When Regina King took the stage at the 2019 Golden Globes in January to accept her award for Best Supporting Actress, the actress had much more to say than thank you. She shifted some focus off her honor and let an ongoing issue—the fight to achieve 50-50 gender parity in Hollywood and in the workplace in general—take center stage.
“I am aware that I have gained a certain amount of power,” said King. “We are also here to make the world a better place for those who aren’t in positions of power, and it was my time to step up and exercise my power. You’re not in this space to just be an actor, you know?”
Months later, Michelle Williams would use her speech at the 2019 Emmy Awards in September to express similar concerns centered on gender and racial parity. “The next time a woman—and especially a woman of color, because she stands to make 52 cents on the dollar compared to her white, male counterpart—tells you what she needs in order to do her job, listen to her,” Williams said, “believe her.”
Over the last 12 months, building on the momentum of the #TimesUp conversations that began in 2018, more and more women in entertainment have adapted mentalities similar to King’s and Williams’. From the women who run local news to the ones who endure the paparazzi’s glare in Hollywood, they understand and are acting upon the off-screen, unscripted roles they play in shaping conversations and creating change.
“We are seeing the emergence of a gender justice movement that is driving change in education, the arts, business and politics,” says President and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) Fatima Goss Graves.
It was indeed a big year for movements of all kinds. Black women in Hollywood have been forming their own off-book mentoring circles to support the next generation of creatives. In May, Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix spoke out about Nike’s history of inadequate support for its pregnant athletes, which Nike has already started to address by announcing revised maternity pay policies to include more protections and no penalties for mothers. The latest example: a #MeTooVoter online campaign launched last month by #MeToo founder Tarana Burke, the NWLC, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and Justice for Migrant Women. The new campaign, supported by celebrities like Samantha Bee and Alyssa Milano, urges elected leaders and candidates to spearhead policies that tackle sexual violence and harassment and engages voters to hold leaders accountable.
In many of these cases, activism took emotional turns. Earlier this month, following her firing from America’s Got Talent, allegedly due in part to her hairstyle being “too black,” actress Gabrielle Union shaped the news into a conversation about hair discrimination and the importance of embracing natural hairstyles. Actress and Women’s Media Center cofounder Jane Fonda moved to Washington in September to focus on the climate crisis and has ended up in handcuffs multiple times after protests at the Capitol; she even accepted her BAFTA award mid-arrest. In June, actress, author and host Busy Philipps testified in Congress against abortion restrictions in states like Louisiana and opened up about her experience having an abortion at 15.
“It’s not the time to sit back and be quiet,” Philipps told Forbes. “More and more artists are continuing to find it imperative in these times, in this political climate, to be participatory as opposed to taking a backseat out of fear of retribution or not getting jobs.”
For actress and dancer Jenna Dewan, who finalized a very public divorce this year, exercising power has meant not putting labels on herself—and teaching others to do the same. In her new book Gracefully You: Finding Beauty and Balance in the Everyday, she breaks down how she’s learned to find her unique voice in an industry that’s prone to boxing people into one category.
“We’re reaching a place where women can be everything they are and not have to pretend to be something they’re not to be successful,” Dewan told Forbes.
For others in the industry, activism has meant building businesses to help support underrepresented communities of women. In April, tennis star Serena Williams publicly announced her venture-capital firm, Serena Ventures, which invests in early-stage companies led by women and people of color; it’s already invested in more than 30 startups. At the 2019 Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit, actress Sophia Bush spoke about her inclusive blow-dry bar Detroit Blows that she cofounded with Nia Batts. Its philanthropic arm, Detroit Grows, invests in female entrepreneurship.
“You see women in our salon sitting next to each other who, historically, have never sat next to each other in a salon before,” said Bush. “It is creating an intersectional awareness and community that, to us, is paramount. ”
The momentum may be strong as the year comes to a close, but 2020 holds a whole new set of hurdles to cross and challenges to overcome—to say nothing of a presidential race that will surely see participation from Hollywood’s loudest voices. Philipps, in particular, is concerned about a spring Supreme Court abortion hearing in Louisiana centered on a new law aimed at forcing abortion clinics to close. But she and many of her industry counterparts are vowing to not go quiet now that they’ve started to speak up.
“We’re in this now to win it, and that’s not going to happen overnight,” says Philipps. “The thing to be aware of now and to keep in mind is that persistence will be key in trying to effectively make change that will benefit all women.”