Today’s red-carpet Time’s Up pins and politically charged acceptance speeches have plenty of historical precedent
It’s been a banner year for celebrity activism — but the red-carpet protest has been en vogue for decades.
Time’s Up pins, a token of Hollywood’s anti-sexual harassment and gender equality movement, dotted celebrity formalwear at this year’s Golden Globes and Oscars; many women also made a sartorial statement in somber black attire at the Globes. Some Oscars attendees also wore orange pins in support of the anti-gun violence movement in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., mass shooting, while rapper Common spit fire at the National Rifle Association and President Trump during his performance. That same night, actors Lupita Nyong’o and Kumail Nanjiani gave so-called Dreamers a shoutout as the future of DACA remained uncertain.
More recently at Cannes, 82 women staged a red-carpet protest to underscore that only 82 female-directed films had been screened in the history of the film festival, in contrast to the 1,866 by men. Lebanese actress Manal Issa held up a handwritten sign on the red carpet reading “Stop the Attack on Gaza” after Israeli forces killed 60 Palestinian protesters. And during the closing ceremony, actress Asia Argento reiterated her sexual assault charge against disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. “In 1997, I was raped by Harvey Weinstein here at Cannes,” she said. “I was 21 years old. This festival was his hunting ground.”
Such protests have shifted from being a footnote in awards-show coverage to becoming the main story. “It’s moving front and center,” writer and Hollywood historian Cari Beauchamp told Moneyish of the women’s demonstrations at Cannes. “The moment is being seized. It is not being sought; it is not being requested.”
While these shows of resistance may seem novel, they’re “a very simple strategy that has been used since the ’60s for people who want to bring awareness to an issue or protest an issue,” said Hollywood historian Marc Wanamaker. And they’re part of an “ever-expansion” of environments in which celebrities protest, added Harry Rubenstein, a curator in the division of political history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
“It’s just expanding the arena of protest from being at a protest rally in Washington, D.C., to being on a stage at the Academy Awards, to all of a sudden having small but very visible tokens in very public spheres such as red carpets,” Rubenstein told Moneyish, referencing the band of celebrities including Harry Belafonte and Paul Newman who rallied for civil rights at the 1963 March on Washington. “This public forum … continues to expand over time, and where it’s considered appropriate or not appropriate has been expanding throughout American history.”
Today’s celebrity protest-heavy climate has plenty of precedent. One early example came during the 1975 Oscars, where “Hearts and Minds” producer Bert Schneider during his acceptance speech read aloud a telegram from the North Vietnamese ambassador thanking Americans for their anti-war protests. Frank Sinatra later appeared onstage to deliver a statement — ostensibly from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, but allegedly written by comedian Bob Hope — to apologize for the political statement. Three years earlier, vocal war opponent Jane Fonda kept her “Klute” acceptance speech brief, but wore a black Yves Saint Laurent pantsuit that she felt “suited the somber times.”
The civil rights and anti-war movements effectively cemented the notion of celebrity protest, Rubenstein said. “From then on, national protests invite figures that support their cause, whether it’s on the right or on the left, and then use them to draw attention, and focus media attention,” he said. “And hopefully in the minds of organizers, they help draw and bring crowds.” There’s also the notion that celebrities “validate” a protest, he added: “Somebody famous agreeing that the war is bad, pollution is bad, et cetera, gives credence to your movement.”
Long before the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, an absentee Marlon Brando used his “Godfather” best-actor acceptance speech in 1973 to advocate for better Native-American representation in film, sending Apache activist Sacheen Littlefeather onstage to reject the award on his behalf. The statement, which blasted Hollywood’s degrading portrayals of Native Americans and expressed solidarity with activists at Wounded Knee, was “so momentous because nothing like that happened before,” Wanamaker said. “This was a real, political, powder-keg issue that was going on.”
At the 1978 Oscars, Vanessa Redgrave, who produced and narrated the pro-Palestine documentary “The Palestinian,” used her best supporting actress speech for “Julia” to stoke her already-brewing controversy — referring to those protesting her TV doc as “a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums whose behavior is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world and to their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism and oppression.”
Following the 1980s AIDS crisis, Elizabeth Taylor — a close friend of Rock Hudson, who died from AIDS-related complications in 1985 — wore a red ribbon with Newman at the 1992 Academy Awards to raise awareness. Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins wore the ribbons onstage a year later to discuss HIV-positive Haitians held at Guantanamo Bay. “That wasn’t just supporting people who were sick — it had an edge of protest,” Rubenstein said. Taylor’s gesture raised a “two-pronged awareness,” Wanamaker said, both of gay actors in the film industry and AIDS as an issue. “This was a sea change in attitudes in the industry,” he said.
The aughts were plenty politically charged, too. Halle Berry, who in 2002 became the first African-American woman to win the lead actress Oscar, dedicated her win in part to “every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.” Michael Moore in 2003 railed against George W. Bush and the Iraq War. Sean Penn, who won best actor in 2009 for his portrayal of gay-rights activist Harvey Milk, defended marriage equality.
President Trump’s administration has inspired plenty of red-carpet resistance, as well. Actress Lizzy Caplan appeared at her post-2016 election film premiere with “Love Trumps Hate” written on her palm, while “Big Bang Theory” lead Simon Helberg and his wife sported pro-refugee messages at the 2017 Screen Actors Guild Awards in protest of Trump’s immigration executive order. Oscars host Jimmy Kimmel this year took aim at both POTUS and Vice President Mike Pence during his monologue.
But for all of Hollywood’s collective protest of sexual misconduct, many critics noted that men like Kobe Bryant and Gary Oldman — accused of rape and domestic violence, respectively — still took home trophies from the Academy. Ryan Seacrest, meanwhile, kept his red-carpet correspondent gig after denying sexual abuse allegations from his former stylist. After wearing a Time’s Up pin to the Golden Globes, James Franco faced multiple sexual misconduct allegations of his own.
Some have also criticized red-carpet protests as empty: A New York Times column in January, for instance, bristled at the idea of Caplan’s gesture as “bold, or capable of helping anyone other than herself.” “Love is an emotion that alone is not capable of destroying capitalism, of dismantling centuries of systems that remain in place today,” wrote reporter Jenna Wortham. Columnist S.E. Cupp called the Globes’ symbolic all-black dress code “the least effective and least serious form of protest by #TimesUp,” questioning, “If you’re a truckstop waitress or migrant worker who’s been sexually abused by her boss, why does what Barbra Streisand or Kate Hudson wore to the Globes matter to you?”
Beauchamp, for her part, insists she’d “rather have people try any day of the week.” “I think that every time you put a spotlight on something … it moves it a notch forward,” she said. “But I do really think that #MeToo and Time’s Up is different, and the reason it’ll go way beyond any red carpet or stage is because I think real community is being forged.” Wanamaker said he thought the change in Hollywood would ultimately “trickle down” to folks in other industries.
“Celebrities bring attention and focus to political movements — that’s as much as they probably do,” Rubenstein said. “From there, it’s whether … the issues that they’re trying to affect win the support of voters, of congressmen, of whoever they’re trying to influence. That’s really what makes the difference.”
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