Culture

Inside The Fight Against Sexism On The Oscars Red Carpet

CREDIT: Jonathan Short/Invision/AP

Julianne Moore arrives for the British Academy Film and Television Awards 2015, The BAFTAs, at the Royal Opera House, in London, Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015.

“Do you do that to the guys?”

With those seven words, Cate Blanchett became responsible for what is arguably the most viral red carpet moments in recent memory. At the start of her interview on the 2014 Screen Actors Guild Awards red carpet with E! host Giulanna Rancic, while answering the “who are you wearing tonight?” question, Blanchett interrupted herself to bend down and face the camera that was panning her body from the ground up. She pointed her finger at the camera: “Do you do that to the guys?”

The cameraman replied from off-screen, “Yes, yes we do!”

“It’s a thing that’s just, it just happens?” Blanchett shook her head. “What do you think is going to happen down there that is so fascinating?” Rancic immediately flipped to Blanchett’s side. “Yeah, yeah, Mister Glam Cam! And look, we put a little tiara on it. Can we get a shot of that silly little tiara?” She turned to Blachett with a conspiratorial smile. “Can you believe that?” Then, sheepishly: “That’s our set.” The awkwardness lingered over the rest of the interview, which centered almost entirely on fashion and continued for a never-ending minute and 20 seconds.

Despite the cameraman’s insistence to the contrary, in Hollywood, the answer to the question, “Do you do that to the guys?” is always, always “no.” No, guys don’t get asked insulting questions about baby weight and pre-show eating regimens. No, guys don’t face the same level of scrutiny for their sartorial choices, for their hair, for makeup or jewelry or skincare or clutches. It is almost as annoying to have to keep bringing this up as it is to watch it happen red carpet after red carpet, awards show after awards show, year in, year out, without fail. Almost. But not quite.

Female stars are beginning to publicly speak out against the most degrading, sexist aspects of the red carpet experience: the most reviled piece of red carpet equipment seems to be E!’s Mani Cam, which some stars — Reese Witherspoon, Julianne Moore, Jennifer Aniston — have taken to skipping entirely. (Elisabeth Moss, hero among mortals, gave the Mani Cam the finger.)

But the real call to action is coming from outside, not within, from the activists behind the Ask Her More campaign. Launched in time for the 2014 Academy Awards by the Representation Project, Ask Her More (shared on social media as #AskHerMore) aims to up the quality and thoughtfulness of questions asked to women on the red carpet.

The Representation Project, founded by Jennifer Siebel Newsom, strives to raise awareness of and fight against gender stereotypes through media and popular culture. Newsom, who started out in the entertainment industry as an actress before going on to direct the 2011 documentary Miss Representation, was inspired (or, maybe more accurately, frustrated) by her personal experiences on the red carpet. When Newsom, then 28 years old, first began to look for acting jobs, she was told to take her Stanford MBA off her resume and to lie about her age. “As an actress walking the red carpet, she felt that her experience was devalued,” said Hannah Chatalas, press secretary for the Representation Project. “And so she was questioning these interviews of, what are we asking women? How are we devaluing them?”

“There’s nothing wrong with loving fashion and being interested in what they wear,” said Cristina Escobar, communications director for the Representation Project. “But the problem is, that’s the only thing we talk about with women. Men are allowed to be their whole selves: they’re asked about their interests and passions, how it felt to make the film. It reinforces a message that women are valued for youth and appearance and men are valued for their accomplishments. And it’s not the message we want to send out to our culture. Men get asked about what they’re wearing, but they get more questions.”

Ask Her More comes not to kill the red carpet but to save it; rebellion is exciting and all, but the ideal situation isn’t one where actresses abandon the event but instead can participate in a way that is as meaningful and enjoyable for women as it is for men. “I don’t think it’s necessarily about rebelling against the red carpet. I think it’s about changing the way that questions are asked, and making sure that we’re asking deeper questions,” said Escobar. “I also think it takes a lot of courage to rebel on the red carpet. The entertainment industry is a multi-billion dollar industry with a lot of power.” It sets social and professional expectations for how people should behave, dress and speak, “and it rewards folks who adhere to its norms. So high-profile actresses calling that out, they should be applauded. To see actresses with a lot at stake, it’s a competitive industry, take on that mantle, it gives me goosebumps.”

What about the notion that women who give the Mani Cam the finger are doing so out of economic, not ethical, interests? Maybe the actresses who play ball are the ones getting compensated by the designer they’re promoting, and the actresses who don’t just aren’t in the business of giving out free advertising without getting anything in return. “I think the money question is interesting, but sort of a distraction and besides the point,” said Chatalas. “What we’re talking about is flipping the script and changing the script. I think that financial piece is true and real, and it is a big industry. But in every industry, we want there to be gender parity, and if we can incentivize good behavior with money, that’s great. For us, it’s about changing the norm.”

Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, an organization devoted to encouraging self-esteem in young girls (“change the world by being yourself” is their very Leslie Knope-like motto) joined in for this year’s Golden Globes — the obvious tie-in being that Poehler co-hosted with Tina Fey — and spread the hashtag through their own accounts. It was a hit with their audience, so Smart Girls continued with the SAG Awards and the Grammys. According Alee-a Blanco, social media director of Smarts Girls, from January 19, the week after the Golden Globes, to today, there have been 2.5 million impressions of #AskHerMore across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

“I think that anything that they wouldn’t ask a man, they probably shouldn’t be asking a woman,” Blanco said. “We don’t see a lot of male celebrities get asked, ‘How are you balancing your kids and career?’ [or] really inappropriate questions about losing baby weight, and what is their go-to prep, were they dieting all week to get ready for this event. That’s really nobody’s business.”

To really demonstrate how ridiculous the questions women get are, just see how dumb they sound when you ask them to a man!

Elle got in on that action, too, with their take on the campaign, Flip the Script, to find out “What happens when men have to answer inane questions on the red carpet.” Actors gamely went along with the bit, answering questions like “What’s in your pockets?“, “Did you do any grooming?” and “Do you have a go-to beauty product?

As for the perennial red carpet Q, “Who are you wearing?”, Blanco said, “It’s not necessarily a bad question, it’s just that it’s the only thing [women are] being asked. Let’s ask what are you reading and who are you wearing, who has mentored you through this process, what did your character teach you?”

The Representation Project has posted a list of actresses, presenters and performers that link to pre-written tweets with more thoughtful questions for each individual; there’s also a list of reporters’ Twitter handles to direct the questions at a specific red carpet interviewer. So you’ll be prompted to ask Jessica Chastain about her support of PETA, Scarlett Johannsson what action she would take if she were president for a day, Anna Kendrick what advice she’d give to singers just starting out, and Reese Witherspoon what her next project will be.

This is a great way to get people on social media fired up about sexism as the questions fly on the red carpet, but it seems unlikely that, say, Ryan Seacrest will have the time or the desire to check his phone in between interviews, absorb this information in a way that feels constructive and not confrontational, and change course mid-show. Asked if The Representation Project had reached out to any red carpet reporters or networks directly to raise these issues in advance of the broadcast — which is to say, when there is still enough time to do anything about this problem for this year’s Oscars — the spokesperson said they “haven’t necessarily yet. It’s something we would love to do. We want to help them make a change. We respect them a lot, frankly, and we would love to partner with them.”

People watching the red carpet at home might not immediately notice this disparity or be scandalized by the “how’d you lose that baby bump?” interrogation, because “I think it’s just been normalized. We’ve always been asking these questions, so it’s just kind of become a part of society. It comes down to our patriarchy-filled society,” said Blanco. “I think [the actresses] are expecting them, almost, and they feel like they have to answer when a microphone is put in front of their face, especially on live TV in front of millions of people.” Blanco cited articles she’d read about how girls tend to be less assertive than boys and that those patterns continue well into adulthood. “I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I wonder if guys would feel more comfortable saying, ‘I don’t want to answer that, that’s inappropriate.’ Whereas the women feel like they owe it to the reporter or the public to answer that question, when they don’t owe anybody anything.”

Blanco mentioned the way Kanye re-enacted his storming-of-the-stage at the Grammys this year. Imagine if the roles were reversed, and Taylor Swift or Beyonce had jumped out of their seats instead. “The headlines would’ve been very different,” said Blanco. “Instead of ‘Kanye Pulled A Kanye’ it would be like, ‘Taylor Swift: Feminist Bitch.'”

While the impulse might be for a casual viewer fed up with the moronic, misogynistic red carpet gauntlet to just change the channel, Blanco said, “I think we have to remember that, even if you’re not watching it, someone else might be… Because we have had comments say, ‘this is just dumb, what do you expect, it’s a fashion show.’ But I don’t think that means we can’t ask these better questions. I don’t think that’s an excuse to stay on this track.”

“We want all instances of media to better portray men and women accurately and rely less on damaging stereotypes,” said Chatalas. “So maybe the red carpet isn’t everybody’s favorite piece of media, but it gets a lot of attention.”

And even if an actress wanted to boycott the red carpet — which would be unlikely, given how ecstatic people are to score an invite or a nomination — suggesting she just bail on the whole endeavor completely disregards her professional obligation to attend. “You have to remember that this is part of their job,” said Blanco. “There are a million details that we just don’t even know about their appearance on the red carpet… We don’t know the background of why they’re there, and what’s part of their contract and what’s not, and what they’re doing because they just love it. It’s one thing to love being dressed up and be part of this event, and it’s another thing to have to deal with sexist questions all the time.”

“We’re not advocating for skipping the red carpet,” Escobar said. “We just want to change the trajectory of the questions.

As for Sunday night, “I would love to see somebody call out a reporter,” said Blanco. “That’s just my own inner fantasies.”