Sunday night marked a series of firsts in the history of the Screen Actor's Guild Awards. For the first time ever, the usually brisk, almost business-like show chose to liven things up with a host: Kristin Bell. And fresh off the momentum from the Golden Globes, which made Time's Up its main focus both on the red carpet and onstage, the guild announced that all the presenters would be women.
On the surface, this would appear to be a good thing. As Kristin Bell pointed out in an interview with the New York Times, she wasn't being tapped to be the first female host — she was the first host, period. "The fact that a female was chosen to be the first one means my genitals become irrelevant."
SAG awards executive producer Kathy Connell elaborated on the reasoning behind the decision in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter: "How many times has a woman walked into a room of predominately men? We thought, maybe for one night, it’ll be more than 50/50 [onstage]. We don’t want to slight the men who have given great performances this year — knowing our membership, I’m sure our men will embrace the opportunity to honor women."
Those words ring true, which is why I feel so conflicted about throwing shade on what was meant as a positive, empowering gesture. But it was just that: a gesture. Awards shows remain a male-dominated field. Only six women have ever hosted the Emmys, Golden Globes, and Oscars — combined. And even in a year marked by Hollywood's reckoning with the systemic and pervasive culture of harassment and abuse in the industry, the two major events of the season — the Golden Globes and the Oscars — will have been hosted by men.
Perhaps that's why I couldn't help but feel frustrated seeing all these talented women take the stage, and kill it — Molly Shannon should host everything from now on — only to remember that this was a one-time thing. Despite the good intentions behind the all-woman show, it still felt like somewhat of a token concession, a loud waving of the arms indicating that the SAGs were the woke awards, rather than a constructive effort to push real change on the industry as a whole.
Honouring women at a time where they are starting to lead the charge for change is a noble idea. And indeed, many of the women who took the stage last night used their platform to bring awareness to both #MeToo and the Time's Up initiative. But in practice, it kind of takes the onus off men to learn how to talk about issues that also concern them. Merely two weeks after the Golden Globes, when everyone was so proud to promote their activism, only a handful of stragglers were seen sporting Time's Up pins on the red carpet. Except for one question aimed at Alison Brie about her brother-in-law, James Franco, talk mostly turned back towards old standbys like clothes and celebrities other celebrities were most excited to fame out with that night. It was almost as if the pressure was off, because hey, women were presenting. What more do you expect?
I want more. I want equal time with men at all awards shows, not just one woman-focused one that absolves Hollywood for the rest of the year. I want more women honoured in categories that have traditionally been male-focused. I want a female Best Director. I want a female-directed Best Picture. Silo-ing our activism isn't the answer — we have to carve out space for ourselves in the strongholds. It's harder, to be sure. But real change isn't easy.
It would be perfectly fair to argue that we have to start somewhere. Having an industry-focused event like the SAGs led by women is a way for the guild to declare that it is ready to support those who have been let down over and over again. But unless those symbolic gestures are followed up with concrete action, they're just another distraction to make women forget the fact that they still make up only 4% of directors in Hollywood, make less than their male colleagues, and are still subjected to degrading and demeaning behaviour by those in charge.
Still, I am hopeful that real change is coming. At the end of the night, Brie Larson and Lupita Nyong'o took the stage to announce that the Screen Actors Guild will be introducing a new code of conduct for film and television sets. That's the kind of strong, accountable action that will make a difference. That is what will shape the future. Because, as SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris put it last night: "Make no mistake, this is not a moment in time, this is a movement, and our strength comes in our unity."