BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — A Hollywood event that’s supposed to be about women's empowerment in the industry and the world was more about how their rights are being imperiled at home and abroad.
Restrictive abortion legislation in the U.S. and the Taliban's takeover of Afghanistan took center stage Thursday at the Variety Power of Women event, which honored actor Rita Moreno, singers Katy Perry and Lorde, poet/activist Amanda Gorman, and Channing Dungey, chairwoman of Warner Bros. Television Group.
The event celebrates the philanthropic efforts of those in the entertainment industry, with causes ranging from providing health care to the uninsured to reaching out to underserved communities through the arts.
Angelina Jolie spoke of all the girls in the world who feel like outsiders as she introduced the 23-year-old Gorman, who stole the show at President Biden’s inauguration with a powerful recitation of her poem, “The Hill We Climb.” (Gorman plans to run for president herself in 2036, the first year she’ll be eligible.)
“How many Amandas are living in Afghanistan, hiding their journals, waiting to see if they’re going to be allowed to go to school?” Jolie asked. “As if anyone has the right to decide what a woman can or cannot do with her own mind and body.”
Jolie continued: “There is nothing more beautiful, more challenging, and perhaps unsettling than the free mind of a thinking woman.”
Gorman then delivered a poem so powerful, the speaker that followed her — director Ava DuVernay — quipped: “Thank you to the person who decided that I would go after Amanda. Lord have mercy.”
The nearly 90-year-old Moreno, who became the first Latina to win an Oscar, said that women have been deprived of power for far too long.
“We live in a time that requires us to be vigilant,” she said. “As women, many issues require our attention in these dreadfully dark days, when our leaders politicize the wearing of masks and polarize our citizens over vaccines, when in the minds of many climate change is science fiction, and health care is still not codified as a basic human right in this divine America.”
Actor Alyssa Milano said that “this is the most dangerous time to be a woman in America in my life.”
“Texas enacted laws that are worse than we could ever have imagined. Other states are following suit,” she said. “The Supreme Court seems content to let it all happen. And both parties in the Senate are failing us on this issue.”
Milano then introduced a surprise guest: Paxton Smith, the Texas high school valedictorian who scrapped a speech approved by her school administrators and delivered an abortion rights call in its place.
Smith used her moment in front of Hollywood’s elite to urge them to act.
“There is no more time to wait and see what happens next because the very thing we are afraid of is happening right now,” she said. “Every citizen of Texas who has the reproductive capability of carrying out a pregnancy has had a fundamental freedom stripped away from them, the fundamental human right to decide what we do with our lives.”
The Texas law is already facing legal challenges, including a lawsuit filed by the Biden administration.
“Royals” singer Lorde used her speech to question her own power. The singer drew some criticism after recording five songs from her latest album, “Solar Power,” in the indigenous New Zealand language of te reo Māori.
The songs, she said, sparked a hard discussion.
“Is this wealthy famous white woman being supportive or tokenistic? Is she advocating or co-opting for her own social gain?” she said. “I welcome this discourse. Power like mine should be interrogated. In the past few years, we’ve all seen that no system of power is too big to fail, no person in charge too established to uproot.”
On a night when she and other powerful women in Hollywood were being honored, Lorde said she was thinking of “the women whose birthplace or skin color or socioeconomic status was always going to make it less likely that they be handed a megaphone.”
Katy Perry steered clear of politics during her speech and made it a more personal night for her, fiancé Orlando Bloom, and their daughter Daisy, who just turned 1.
“Orlando, a man that is a friend and an ally to women all around the world, thank you for handling the insanity of my life with such loving grace,” she said. “And to my Daisy, a future powerful woman, I pledge to you to do my best to be an example of one, to never put limits on your dreams, to lead with love never through fear and to always be your lighthouse in any darkness.”
She then asked Bloom to loosen her corset so she could sing a song called “What Makes a Woman.” As he worked to undo the back of her billowing lavender dress, she advised: “Pull it all the way down, I have a girdle in here.”
It was not the only light moment in a night filled with heavy speeches.
The evening’s host, comedian and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” actor Chelsea Peretti, said she was excited to get back to society amid the coronavirus pandemic, especially “doing something really chill like making direct face-to-face contact with Angelina Jolie.”