The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Jimmy Kimmel’s #MeToo Oscars monologue revealed a painful truth

Presenter Jimmy Kimmel addressed Hollywood’s sexual harassment reckoning and offered nominees a free Jet Ski for the shortest acceptance speech. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post, Photo: Chris Pizzello/The Washington Post)

Academy Awards host Jimmy Kimmel quickly dispelled questions about whether he would address the #MeToo movement during the show on Sunday night. In the end, the surprise wasn’t that Kimmel talked about one of the biggest news stories of the past six months. It was what he said. At the same time as Kimmel emphasized the importance of initiatives like #MeToo and #TimesUp, he outlined the limits of Hollywood’s power to stop sexual harassment and other manifestations of gender inequality.

Kimmel’s monologue underscored the scope of Hollywood’s gender problem. The industry, he suggested, misjudged women’s tastes: “We made a movie called ‘What Women Want,’ and it starred Mel Gibson.” That issue is magnified by the strikingly small number of movies that are directed by women — 11 percent, a figure Kimmel pronounced “nuts.” Kimmel used the different salaries Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg received for reshoots on Ridley Scott’s “All The Money in the World” to imply that actresses can’t even trust their agents, who would profit if their female clients received more compensation, to fight for pay equity.

And all of those complaints are in addition to horrifying accounts of sexual harassment that have wracked the industry since October, when the New York Times and the New Yorker published accounts of disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual predations. Since that time, huge numbers of women have stepped forward to recount decades of harassment, assault and abuses of power they say they experienced at the hands of influential men in the industry.

Those allegations shaped the Oscars this year in ways large and small. Casey Affleck won Best Actor in 2017 for his performance in “Manchester by the Sea,” an honor that under normal circumstances would have set him up to present the Best Actress statue at this year’s ceremony. But due to a pair of sexual harassment allegations against Affleck that he denied and eventually settled out of court, Affleck was replaced as a presenter. Ryan Seacrest, by contrast, hosted E!’s red carpet coverage of the Oscars despite allegations of sexual misconduct made by his former stylist. Seacrest’s presence resulted in at least one wildly awkward moment, when Taraji P. Henson told him that “the universe has a way of taking care of good people” during an interview.

Shining bright lights on the dark corners of an industry and seeing what cockroaches scuttle out is an important first step. But it’s not the only necessary one. And Kimmel’s monologue suggested that Hollywood may only be able to do so much to clean out those dark corners for good.

Yes, Kimmel told the audience, it’s a good thing that Weinstein was expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Someone who is accused of using his power in an industry to prey on other members of his professional community shouldn’t be part of an elite body within that community, and certainly not one that awards its highest honors.

But as significant as Weinstein’s excommunication from the entertainment industry’s most important body might be, the punishment also demonstrates the limits of the sanctions Hollywood can impose on malefactors. The only other person to have been thrown out of the academy, Kimmel pointed out, is Carmine Caridi, who was punished for sharing the screeners Academy members receive each year. “Caridi,” Kimmel said, “got the same punishment as Harvey Weinstein for giving his neighbor a copy of ‘Seabiscuit’ on VHS.”

It was a pretty funny line, and it revealed just how few options the entertainment industry has for expressing disapproval: It has to use the same tools to punish people who commit wildly different sins. And even more to the point, throwing someone out of the academy is not the same thing as ensuring the legal system works, or making recompense for all the years in which the countless people who had suspicions about Weinstein’s alleged behavior failed to act. This willful blindness is an epidemic in the entertainment industry. There’s so much more work to be done, and so few mechanisms the entertainment industry can use to police itself.

And if things are bad in Hollywood, the climb may be even steeper everywhere else. “If we are successful here, if we can work together to stop sexual harassment in the workplace, if we can do that, women will only have to deal with harassment all the time at every other place they go,” Kimmel said, deadpan.

That’s not entirely true: The TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund, organized by women in Hollywood, is intended to provide financial support to people who might not otherwise be able to pursue sexual harassment claims in court. But changing the culture and practices of one industry is hard enough. Doing it everywhere is a deeply daunting task. For all the Academy Awards celebrate the power of movies, solving sexual harassment is going to require more than merely setting a good example, if Hollywood can even manage to do that.