The red carpet statement was pointed. Powerful. And it had nothing to do with a black dress.
While being interviewed at the Golden Globes in January by an E! host, Debra Messing called out E! for failing to pay its stars equally.
“I was so shocked to hear that E! doesn’t believe in paying their female co-host the same as their male co-host,” Messing said, her voice clear and strong. “I miss Catt Sadler. So we stand with her. And that’s something that can change tomorrow.
“We want people to start having this conversation that women are just as valuable as men.”
Like her fellow actors on the red carpet that night, Messing was wearing black — part of a coordinated response to the onslaught of sexual assault stories in Hollywood and beyond. But Messing’s message had a different kind of power. She had broken the unspoken rules of the red carpet. She had dared to be impolite.
It looks like the red carpet at this weekend’s Academy Awards will once again be colorful. The Time’s Up campaign, which was behind the Golden Globe and BAFTA blackouts, is reportedly not requesting that stars eschew color. So expect a return to dresses with rich hues.
But let’s hope the sexist spectacle that precedes this awards show doesn’t revert to other norms. The red carpet should keep becoming more equitable, more thoughtful and a little more rude. More interviews about art and issues. Fewer questions about designers and brands. More men being asked about equal pay. Fewer women having to answer for men.
“The conversation has shifted,” said Bronwyn Cosgrave, who wrote the book “Made for Each Other: Fashion and the Academy Awards,” which details the history of the red carpet. “This is not the year to talk about fashion.”
But real conversations are often cut short by big stars’ big endorsements, as illustrated by the #AskHerMore campaign, launched in 2015 to combat the expected question: “Who are you wearing?” Even during this year’s feminist takeover of the Golden Globes, talk about those brands didn’t disappear. It just moved. Stars are now touting endorsements online. “What has happened is that the fashion conversation has been pushed over to social media,” Cosgrave continued. “You will see actors promoting their relationships on Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter.”
One example: On Instagram, before the Golden Globes began, Laura Dern posted a photo of her wrist. “Thanks @bulgariofficial for this amazing watch,” she wrote. “Reminds me that Time’s Up.”
Actors today attend awards shows with “a triple purpose,” Cosgrave said by phone last week. They’re promoting the movie, their own brand and the brands they’re paid to boost. “You can either see it as crass ... or you can see it as providing another outlet for a very good cause. Take your pick.”
Fashion as protest
From the beginning, the awards have had dress codes — some explicit, others unspoken — and challenges to them. In the 1970s, as the Hollywood studio system collapsed, several high-profile female actors wore pantsuits to the Academy Awards. Jane Fonda collected her Oscar in 1972 wearing a black Yves Saint Laurent suit that protested both the Vietnam War and the limited silhouettes prescribed for female stars. (Too often, there are just two options: princess poof or sexy sleek. Cheers to Evan Rachel Wood, who has chosen sharp suits for the red carpets this year.)
In the 1990s, stars donned red AIDS awareness ribbons. But the sea of black dresses and tuxes that flooded the red carpet in January was the most forceful fashion statement in recent years.
“It was a benchmark,” Cosgrave said. Some have branded the stunt as “superficial,” she continued, but it was hard to miss its power. Activists joined actors on the red carpet, speaking with urgency about the #metoo movement. But as Cosgrave pointed out, “Let’s not forget: Wearing black is easy. Everyone looks good in it.”
Wearing a Time’s Up lapel pin, too, is simple. A host of men donned them at the Golden Globes. But too few of those men used their interviews or speeches to speak up about the issues behind the pins. That’s partly the fault of interviewers, who asked women about men’s bad deeds and men about their work. How typical.
The Academy Awards, whose history will be forever tangled with Harvey Weinstein, wants to move on, of course. One of its producers told the New York Times that the focus should be on the films, not the cultural moment. “We certainly want to honor and respect Time’s Up and allow that message to be heard,” an executive of ABC, which broadcasts the awards, told the Times. “But we’re trying to make it more planned than spur of the moment — it has its moment and then doesn’t feel like it overshadows the artists and films being honored.”
That’s a bit disingenuous, said Maggie Hennefeld, assistant professor of cultural studies and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota. “It’s never just been about the films themselves. Films are a part of culture, and this is what’s happening in our culture right now.”
Many films nominated for the year’s top awards grapple with the same cultural issues dominating the headlines, Hennefeld pointed out. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” centers on rape and police brutality. “Get Out” takes on “racism and slavery but is also very much about physical violence and having someone’s body seized and used against their consent,” she said.
“Why are these the most popular films this year?” Hennefeld said. “Why are these the films that have generated the most buzz? Because people are really concerned about the political climate right now.”
Which brings us back to those awkward moments when women dared to break the script that the movie industry — and our culture, too — writes for them. When they chose to be honest and blunt rather than ladylike and polite.
Messing calling out E! while on E!. Michelle Williams ignoring an interviewer’s question, turning instead to her guest, Tarana Burke, creator of #MeToo. Natalie Portman presenting the award for Best Director: “And here are the all male nominees.”
The Oscars are a highly scripted spectacle, but that script is “increasingly fragile,” said Hennefeld, who teaches film studies courses. On Sunday, it will be fascinating to see the “confrontations between the politics surrounding the film industry and the organizers’ attempt to do damage control,” Hennefeld said. “That’s what I’m going to be watching for.”