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Viola Davis on #MeToo: ‘If You’re Dedicated to Change, Let It Cost You Something’

Is the #MeToo movement a true tipping point? Or will this moment pass with no real impact on our culture?

That was the main question posed at the Women in the World salon, held Tuesday at NeueHouse in Hollywood.

Reprising a powerful quote from her speech at the Women’s March in Los Angeles last month, Viola Davis said, “Nothing can be great unless it costs you something.” The actress, who was interviewed by WITW host Tina Brown, said change can happen if we are all willing to make sacrifices. “For me, everything has cost me something,” she said. “I think that people sometimes want to take the safe route. The way life works, it’s gotta cost you something. That’s when you know you’ve really made the sacrifices.”

Davis also opened up about her own #MeToo experiences (“I cannot tell you at any time in my life that I was not sexually assaulted in some way,” she said), the inequality women of color continue to face, as well as her own childhood in extreme poverty.

“The reason I always talk about that beginning is because nobody talks about poverty,” she said. “Now Trump wants to get rid of food stamps and have these boxes of food delivered to homes where people are poor. It’s because poor people are invisible. I know because I was that. No one looks at you.”

Davis spoke frankly about her own struggles to land meaty, complicated roles, and pointed the finger at executives who act out of fear about box office. “Inclusivity has to start with studio heads who greenlight movies,” she said, adding that people of color are still often relegated to minor roles. “They won’t consider you for a role they wrote for Sandra Bullock or Reese Witherspoon.”

And despite her collection of awards, she said she still faces issues of pay inequality. “I have a career that’s probably comparable to Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Julianne Moore,” she said, pointing out that they’ve all graduated from Juilliard, and gone on to careers that have straddled film, television and theater. “I am nowhere near them in terms of money, job opportunities — nowhere close to them.” People call her a “black Meryl Streep” and that there’s “no one” like her, she said, adding “If there is no like me, pay me what I’m worth.”

And to truly be effective, she said, the #MeToo movement needs to more fully embrace women of color, pointing out that she’s often been at gatherings where there are only a few women of color amid a sea of white faces. “We have been riding the caboose of the train and it’s time enough for that,” she said.

The evening kicked off with a “really bad-a–” panel (as Brown said) which included A+E president and CEO Nancy Dubuc, actress Olivia Munn, Recode founder Kara Swisher, and MSNBC host Joy-Ann Reid, moderated by “#MeToo, Now What” PBS host Zainab Salbi. The women discussed pay equity, the Trump effect, and if corporate culture can really be changed.

Swisher said, despite the spotlight on Silicon Valley, women’s representation is still miniscule. “There’s a lot of people saying the right things, but the numbers remain the same,” she said. “They call it a meritocracy, I call it a mirror-tocracy.”

The election of Donald Trump has just reinforced such inherent sexism, Reid said. “I think that part of what Trumpism is about is asserting what they thought is the proper role of the man,” she said. “The nostalgia for the 1950s is what drove Trumpism. That dam has broken. Women are not going to put up with it. Women are going to fight back.”

Munn said everyone in the entertainment industry has to be willing to speak up.”We’re really great at symbolism and really crappy at actual change,” she said. “Some people have to lose their spot. You have to take one out to make room for the other. Your show might go down. Are you willing to do what’s right?”

Dubuc recounted how she once stood up to Harvey Weinstein, hanging up on him when he called to berate her for canceling his show “Models of the Runway.” She said her action was simply an impulse, a means of protecting herself. “I think we have to figure out how to create an environment where it’s safe for women to do that consciously,” she said.

Salbi asked the women one thing that can be done to effect real change.

“The most important thing is to keep showing such gratitude to people who use their voices to show their outrage and support for the people who speak up,” Munn said.

Reid advocated for voting for, hiring, and promoting women. “Let the men sort it out when we’re in charge,” she said.

Dubuc spoke about defeating bias, pointing out that, “Every single attribute that is unlikable in women is celebrated in men.” “The rooms have to change,” she said. “That’s only going to happen with peeling back the bias challenges.”

And Swisher pushed for staying engaged. “Take power, rip it from their hands, if you have to,” she said. “Stay angry for a real long time, forever if you have to. Don’t go along, and they’ll give up.”

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