Oscars 2017 countdown: Feminism, red carpet fashion, and the woes of being a woman
The Oscars red carpet is the unlikely spot where a battle is waged every year for female celebrities to be treated with the same seriousness as the men
A beautiful woman walks down a red carpet in a stunning gown. She’s accompanied by a handsome man in a tuxedo and bow tie. Photographers are clamouring all over for the perfect picture that’ll be splashed across online, social, and offline media. They’re both on a red hot streak, starring in the biggest, most critically acclaimed movie of the year — each nominated in their respective categories for their acting. The entertainment media outlets are positioned — men and women with mics in hand and smiles plastered across their faces, as the couple walks down the red carpet.
A man with a mic and an overly-snazzy suit gives the actress a peck on her cheek, shakes hands with the actor, and asks him, “How does it feel to be nominated along with all these other great actors for a movie you must be proud of?” The actor launches into a well-rehearsed I’m-so-blessed-and-so-modest-but-also-such-a-handsome-incredibly-lucky-and-privileged-dude spiel, flooring the man with the mic in the snazzy suit, as well as a few others within earshot.
The man with the mic turns to the actress. She looks at him in anticipation; she has a well-rehearsed answer to that question as well — something about being blessed and fortunate to act in this movie, and being a huge fan of one iconic actress who’s also nominated in the same category as her — she even has a cute anecdote about her fangirling, and she knows she tells it well. The man with the mic and the snazzy suit pauses, looks directly at her, smiles broadly and asks her, “And who are you wearing today?” Errr, what?
I have a feeling that if the most famous actresses in the world were asked about the most annoying and sexist question that’s continuously thrown at them, a vast majority of them might choose the above question. Seriously — everyone from Meryl Streep (the most decorated Hollywood actress at the Oscars) to a 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis (nominated for a best actress Oscar in 2013) have been asked this question and subjected to a female-celebrity-only rite of passage with questions about their hair/makeup/manicure-pedicure/clutch/dress/shoes/diets/other-load-of-crap. Some called it out; remember Cate Blanchett asking the E! red carpet camera if it close-and-creepily-panned up the bodies of male celebrities the way it panned up her, dressed in a pink Givenchy dress?
It doesn’t really matter what their movie is about, how they prepared for their role, and what their previous body of work has been — on the red carpet, the female celebrity’s worth, for some strange inexplicable reason, is accounted for by the outfit she wears, by the designer who took the time and effort to custom-make that creation for her, and by the spot she occupies on the best dressed list for the night!
A couple of years ago, this penchant of reporters to ask female celebrities such inane questions resulted in #AskHerMore. Launched by Jennifer Siebel-Newsom, a filmmaker and founder-CEO of The Representation Project, the #AskHerMore campaign encouraged reporters to focus on what an actress has achieved versus which designer dressed her. And it worked — for a fleeting moment. At the 2015 BAFTA Awards, Buzzfeed even went a step further and asked male celebrities those same inane questions, and the results were jolting yet hilarious (the male celebs were shocked and confused at being asked such questions — the very same questions female celebrities are expected to answer as a matter of routine!).
But amidst reports that female celebrities were being paid by designers to wear their dresses and jewellery (with the expectation that they would discuss them and the designers during their interviews) and designer backlash (where designers believed that while the #AskHerMore campaign is all well and good, the actresses can’t leave fashion out of the picture), the campaign and its feminist momentum waned. For designers, this was more than just the red carpet — it was a big-money, business-making event.
Designer Reem Acra famously quoted to Refinery29 back in 2015 — “Everybody relates to it on a financial basis. You have someone big wearing your dress on the red carpet and automatically the next day the emails or orders will pour in. For us, it's more about showing what the brand is.” Even back in 2010, in a bid to be more conversationally interested in the lives and careers of actresses, Ryan Seacrest did away with the infamous, “Who are you wearing?” question. His reward? A few gratifying stories from deserving actresses. And…heavy criticism from fashion designers and bloggers! The New York Times even did a Fashion & Style column addressing designers’ concerns about the lack of coverage their creations got, with the headline Hey, Ryan, Talk to the Dress. Yup, that really happened!
And it’s not just the red carpet — for The Avengers’ UK premiere press conference, Robert Downey Jr., who wore a bodysuit for his role as Iron Man, was asked questions about his acting process, e.g. — “How did you approach this role, bearing in mind that kind of maturity as a human being when it comes to the Tony Stark character?” Scarlett Johansson on the other hand (who’s the highest paid actress in the world, by the way), was asked a question specifically pertaining only to her ability to fit into a form-fitting suit for her role as Black Widow — “To get into shape for Black Widow did you have anything special to do in terms of the diet, like did you have to eat any specific food, or that sort of thing?” Being the badass she is, Johansson responded with her sarcastic best, but incidents like these just further that already-too-deep-and-wide gender divide.
And it’s not just celebrities — at least, not just actresses. Hillary Clinton was asked about her favourite designers by a particularly obtuse moderator; this happened immediately after she’d discussed certain barriers that young women face because people (read: all of society) are more critical of their appearance and image! Even Amal Clooney, who was a barrister specialising in international law and human rights (with clients such as Julian Assange, mind you!) long before she became Mrs George Clooney, was asked who/what she was wearing during an appearance in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, where she was representing Armenia. Her response — “I'm wearing Ede & Ravenscroft.” After that intellectual middle finger, she should probably get IDGAF monogrammed on her dress robes!
There’s an entire subreddit about why Alyson Hannigan appears to be wearing the same outfit in each episode as the season 3 host of Penn & Teller: Fool Us! This is no joke — viewers of the show must really have a lot of time on their hands because some of them seem to have gotten pretty darn obsessed with tweeting the fact that she dons the same blue dress each time they tune in (she took it in stride, but that’s because she’s cool). The same discussion follows entrepreneurs and multimillionaires Lori Greiner and Barbara Corcoran (two of the regulars, and in Lori’s case the most successful judge) on Shark Tank. Do these women wear the same clothes every episode? They sometimes do. Why? For continuity — see, both shows are filmed over several marathon days in which multiple magic acts/business pitches go one after the other. These segments are then mixed and matched over multiple episodes so that each episode has a mix of good and ‘meh’ acts/pitches. The shows’ host and judges have to wear the same outfits so the look remains consistent no matter when that segment airs. You might wonder — in that case, don’t the men wear the same outfits as well? You bet they do! Jonathan Ross (who was the host for the first 2 seasons of Penn & Teller) wore the same suit every episode — nobody noticed or commented. Penn and Teller themselves wear the same pinstriped suits each episode. Does anyone mind? Nope! Did anyone notice or say anything about the male sharks on Shark Tank wearing the same exact outfits in each episode? Of course not! It’s kind of incredible (in a bad, no good, crappy way) how ingrained this sort of sexism has become in our society. Remember that Australian male TV anchor who wore the same suit for a year to prove this exact thing? Point made, sir. And how! But what now?
Personally, I like it when female celebrities are asked about the clothes they’re wearing; the red carpet is my second favourite part about award shows (the most favourite being the incredible acceptance speeches). As a woman, I want to know how an actress worked out (to lose weight or bulk up) for a specific role. But I’m also interested in hearing about Cate Blanchett’s views on sexuality and feminism, Jennifer Lawrence’s take on the gender wage gap in Hollywood, Scarlett Johansson’s astute understanding of the same gender wage gap despite being Hollywood’s highest paid actress, or even Anne Hathaway’s LGBT activism! Amal Clooney’s case against ISIS is a whole lot more interesting than finding out how long she took to get dressed for a red carpet event, and I’d much rather know if starring as a female convict in Orange is the New Black has changed Taylor Schilling’s perception of the American prison system than how many clutches she had to choose from while dressing up for an event. A red carpet meet-and-greet isn’t the right place to launch into an academic or politically charged discussion, sure. But I’d like to believe that everyone involved is enough of an adult to know that.
I also think we tend to forget that just like their male counterparts, these actresses are complex, well-rounded (or not) people with interesting and funny thoughts and insights. Just like men can love the arts and football, these ladies (who could be fashion brand ambassadors) could also be into politics, sports, and books. And just like these celebrities, we as fans are multi-faceted too — we might love fashion and celebrity clothes but also be equally interested in tech gadgets, criminology, and the civil rights movement. To assume that fans only want to know one small facet of a female celebrity’s life is like insulting both the fans and the celebrities. Because, at the end of the day, we’re all people — humans; and to expect us to be one-dimensional is folly. Designers wanting actresses to wear their clothes and talk about them on the red carpet is great, because with the kind of reach and influence these women have, they can actually help bring about the change that fashion designers are already on the threshold of.
I’ll be happy if, at the Oscars this Sunday, I see an E! reporter ask Jennifer Lawrence which designer’s clothes she’s wearing (it’ll be Dior, but still) and if she believes fake news affect her in any way, and (in keeping with her tendency to play strong young female characters) if she’ll be interested in playing ex-Uber employee and bestselling author Susan Fowler if they ever make a movie about her. Until then, I’m watching this on loop a few times a day -
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