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RIP Time's Up – What the Hell Just Happened? | Analysis

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Clockwise from top left: Former Time’s Up board members Shonda Rhimes, Eva Longoria, Katie McGrath and Hilary Rosen (Photos by Getty Images)

RIP Time’s Up – What the Hell Just Happened? | Analysis

WAXWORD

The idea that powerful Hollywood women could strike a loud and decisive blow on behalf of gender equity has died

Time’s Up came to an abrupt end this holiday weekend. The group may still have money in the bank. There are still useful programs in place to help survivors of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. 

But with the resignation of virtually the entire Time’s Up board of directors — including showrunner Shonda Rimes, producer Katie McGrath, lawyer Nina Shaw, actress Eva Longoria and political mover-and-shaker Hilary Rosen — the idea that that a group of powerful Hollywood women, united in their purpose to protect women from all walks of life from a pervasive culture of sexual predation, has died.

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As yet another nail in the coffin, on Sunday Shaw dissolved the group’s Global Leadership Board, sending members an email that read: “There is no need for your individual resignations, as the group no longer exists. We will also be removing the Global Leadership group from the Time’s Up Website, but wanted you to receive this email before doing so.”

Poof. That’s gone. I wouldn’t buy the hype that Time’s Up is simply morphing into a new stage, with transitional leadership. Everything that made Time’s Up what it was — a unique power play by women, for once, on behalf of less powerful women — has quietly been dissolved. 

I confess that this outcome is heartbreaking, though not shocking. Time’s Up has struggled in many ways since its creation in January 2018 amid the rise of the #MeToo movement. But in the wake of last month’s resignation of CEO Tina Tchen, the group’s dissolution also seemed somewhat inevitable.

Tchen was a highly respected progressive activist and a veteran of the Obama administration who was tripped up by her involvement with disgraced New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. (Back story here.) Her resignation was the second in a matter of weeks, after lawyer and Time’s Up board co-chair Roberta Kaplan departed over a similar conflict, and two years after yet another CEO got tripped up over an accusation of sexual misconduct against her son. (That back story here and here.)

The feeling among some board members was that if Tchen could not keep the organization from tipping into controversy, could anyone?

Many of the volunteer activists on the Time’s Up board concluded that there was no path forward, according to two individuals with knowledge of its conversations. And honestly — who could blame them? Rhimes has a pretty busy day job writing hit TV shows like “Bridgerton” that deeply impact the culture. Shaw represents an enviable gallery of talent (Ava DuVernay, Jamie Foxx, Ta-Nehisi Coates). Eva Longoria is pursuing her new path as a director.

At a certain point, the public relations damage to their own brands was not worth it. My social media feed is full of gloating comments from men on the right about these women being “hoisted on their own petard.” Expect more of that.

Insiders also revealed an internal split within Time’s Up, as the leadership debated what the hell to do in the past week — whether the group should be focused on changing policy across the country, or on helping survivors.

The two goals are not mutually exclusive, but the board was frustrated at the constant criticism from survivors for not doing enough. This was reinforced by the organization’s young staff, who expressed their feelings that survivors should come first in every case, one insider told me. “It’s a ‘theory of change’ question. Those who believed we were working on policy — NDAs, statutes of limitations — bumped up against those who said, ‘Don’t focus on power but give support to survivors,” this insider said.

The board was firmly in the former camp. “We needed access to power to change the structures of our society: to change policy, laws and culture,” the insider said.

But getting access to power gets messy, doesn’t it? The Cuomo imbroglio is a prime example. Tchen and Kaplan appeared complicit in defending him from accusations of sexual assault. But were they? Cuomo may have manipulated Tchen by putting her in an untenable position, working on legislation to support survivors of assault while asking for her advice as he battled his own accusations. 

Here too the organization struggled with its mission. Time’s Up sought to take on paid work advising companies on how to create cutting-edge sexual harassment policies. But doing so also ran the risk of being paid by a company that could face its own accusations. And then what? The younger staff members firmly opposed Time’s Up getting its hands dirty.  

“It wasn’t we flew too close to the sun. It’s that you can’t get near these people without being tainted by them,” the insider said. “The staff believed this was the wrong way to go.”

The combination of those pressures appear to have been too much for this young nonprofit to bear. Instead, the answer seemed to be no answer at all, along with a unanimous decision to resign, turn the page and move on with life. This outcome is vastly disappointing to the women who had such high hopes about driving change. And it raises a host of questions about top-down activism going forward. 

Amid all the talk about a new phase of Time’s Up, I asked one of the board members who resigned if she agreed that practically speaking this was the end.

She said: “This is the end of the first chapter.” 

We shall see. Meantime, I’m calling it RIP.