Why a Hollywood #MeToo Organization Imploded
S1: January 7th, 2018 was a good day to host an awards show in Los Angeles. It was sunny, warm. The Golden Globes got started at five o’clock sharp.
S2: Good evening, ladies and remaining gentlemen.
S1: The host that year was Seth Meyers tonight.
S2: Welcome to the 75th annual Golden Globes and Happy New Year, Hollywood.
S1: As soon as he got on stage, it was clear that there was going to be this thread running through the whole night. A comedic reckoning with sexual harassment
S2: in marijuana is finally allowed, and sexual harassment finally isn’t. It’s going to
S1: be a good year. A laundry list of allegations against Harvey Weinstein had been made public a few months earlier. The legal case against him was just getting started and outside the Beverly Hilton that night on the red carpet, the chatter was all about this way. Women in Hollywood were responding.
S3: I could not spot a celebrity not wearing black tonight, standing strong with victims of sexual abuse.
S1: Many actresses had arrived for the Globes, dressed head to toe in black and many of the men they were wearing these pins that read simply Time’s up.
S3: This moment feels historic. This has never happened before on this scale.
S1: I just remember thinking like, that sounds good, I guess, but I didn’t know what it would mean in the end. You know,
S3: it’s a really weird framework to impose on any discussion of sexual harassment, right? Because it sort of presupposes that there was there was a time when that was fine. But now your time is up.
S1: I called up Slate’s Lili Loofbourow to talk about the birth of Time’s Up the other day.
S3: Maybe it’s realistic. Maybe it’s a pragmatic approach to the whole question. But yeah, it is a little bit strange.
S1: I wanted to see if the way this organization got its start shed any light on the way it has since collapsed, with its CEO and board all disbanding. Over the last few weeks, Lili says when it began, Time’s Up seemed to have this grassroots energy.
S3: It was a product of the biggest Go Fund Me campaign, I think, in history. Maybe like I think by the time it got started, there were, maybe, I don’t know, twenty two million dollars or something that had been donated to the cause.
S1: This money was meant to be used for all kinds of things a legal defense fund for victims of sexual harassment, a foundation that would research equitable workplaces along with a policy arm.
S3: And that arm is the one that I have been reporting on, and it has had a lot of turnover from the beginning, like a shocking amount of turnovers. The organization is only three years old, right? And it has gone through three CEOs in those three years.
S1: It’s funny because I look at this organization a little bit and it’s complicated structure, and I have this question which is like was Time’s Up about changing things for women or changing things for women in Hollywood or in Washington? Like who was it for?
S3: Um, I think it was intended to be for women in general and not women in Hollywood from the beginning. I think that had obvious shortfalls in practice just because the priorities of women in Hollywood who were involved with Time’s Up kept eclipsing some of the longer term priorities that were meant to benefit all survivors everywhere, regardless of their status or connections.
S1: Today on the show, why it seems like time is up for Time’s Up. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. One of the selling points of Time’s Up when it launched was that you had all these powerful women using their networks on behalf of survivors. Star producer Shonda Rhimes, who helped found Time’s Up, she was quoted as saying, 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? But Lili says this idea, it sounds good on paper, but in practice, no one seemed to know what that meant.
S3: I talked to about eight people who worked with Time’s Up in some capacity, either as staffers, volunteers or people who had left. The thing that they all said was that there was not a clear sense of what the organization was doing, and they really felt that there was there were often good intentions, but there was a kind of fuzziness strategically that made it impossible for many of them to really understand what they were doing and why.
S1: So what were these staffers doing all day if they weren’t clear what they should be doing?
S3: Well, I think in many cases they were responding to these kind of emergencies. They would arise as a result of internal texting among, you know, the more powerful networkers involved in the organization. So one example was Gayle. King became the focus of a lot of anger after Kobe Bryant died because she asked about the sexual assault allegations against him, and so there was a big pile on against her. And because she evidently had some friends and time’s up, the mandate came down to put all the day’s priorities on pause in order to support Gayle King, that was now the mission. So there were tweets and they launched a petition in support of her and a couple of other things. But what staff said was that it seemed arbitrary and disruptive, and everything that they had been working towards was kind of like slammed shut. And that was no longer a priority because there was an emergency that came from a powerfully connected woman in need of support and that that seemed to be the priority over the kind of less connected survivors that the organization was ostensibly founded to serve. Right was the unconnected.
S1: What did these women feel like they should be doing where their higher ups were maybe telling them, don’t do that?
S3: Well, one person said that they really thought that Time’s Up should have extended the work that it was doing in New York, which it worked with, you know, some politicians there, including Senator Alessandra Biaggi, to try to pass laws that would help hold companies accountable. That would help extend the statute of limitation on things like sexual harassment and other offenses, and that there were other states where that kind of thinking and that kind of strategic goal was was possible. But they never really got very far with that plan. And instead, there often was a kind of swerve towards. I don’t know, I guess, what one might describe as signaling work rate, a lingua franca sweater that was like a brand partnership with Time’s Up. That said, time’s up on it or, you know, a pendant. This kind of thing.
S1: So they were kind of selling trinkets instead of actually getting into the guts of legislation and getting real work done that might actually benefit more women.
S3: Yeah. Or, you know, pressuring politicians for particular policy goals that would serve, you know, again, unconnected survivors. And here too, there was a perception among some of the people who I spoke to that whereas they understood the role of Time’s Up to be, you know, to develop its own set of priorities and then pressure politicians to align with those functionally. Sometimes it seemed like leadership was more inclined to consult with Democratic politicians, especially before taking a hard line on any particular policy stance. So they felt that it was kind of backwards, right? Rather than being able to exert pressure as an advocacy organization, they were first having to clear the priorities they had decided were important with the politicians who they were ostensibly going to pressure.
S1: It’s interesting because I think anyone who’s had any experience with nonprofits where they often have a board that’s made up of people who are wealthy or influencers in some way is kind of familiar with the dynamic that’s being talked about here. But it seems like the dynamic is like on speed, because Time’s Up had so many of these people involved in leadership roles, like they had a 71 person global leadership council that was like Janelle Monae was on it and, you know, Reese Witherspoon was on it. And so first of all, that’s just a lot of people weighing in on what you do day to day. But a lot of really powerful people. And so to me, it really seems like what you’re putting your finger on is something that. Could be just a normal part of nonprofit life, but instead is like in hyperdrive.
S3: I think that’s right. And I think that, you know what, some of the people who actually had experience in nonprofits said to me which again, they have to emphasize a lot of people in the founding organization did not like they
S1: didn’t work in nonprofits before doing this work. Yeah.
S3: But people who had and who came on board said that they were kind of shocked by the fact that in lieu of, for example, policies that would take care of conflicts of interest rate, policies that are very well known across the board in the nonprofit world and that are, you know, sort of clearly delineated in order to prevent embarrassing juxtapositions or things that that look bad, which just were not put into place and instead a kind of language of of sisterhood was invoked and of mutual trust that devolved into some some strange decision making by the organization that didn’t always make it appear in the best light. Hmm.
S1: Can you give an example of when? Because it’s not that the people you talked to, you didn’t want to message, they wanted to message a lot of times, but sometimes they were even prevented from doing that. Can you tell me a story of when people you spoke to were prevented from intervening where they thought maybe Time’s Up should have spoken out?
S3: So during the Democratic primary, there was famously a moment right when Elizabeth Warren challenged Michael Bloomberg to release women from India.
S4: He has gotten some number of women, dozens who knows to sign nondisclosure agreements, both for sexual harassment and for gender discrimination in the workplace. So, Mr. Mayor, are you willing to release all of those women from those nondisclosure agreements so we can hear their side of the story?
S3: That was a kind of an electric moment during that primary and non-disclosure agreements you may or may not recall where kind of a big item in the MeToo conversation, especially in Hollywood, because there were so often used by powerful actors to effectively silence people who’d been victimized. So it was an important tenet of, I think, MeToo used conventional wisdom and of Time’s Up and in particular that nondisclosure agreements needed to go. So Warren, calling for that seemed entirely consistent with Time’s Up mission to a lot of junior staffers, and so they wanted to tweet in support of her. But they were prevented from doing so. Why? The reason given was that it was impolitic to show bias in favor of a particular candidate. Huh. But when Bloomberg did release some women from those NDAs, Time’s Up did praise him.
S1: So that is a weird tension. Yeah, that’s strange and maybe tone deaf decision making. It was also present within Time’s Up internal operations, Lili says last summer, as protests for racial justice dominated the public conversation. Time’s Up employees, like those at many organizations, started to look inwards. A little more than a dozen staffers started meeting on the weekends, and they drafted a letter to management about what they felt was wrong with the organization. A dozen might not sound like a lot, but Time’s Up has only got 25 full time employees. Some people felt tokenized by comments from Time’s Up leadership, but this letter? It ended up sprawling into all kinds of other problems the group had as well,
S3: including the fact that there was a real problem in workplace culture, which left everybody feeling very disempowered and sad and women of color. A few said that they didn’t actually feel very comfortable or safe, bringing concerns forward, particularly to the human resources consultant. And many felt that when there were conflicts between managers and staff, the result tended to be that the staff would receive coaching,
S1: the staff would receive coaching.
S3: Yeah, that was one of the complaints that was listed,
S1: not the managers,
S3: not the managers. So a lot of people felt kind of weirdly repressed and and unable to speak freely in an organization that was ostensibly about not silencing women. And there was a lot of despair about sort of what seemed like an unfixable culture. They couldn’t figure out how to break through.
S1: When we come back, how accusations of sexual harassment against Andrew Cuomo signaled the demise of Time’s Up as it was known. So I started to realize Time’s Up was in real trouble when Andrew Cuomo was forced to resign as governor of New York because there began to be these reports that he was connected with the organization and had leaned on them for advice, especially when the first accusations came out about him. And he was in the midst of trying to aggressively push back against those. Can you tell the story of what happened in just the last year or so with this organization?
S3: Yeah. Time’s Up had been working with Cuomo right on some of this legislation and with Biagi, who was the one who actually drafted it, right?
S1: Because it was this kind of irony that Cuomo was being accused of sexual harassment, but he had brought forward all of this sexual harassment legislation.
S3: Exactly so. And he’d been very loud about his partnerships with Time’s Up. So when he signed the legislation, his office made sure to invite Time’s Up people, but not B.I.G. The senator who actually drafted the legislation because she had been a prominent critic of Cuomo’s, but he was very, I think, strategic about emphasizing his links to Time’s Up. So it emerged in the investigation that the attorney general did that. Roberta Kaplan, the chairwoman of Time’s Up, had been advising Cuomo on a particular allegation made by Lindsey Boylan, and in particular, Cuomo’s office had been thinking about drafting this letter that would, according to the New York Times, quote unquote smear Boylan basically to try to delegitimize her claims. And while most of the people who were consulted about the letter considered it to be a bad idea, what the attorney general’s investigation found was that Caplan herself seemed to think that with a few changes, it would be fine. So it would appear that on background, the chairwoman of Time’s Up was. Advising a governor accused of sexual harassment on how to smear a victim of harassment that he himself had been guilty of, or at least been accused of. She was also representing Goldman Sachs in a kind of a similar capacity. And when the investigation started, Melissa DeRosa, who was kind of one of Cuomo’s most important aides and has been accused of enabling a lot of the abuses that have since come out in his office, Caplan started representing DeRosa. Melissa DeRosa in the course of that investigation to so at every turn, I think. When there could have been distance, there was instead an inclination to move closer to Cuomo and to the unfolding disaster that that seemed to be underway there.
S1: Here’s the thing. Hearing this story? Which is Democrats in New York used to have this thing that they would say about Cuomo were like, he’s our bad guy kind of thing, he’s our jerk. And so. I feel like when I hear this story, I hear the leaders of Time’s Up making that same calculation in their heads like, well, I guess, you know, he’s advocating for us and so, you know, we can stand by him on this thing. But it it really does show the problem with building your organization on responding to people in power versus people who aren’t in power. And like that was a really key part of how the organization was founded. I heard it described as a grass tops approach as opposed to grassroots. The idea was very specifically like, we’re going to talk to the leaders and work, and that’s going to help us make change faster.
S3: Yes, but
S1: this is where that all falls down to me.
S3: No, exactly. Yeah. And I mean, yeah, I mean, Tina Tchen, to her credit, was explicit about the fact that that was one of the advantages, right, that Time’s Up had like that it was filled with, you know, people with power and influence who could try to use that. So in practice, you know, a lot of staffers had questions about how that was actually working and whether anything was actually being achieved. But I think you’re right. Like I think the understanding of how Time’s Up could best serve was in some sense tangled up with the fact that power is has a very hard time turning against power.
S1: It was not long before those in power at Time’s Up had to deal with the contradictions they were creating this August, when a group of survivors published an open letter pointing out these kinds of contradictions. Chairwoman Roberta Kaplan resigned the same day, and Lili says she didn’t exactly apologize for the bulk of the complaints the staff had raised.
S3: So her explanation was essentially that she could not discuss the details of those cases and sustain an act of law practice while also serving as chairwoman. So it was it was in the vein of yes, for the good of the organization. I will step down. And then about three weeks later, Tina Tchen, the CEO, stepped down to.
S1: And what did she say her reasoning was?
S3: Well, what had happened in the intervening weeks was that it had emerged that Tchen had also consulted on that letter. That perspective led her to smear Lindsey Boylan. So it turned out that Kaplan had not been alone in that endeavor. So given that revelation, Chen stepped down.
S1: I mean, Tina Tchen, who was the CEO, seems to be on this redemption tour right now, where she’s basically saying, You know, Time’s Up is young and, you know, give it some time. You know, the problem is old here. I wonder how what she’s saying sounds to you like, do you think this organization can be redeemed?
S3: I think it will take some very visionary people to repopulate the strange and compromised kind of space it now holds in the public imagination with something genuinely new and hopeful. I don’t think that means it cannot be done. But it sounds like there is a lot of just run of the mill disillusionment, a lot of sadness that even this organization whose mission was to improve the work culture for American women. And I suppose all women couldn’t even managed to run its own workplace in a way that was mutually satisfactory and end and made the people involved feel valued and heard. That stinks, you know, because there’s a lot of brilliance and talent that went into all of that. And it is very dispiriting that a lot of small incremental, not even particularly scandalous decisions accrued to create this kind of like really uninspiring, difficult morass of bad feeling.
S1: It’s a mess. Yeah, there’s no better word for it. It’s just it’s just seems like a mess from the outside. I know,
S3: and there were a lot of good intentions. That’s what’s so sad. You know it. It’s really sad. It’s just it’s really sad.
S1: Lili Loofbourow, thank you so much for joining me.
S3: Thank you so much for having me.
S1: Lili Loofbourow is a staff writer for Slate. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Carmel Delshad Davis Land, Elena Schwarze, Danielle, Hewitt and Mary Wilson. We are led by Alison Bettencourt and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris, who tracked me down whenever you want on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk. Thank you for listening. I’ll catch you back in this feed tomorrow.