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Take The Money And Walk: Why Women Shouldn’t Abandon The Red Carpet

Sarah Hyland’s hand in E!’s “Mani Cam” at the 2015 Screen Actors Guild Awards. CREDIT: SCREENSHOT/YOUTUBE/E!
Sarah Hyland’s hand in E!’s “Mani Cam” at the 2015 Screen Actors Guild Awards. CREDIT: SCREENSHOT/YOUTUBE/E!

Red carpets are supposed to be fun. A red carpet isn’t a Congressional hearing, a police interrogation, a doctoral dissertation. It’s a runway, a pageant, a mecca for beautiful people wearing beautiful things to gather in a beautiful space so regular people can hunker down on our regular couches on a regular night and absorb some glamour by osmosis.

The hosts of red carpet specials try to make the whole endeavor look like a party, but for celebrities, it’s work. The red carpet is, above all, a business opportunity: a place where sort-of-stars, with the right style, smolder and banter, can become superstars. Celebrities are strutting around in borrowed gowns that will vanish like Cinderella’s carriage when the night is over, but if they wear those wares right, there’s buckets of money to be made. This is especially true for women, as they are the real reason most viewers tune into a red carpet broadcast and follow the obsessive best-dressed-breakdowns.

But for female stars, the red carpet isn’t just a gold mine; it’s a land mine. Every step can bring a new insipid question from a sycophantic host or a more ridiculous and degrading demand to stand still as a camera captures a 360-degree view of a gown so as to better critique every stitch (and, by extension, every inch of a star’s body).

There is no doubt that red carpet has crossed some invisible line from tolerable frivolity to so-inane-it’s-insulting. If this crossing of the Rubicon were to be denoted with a single event, it would be the 2012 introduction of E!’s “Mani-Cam,” a little red-lined box on which women are expected to walk their fingers, showing off nail polish, engagement rings and other wrist-and-down accessories. This is just the latest addition in E!’s arsenal of outfit-documenting technology; it accompanies the “Glam Cam,” which swoops in a full circle around stars so as to provide audiences with a view from every possible angle. Actresses, publicly deeming the Mani Cam one indignity too far in a profession that is, arguably, already stuffed with indignities for all female participants, are refusing to play along. Julianne Moore, Reese Witherspoon and even the notably celebrity-press-friendly Jennifer Aniston all skipped the Mani Cam at the Screen Actors Guild Awards this year.

Reese Witherspoon at the 2015 Screen Actors Guild Awards. CREDIT: Brian Dowling/Invision/AP
Reese Witherspoon at the 2015 Screen Actors Guild Awards. CREDIT: Brian Dowling/Invision/AP

CBS News called the Mani Cam rejections “a sign of a growing gender-equality push in Hollywood.” Would that it were so; fewer places on this planet need a gender-equality push more than Hollywood. But is that what is happening here, really? Look, I thought it was great when Elisabeth Moss gave the infantilizing Mani Cam the finger, too, but let’s not pretend that these women — industry-savvy millionaires who didn’t get to where they are without thinking like businesspeople — are bypassing this particular tool of objectification to Make A Meaningful Statement about ogling the perfectly polished nails and delicate fingers of ladies everywhere.

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The relationship between the outfitters of stars and the stars themselves is symbiotic; both parties stand to profit from this mutually-beneficial arrangement. If Dior wants to employ Natalie Portman as a face of their campaign for years, she’ll happily lean into the mic and drop their name; if whatever cosmetics brand or jewelry company is responsible for the glittering wares on Witherspoon’s fingers isn’t paying her to promote them, she has no incentive to give away free press. As Stylecaster pointed out, “Neither Aniston nor Witherspoon have partnerships with brands that they could promote on E!’s mani cam, and both actresses have sued jewelry labels for using their faces in campaigns without permission. So you can understand why they might not have wanted to dish out free love to whichever accessory brand or nail polish they happened to have on at the SAGs.”

A handful of actresses have lamented the perennial awards show question: “Who are you wearing?” That complaint is objectively ridiculous. “Who are you wearing?” is a perfectly legitimate and reasonable question to ask a person on a red carpet. The red carpet is a fashion show. The people who walk the red carpet are wearing couture designs that most mortals never even touch, let alone wear. The dresses are designed to the star’s exact specifications, and part of the contract of wearing such a garment is a shoutout to the designer who made it for you. It’s not hard and, more to the point, it’s not irrelevant or shallow — unless you hold the opinion that all fashion is irrelevant and shallow, in which case, why are you watching red carpet coverage at all?

Interviewers have every right to ask about a star’s presentation: hair, makeup, jewelry, shoes, the works. Again, these aren’t celebrities getting bombarded outside of Starbucks in flip-flops and messy buns and giant sunglasses to cover mascara-less eyes. Behind any individual’s appearance at an awards show is a phalanx of professionals.

Setting aside the subjects of fashion and beauty, are women more likely to receive shallow and beside-the-point questions on the red carpet than men? Absolutely. But actresses have to field inquiries about the usual domestic and/or degrading aspects of their womanhood in all venues. The red carpet is a symptom of a sexist industry, which itself is a symptom of a sexist society. Not sure why anybody is expecting Giuliana and the gang to be bastions of progressive thought in a regressive world. Girl never promised to be bell hooks.

And while men generally get less insulting and less idiotic questions than women do — on the red carpet as it is everywhere, on Earth as it is in heaven — it’s not like they’re being asked the most serious questions, either. No one goes to a red carpet for intellectual debate, just like no one goes to a dive bar for Cristal. There are ways to up the caliber of discourse in these spaces, and there’s a public push to do so: the #AskHerMore campaign, started by the Representation Project and promoted by Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls at the Party, calls out the worst of the offending queries and suggests thoughtful alternatives, like for reporters to focus more on actresses’ professional experiences or the social, political or historical context of their film.

Sometimes the opportunity for meaningful speech arises, because sometimes reality crash-lands into the escapist fantasy that is the awards show circuit, and actors and their ilk are pressed to comment on serious goings-on: Charlie Hebdo, Michael Brown, Ferguson. The cast of Selma will likely talk about race and maybe even police brutality and Eric Garner; they’ve done it before, wearing “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts for a photo op the weekend of the New York premiere. Benedict Cumberbatch might speak out for LGBT rights, as he’s nominated for his role as a persecuted gay war hero in The Imitation Game. And that’s great! That’s a bonus. It’s an onion ring in your French fries. But don’t be shocked when it doesn’t happen.

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Gawker pointed out that if women have a problem with the way the red carpet is run, they always have the option of bypassing the pageantry altogether. “If female celebrities are tired of being patronized and judged as mere physical objects while parading down the red carpet — and they should be — they should not parade down the red carpet.”

This is the functional equivalent of saying women who don’t like trolls should just quit the internet, or women who don’t like being harassed on public transit should just find another way to get around, or women who don’t like sexist bullshit should just not… exist? The solution to whatever sexism problem the red carpet may have is not for women to just pack up their bags and go home. Because the woman who chooses to do that (if it’s even an option; if she did not agree, implicitly or through a contract, to engage in promotion for the project for which she has been nominated and that part of that promotion is the red carpet segment of any/all award shows) she is not just leaving behind the opportunity to banter with Ryan Seacrest. She is losing, to use a technical term, a boatload of money.

The red carpet is one of the only — if not THE only — arena in Hollywood in which women stand to profit more than men. It’s women who get the big-money partnerships with fashion houses, hair product lines, makeup brands and jewelry companies; women get the lion’s share of awards show attention, buzz and press. There are the exceptional cases of men who actually stand out, in a good way, in these parades (Ryan Gosling comes most readily to mind). But really, it’s all about female celebrities.

Look at Lupita Nyong’o, whose stunning turns on red carpets during the year 12 Years a Slave swept the awards circuit, transformed her from a not-even-household-name-because-no-one-knew-how-to-pronounce-it to a fashion darling. She landed covers of major magazines including Vogue, Glamour, New York, and the “Most Beautiful” issue of People and, more crucially, contracts with Miu Miu and Lancôme, hugely lucrative deals. How did she do it? By appearing at over 60 events in just seven months, from the Toronto Film Festival to the Academy Awards.

CREDIT: Matt Sayles/Invision/AP
CREDIT: Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

To say “If you don’t like it, just don’t walk” is to tell women their best course of action is to pass on a major professional opportunity. Women in Hollywood are slighted nearly everywhere else: they get paid less than their male costars; they helm films that earn individual nods but rarely “Best Picture” titles because movies about women aren’t seen as serious Oscar material; they have a smaller window in which to nab leading roles before getting shunted off to the side as character/supporting players while men stay leading men well into their fifties.

The red carpet can be a powerful tool for an actress. Female stars have every incentive to show up and very little incentive to beg off, even if they find elements of the process distasteful or offensive. The smartest stars are aligning their audience’s desire to see less sexism in Hollywood with their personal desire to promote their brand, their movie and themselves.

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Which means they can rebel, but only incrementally. It means making demands that seem small with gestures that seem even smaller. As itty-bitty-as a pinky finger in a Mani Cam.