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Hollywood women unveil anti-harassment action plan

300 prominent actresses and female agents launch Time’s Up, an impassioned pledge of support to working-class women

Image Credit: AP
Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston and Shonda Rhimes.
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Driven by outrage and a resolve to correct a power imbalance that seemed intractable just months ago, 300 prominent actresses and female agents, writers, directors, producers and entertainment executives have formed an ambitious, sprawling initiative to fight systemic sexual harassment in Hollywood and in blue-collar workplaces nationwide.

The initiative includes:

- A legal defence fund, backed by $13 million (Dh47.7 million) in donations, to help less privileged women — like janitors, nurses and workers at farms, factories, restaurants and hotels — protect themselves from sexual misconduct and the fallout from reporting it.

- Legislation to penalise companies that tolerate persistent harassment, and to discourage the use of nondisclosure agreements to silence victims.

- A drive to reach gender parity at studios and talent agencies that has already begun making headway.

- And a request that women walking the red carpet at the Golden Globes speak out and raise awareness by wearing black.

Called Time’s Up, the movement was announced on Monday with an impassioned pledge of support to working-class women in an open letter signed by hundreds of women in show business, many of them A-listers. The letter also ran as a full-page ad in The New York Times, and in La Opinion, a Spanish-language newspaper.

“The struggle for women to break in, to rise up the ranks and to simply be heard and acknowledged in male-dominated workplaces must end; time’s up on this impenetrable monopoly,” the letter says.

The group is one answer to the question of how women in Hollywood would respond to cascading allegations that have upended the careers of powerful men in an industry where the prevalence of sexual predation has yielded the minimising cliche of the “casting couch,” and where silence has been a condition of employment.

Time’s Up also helps defuse criticism that the spotlight on the #MeToo movement has been dominated by the accusers of high-profile men, while the travails of working-class women have been overlooked.

This was highlighted in November, when an open letter was sent on behalf of 700,000 female farmworkers who said they stood with Hollywood actresses in their fight against abuse. Time’s Up members said the letter bolstered their resolve to train their efforts on both Hollywood and beyond.

“It’s very hard for us to speak righteously about the rest of anything if we haven’t cleaned our own house,” said Shonda Rhimes, the executive producer of the television series Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder, who has been closely involved with the group.

“If this group of women can’t fight for a model for other women who don’t have as much power and privilege, then who can?” Rhimes continued.

Other Time’s Up members include actresses Ashley Judd, Eva Longoria, America Ferrera, Natalie Portman, Rashida Jones, Emma Stone, Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon; the showrunner Jill Soloway; Donna Langley, chairwoman of Universal Pictures; the lawyers Nina L. Shaw and Tina Tchen, who served as Michelle Obama’s chief of staff; and Maria Eitel, an expert in corporate responsibility who is co-chairwoman of the Nike Foundation.

Another group, 50/50by2020, is pushing entertainment organisations and companies to agree to reach gender parity in their leadership tiers within two years. It already can claim a victory. In early December, after Rhimes pressed him, Chris Silbermann, a managing director at ICM Partners, pledged that his talent agency would meet that goal.

“We just reached this conclusion in our heads that, damn it, everything is possible,” Rhimes said. “Why shouldn’t it be?”

There is also a group ensuring that minorities and gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people are heard. “No one wants to look back and say they stood at the sidelines,” said Lena Waithe, a star of the Netflix series Master of None and part of that working group.

Another group is devising legislation to tackle abuses and address how nondisclosure agreements silence victims of sexual harassment. “People settling out in advance of their rights is obviously something that can’t continue,” said Shaw, a prominent lawyer whose clients have included Lupita Nyong’o and Ava DuVernay.

Tchen is spearheading the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which is administered by the National Women’s Law Center’s Legal Network for Gender Equity, and will connect female victims of sexual harassment with lawyers. Major donors include Witherspoon, Rhimes, Meryl Streep, Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw, and the talent agencies ICM Partners, the Creative Artists Agency, William Morris Endeavor and United Talent Agency.

Time’s Up has also been urging women to wear black at the Golden Globes on Sunday, to use the red carpet to speak out against gender and racial inequality, and to raise awareness about their initiative and the legal fund.

“This is a moment of solidarity, not a fashion moment,” Longoria said. A vast majority of the women who had been contacted and planned to attend the ceremony pledged to participate, she said.

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