Has there ever been an awards show where the glitz and wins and losses felt more irrelevant than they did at the 2018 Golden Globes? The all-black ensembles on the red carpet and the Time’s Up pins made clear what has been obvious for several months now: that there’s no room for equivocation on sexual harassment in Hollywood, given the industry’s severe problems. (More welcome were activists like #MeToo creator Tarana Burke and Ai-jen Poo, who came to the Golden Globes as actresses’ dates.) Even the early victories for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which won the awards for best drama series and best actress in a drama for star Elisabeth Moss felt like a dispatch from a distant part of the craziest news cycle in my lifetime.
But there were two sets of victories that helped demonstrate what big stars and what Hollywood stories can do to push a national conversation forward.Oprah Winfrey, arguably one of the great communicators in recent American history and the winner of the Golden Globes’ Cecil B. DeMille award, showed how celebrities can crystallize complex concepts for mass audiences when they operate at the height of their powers. And the wins for HBO’s nuanced miniseries “Big Little Lies” helped elevate a story and a group of actresses dedicated to explaining the complex and often unpleasant choices available to victims of sexual and domestic violence.
Winfrey’s meticulously constructed speech summed up her life and career, from the moment she saw Sidney Poitier win best actor for his performance in “Lilies of the Field” at the 1964 Academy Awards to her own efforts in a career that has spanned decades “to say something about how men and women really behave.”
Though the task of explaining what it’s meant to be Oprah Winfrey would be formidable for anyone, even the person who lived that life, her address was more ambitious than that. Winfrey explained that whose stories get told isn’t merely a matter of personal inspiration and drive; the ability to tell stories through both fiction and journalism is vitally important to our understanding of “how we rage, how we fail, how we retreat, persevere and how we overcome.” A moment like #MeToo, or Recy Taylor’s courage to come forward after she was gang-raped, requires both the outstanding bravery of individuals who face not just sexism but also racism and the barriers of class that may make it harder for them to be heard. For the stories of women in any industry and in any era to be heard on a large scale, there must be industries, including both Hollywood and journalism, that are willing and able to magnify their testimony.
If Winfrey’s personal story is proof of how far it’s possible for a woman to come even in a system that is triply rigged against her by virtue of the class, skin and sex she was born into, she obviously isn’t content with her success. Her speech at the Golden Globes was a warning of what it has cost to purchase this moment, and the price we still have to pay if we truly want to take on all the interlocking systems that have kept so many men safely unaccountable for so long.
Winfrey’s speech laid out an ambitious structural agenda for the movement against sexual misconduct going forward. And she made a point punctuated by the night’s other big winner, “Big Little Lies.” The privileged women of that show could not be more different from Winfrey’s mother, who worked as a housekeeper. But they, too, “had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue,” and they face dreadful decisions about whether it’s better to endure or break free. The characters on “Big Little Lies” don’t necessarily face the most extreme version of these dilemmas, but the actresses who played them did so with an empathy and nuance that made the miniseries resonate in this messy, fraught moment.
The action in “Big Little Lies” is set off by an incident of bullying among young schoolchildren, and with a parent’s false accusation about whom the culprit might be, one that ultimately silences the voice of the little girl who has been injured. “Many of us were taught not to tattle,” Laura Dern explained, accepting her statue for playing that mother, Renata Klein. “It was a culture of silencing and that was normalized. I urge all of us to not only support survivors and bystanders who are brave enough to tell their truth, but to promote restorative justice.”
Nicole Kidman, who played domestic violence victim Celeste Wright, alluded to her character’s significance in a briefer way when she won for best actress in a limited series or motion picture made for television. But Celeste, who lives in a gilded cage with a husband (Alexander Skarsgard, who also won for his work) who beats her, seduces her and pampers her, is the terrified face of a universal truth: that as long as the options for women outside marriages, or jobs, or any other circumstance where they are mistreated are terrible, women will be forced to seek accommodations that from the outside seem incomprehensible, weak, even complicit.
Walking the red carpet with Burke, Michelle Williams, who was nominated for her performance in “All the Money in the World,” explained that she felt as though a moment of great change was potentially at hand. “Really, the most exciting thing is that I thought I would have to raise my daughter to protect herself in a dangerous world,” she said. “I think that because of the work Tarana has done and the work that I’m learning how to do, we actually have the opportunity to hand our children a different world.”
But until that world comes to pass, there will be both Celeste Wrights and Recy Taylors. The women of “Big Little Lies” encouraged us to understand Celeste Wrights and to help them. And Winfrey warned us not to get complacent, given how long it had taken the Recy Taylors of the world to see even some of the change they fought for come to pass.