the jacuzzi.
The question, surely, is whether celebrity feminism is ready to engage with wider issues than a vague agreement that some men behave badly towards women at work, and that it should stop. Out in the world of social media, for example, feminist discussion is rapidly becoming less of a warm bath with fellow members of the sisterhood than a shark-infested bay.
Intersectionality — the theory of how different kinds of discrimination overlap — appears to be eating itself, while savaging anything that smacks of common sense. Feminists such as Margaret Atwood are being attacked by young ‘fourth-wave’ feminists, who condemn her as old, white and out of touch. The Nigerian novelist and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has been accused of being insufficiently respectful towards trans women. The writer, director and actress Lena Dunham, who is braver than most actresses in challenging screen images of physical perfection, seems perpetually under fire for some statement or another.
Among certain keyboard warriors, there is no greater joy than ‘calling out’ fellow feminists for a crime against ideology. Hashtags such as #yesallmen and #allmen-aretrash are flying around the internet, stoking misandry. For female celebrities, who remain wary of anything that might seriously aggrieve their audiences, modern feminism is suddenly much more explosive territory than many yet realise.
And where old-school, 1970s feminism openly engaged with the politics of the female body, risking ridicule for pushing to liberate ordinary women from girdles and false eyelashes, celebrity feminism has deftly avoided this territory. This year’s Oscars, as ever, will be yet another example of female grooming taken to insane levels of time, effort and money. Actresses spend roughly six weeks getting ready for the Oscars, undergoing a rigorous exercise and diet regime to fit the minuscule dresses supplied by designers. They will be lining up for Botox, fillers and micro-needling facials, and rigorously styled to homogenous perfection. I think fondly of the days when the likes of Diane Keaton could collect her award in a baggy skirt, long jacket and scarf, as she did for Annie Hall in 1978, or even Björk in her crazy 2001 ‘dead swan’ dress. Those costumes weren’t about glamour: they were about personality.
One of the main reasons that so many teenage girls now suffer from depression is because celebrity culture bombards them with unattainable images of physical perfection. Yet whole industries now depend on the fostering of female narcissism and insecurity. Are Hollywood feminists willing to shake that up, too, and all the profits that go with it? Let’s wait and see.