Dr Noel Brown, Lecturer in Media and Communication, discusses the impact of the #MeToo movement and how last night’s Academy Awards is a driver for change.
The Academy Awards may be a media circus and the focus of tabloid gossip, but it is also a barometer of wider social and cultural debates. This year, most of the scrutiny has centred on how Hollywood would respond to the #MeToo movement, which has laid bare disgraceful practices of sexual harassment and abuse as daily realities within the American film and television industries.
The movement speaks to broader structures of power in society; most of the alleged perpetrators are rich, white men, and most of the victims are young women. It is a measure of how these power structures become naturalised that – for many years – victims, abusers, and large swathes of society have implicitly accepted these conditions, rationalising them as ‘the way things are’.
Hollywood is still a deeply conservative institution: patriarchal, parochial, and seemingly intractably wedded to old ways of doing things. Business practices are still often conducted through backroom deals between narrow cliques. Young people attempting to break into the industry still often face a stark choice between indenturing themselves to these methods – with all that entails – or remaining on the outside.
The #MeToo movement has widely been interpreted not just as an expose of Hollywood’s murky underbelly, but as a call-to-arms for substantive change within the industry, one that encompasses other campaigns for political and social equality among marginalised minority groups. As many critics have been at pains to point out in recent years, the industry continues to under-represent people of different ethnic backgrounds, people with disabilities, and people of sexual minority groups both in front of and behind the cameras.
In this regard, the list of Awards nominees appeared to promise much; Greta Gerwig, for instance, was shortlisted for Best Director, only the fifth time a female director has been nominated in this category. Yet as critic Lily Loofbourow has observed; “If the Oscars amounted to the ultimate test of how the industry would address #MeToo, the answer is clear: Hollywood failed. No woman pitted against men for high-profile awards won, and several men accused of violence against women did.” (The Week, 5 March 2018).
Frances McDormand’s acceptance speech for the Best Lead Actress award, however, may well prove to be the defining moment of the evening. Cryptically alluding to something called an ‘inclusion rider’, McDormand presumably provoked millions of viewers (and quite a few critics to boot) into reaching for their dictionaries. As the actress later clarified, an inclusion rider is a clause in a contract that could be used to stipulate that a certain percentage of cast and crew are composed of minority groups.
She added: “We're not going back. So the whole idea of women trending? No. No trending. African Americans trending? No. No trending. It changes now. And I think the inclusion rider will have something to do with that. Right? Power. Power and rules.”
McDormand has laid down the gauntlet. The power of film is not simply in its ability to mirror current trends in society, but actively to set a specific agenda. The extent to which upcoming Hollywood films reflect the politics of socio-political inclusivity, and to which Hollywood as an industry reforms more broadly, will be defining questions in the years to come.
Dr Brown lectures in film in the Department of Media and Communication. His books include The Children’s Film: Genre, Nation and Narrative (Columbia University Press, 2017), British Children’s Cinema (I.B. Tauris, 2016), The Hollywood Family Film: A History, from Shirley Temple to Harry Potter (I.B. Tauris, 2012), and the forthcoming Contemporary Hollywood Animation (Edinburgh University Press, 2019).