Boycotting Georgia Won't Change Its Abortion Laws

As Hollywood debates whether to pull production out of the state, experts say there are better ways to make an impact.

by Nicole Clark
May 14 2019, 11:00am

Actor Alyssa Milano and Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, Michael Tran/Getty Images; Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Last Tuesday, Georgia's Republican Governor Brian Kemp signed into law a piece of anti-choice legislation that would criminalize abortion at six weeks, which is often before people know they're pregnant. HB 481 effectively means women and trans men could be forced to carry pregnancies to term. A fetus is granted full personhood under this bill, which means abortion could be punished as murder in the legal system, and someone who miscarries could be charged if prosecutors believe they were "responsible." HB 481 would seriously endanger anyone who can get pregnant, and it will go into effect on January 1, 2020, unless it's blocked in courts. This is one of numerous recent six-week bans that threaten abortion access in the United States.

As the bill was making its way through the state legislature, a number of high-profile Hollywood directors and actors said they'd boycott the Peach State—long a home for TV and movie production thanks to generous tax incentives—if HB 481 was signed. Now, some are renewing this call despite concerns about the way a boycott might affect people in the state and whether it will lead to legislative change.

Alyssa Milano, who has lobbied against HB 481 since April, assembled a list of 100 signers protesting the bill. She recently reaffirmed her call to boycott, saying in a statement: “I will do everything in my power to get as many productions as possible—including Insatiable—to move out of this state." Other prominent figures in the industry have also spoken up, including indie producer Christine Vachon, who tweeted about no longer shooting in Georgia with her production company, Killer Films. The Wire creator David Simon tweeted his own intention to move production out of the state, claiming "other filmmakers will see this." Earlier this year, The Writer's Guild of America released a statement urging Governor Kemp to veto the bill, calling it “a draconian anti-choice measure." They haven't commented more recently.

But where would a boycott leave actual residents of Georgia? Specifically Georgians who are most vulnerable as a result of this bill, and those whose livelihoods depend on the sprawling film industry in the state? For pro-choice residents, such massive economic infrastructure threatening to leave the state might feel like abandonment or punishment. As of this writing, more than 800 women have signed an online petition from The Women of Film in Georgia asking for filmmakers to stay in the state. The petition reads: "Your condemnation is understandable, but what we really need most is allies."

Georgia is a huge draw for high-profile, box-office jaunts—the majority of Marvel's pantheon of films has been shot, at least in some part, in Georgia. This goes for television and streaming as well; The Walking Dead, Stranger Things, Insatiable, Ozark, and of course, Atlanta are also all filmed in Georgia. In the 2018 fiscal year, the film and TV industry in Georgia was responsible for 92,100 jobs and nearly $4.6 billion total wages in the state, according to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). That's a massive economic impact.

Georgia state Representative Renitta Shannon wrote to VICE that while boycotts can be effective, they adversely impact actual residents. “This is a two-part answer: History has shown us that economic boycotts are effective, think the Montgomery Boycotts of the 60s," Shannon said. "When those in power show that they have no regard for the human rights of an entire class of people, major losses in revenue—which almost always has political repercussions—are the only thing they understand. The problem is that a 'Hollywood Boycott' would hurt workers who didn’t ask for women’s bodily autonomy to be stripped and don’t support this regressive policy. It would hurt small businesses and the hospitality industry, both of which have grown because of all of the filming, and any loss in revenue will come from our state budget which more than 50% of goes to schools. Republicans are always walking around the House chamber saying they don’t want the film industry in Georgia because it brings 'those kinds of people who don’t have family values,' but these are the same Reps who can’t wait to spend the revenue brought in by the filming industry every year.”

It's not the first time Hollywood said it would boycott Georgia. Just last year, the Georgia state Senate passed a bill that would allow adoption agencies and foster care providers to discriminate against same-sex couples by refusing to work for them. Major Hollywood figures, including Grey's Anatomy showrunner Krista Vernoff, spoke up, decrying the state's "institutionalized homophobia." Disney and Netflix, along with tech giants like Apple and Yelp, also threatened to leave the state. The bill was ultimately vetoed by then-Governor Nathan Deal.

Hollywood's initial calls to boycott HB 481, however, didn't dissuade Governor Kemp from signing the bill. Unlike last time, major studios haven't spoken up. And the MPAA has remained neutral in its stance, saying in a statement:

Film and television production in Georgia supports more than 92,000 jobs and brings significant economic benefits to communities and families. It is important to remember that similar legislation has been attempted in other states, and has either been enjoined by the courts or is currently being challenged. The outcome in Georgia will also be determined through the legal process. We will continue to monitor developments.

Shannon pointed to Hollywood figures like actor and director Jordan Peele, who are offering an alternative route. Peele and director J.J. Abrams will be giving 100 percent of their "episodic fees" for their new show, Lovecraft Country, to the ACLU of Georgia, which will challenge the law, and Fair Fight Georgia, the non-profit voting reform group of former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who lost a contested election to Kemp.

Peele and Abrams' choice was also informed by the fact that the project was already underway (and they therefore would have been hard pressed to leave the state), but this model suggests a path for Hollywood to support vulnerable Georgians without withdrawing business. Organizations like Spark Reproductive Justice, Sister Song, Access Reproductive Healthcare Southeast, Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equality, and NARAL Georgia, all work for pro-choice rights—and people inside and outside Hollywood can support them.

The #MeToo movement has demonstrated how unsafe the industry has been for women and other marginalized people, and while a boycott suggests a kind of outspokenness on their behalf, it appears more likely to end up being an ineffective and harmful tactic. Hollywood figures—along with everyday people—can make more of an impact by supporting progressive candidates and voting reform, said Kelly Baden, Director of Reproductive Rights at the pro-choice legislation advocacy group State Innovation Exchange. "If every actor who films in Georgia and is appalled by this archaic law could devote some resources to voter education and turnout in Georgia, and to fighting voter suppression, they would have a much greater impact than a boycott ever could," Baden explained.

Stacey Abrams tweeted her own response to the bill's passage, saying that it "will hurt Georgia women by criminalizing the healthcare decisions of women and doctors. This political stunt will also jeopardize our vibrant film industry. Georgians will fight back in the courtroom and at the ballot box & win."

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