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Commentary: Can Time’s Up Avoid Protest Fatigue at the Oscars?

March 4, 2018, 2:00 PM UTC

In several decades of researching social change, I have never seen a social movement arise as quickly and spread as widely as the #MeToo campaign against sexual assault and harassment. But like all contemporary protests, supporters face the difficulty of sustaining momentum in the face of a public whose attention span seldom lasts beyond a single news cycle.

The entertainment industry has played an important role in spreading the message of these movements, as activists have used the award show season brilliantly to further develop and broadcast their call for substantial changes in the way our culture confronts rape and sexual harassment. At the Golden Globes they effectively publicized the next key step: development of an organizational infrastructure in the form of Time’s Up, the legal defense fund that has already gathered millions of dollars in donations to help less affluent victims defend their rights and to build support for stronger laws against harassment and abuse.

In approaching the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, activists face a problem scholars call “protest fatigue.” People tend to grow weary of repeated protests unless there is something novel about them. Movements that were once energetic and fresh find themselves under a great deal of pressure to top their previous efforts.

Anti-harassment activists’ plans for the Oscars remain under wraps. Time’s Up leaders said Thursday that the movement and its legal defense fund “will be highlighted” during the ceremony, according to a Variety report, though they declined to specify what would happen. They also indicated that they will not hold any sort of organized protest like they did at the Golden Globes. According to a New York Times report, the campaign has not asked stars to dress in black or bring activists as guests—but indicated it would appreciate if stars wore a Time’s Up pin.

Time’s Up is smart to not reveal its exact plans. Suspense builds interest. But it’s still worth examining how the movement can best leverage the platform of the Oscars to draw attention to its cause.

Behind the scenes, activists could collaborate with one or two presenters ahead of time to help them prepare short, pointed speeches stressing one or two key next steps in the movement. We already know that host Jimmy Kimmel plans to bring up the #MeToo and Time’s Up movement during the show, according to an interview he gave to Vanity Fair.

When bringing up these issues, it is most effective for presenters to balance statistics (and the statistics on rape, abuse, and harassment are staggering) with specific, relatable examples. A perfect example of this was Kesha’s moving performance at the Grammys, which personalized the issue in light of widespread publicity about her being allegedly abused by her former manager.

When movements grow rapidly, they face the problem of giving supporters practical things to do. They need to balance visionary rhetoric with concrete action. Presenters can direct viewers to the Time’s Up website, which discusses specific actions folks can take in their workplaces and communities to change inadequate legal procedures and damaging cultural attitudes, and to encourage pay equity. They might bolster this process by encouraging Oscar parties for specific communities aimed at planning campaigns against harassment.

Without downplaying the considerable amount of exploitation in the entertainment industry, they can continue to stress as they did at the Globes their alliance with working- and middle-class women and members of the LGBTQ community, all of whom face great difficulties in pursuing fair treatment. Activists at the Globes also recognized the particular dangers endured by undocumented workers and other immigrants, and presenters might tie this issue into the current debate around Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and the Dreamers. Expanding their focus could broaden the movement’s impact.

At the previous award shows, activists took the important step of acknowledging men—both as victims and as allies. So far this season, male attendees have, wisely, mostly been silent supporters. But perhaps at the Oscars they could do more than wear lapel pins. Men could make a difference not by claiming to speak for women (a very bad idea), but by speaking to other men. They could call out masculine complicity in covering up abuse, and challenge the boys-will-be-boys culture that justifies and spreads abusive behaviors.

Whatever the stars who support the #MeToo tidal wave choose to do at the Oscars, it will be well worth watching. Tune in. The revolution is being televised.

T.V. Reed is the Buchanan distinguished professor emeritus at Washington State University, the author of The Art of Protest, and the editor of the web matrix,