Sexism on the Red Carpet
Why female celebrities have a love/hate relationship with Hollywood, fashion and the media
Ever since Anna Wintour began putting actresses and singers — instead of models– on the cover of Vogue, the relationship between Hollywood, fashion and the media world has been a love/hate/love again relationship. And that was even before the advent of Instagram.
On Sunday at the Grammy Awards telecast, Lady Gaga walked on the red carpet and didn’t stop very often. She didn’t speak very much. Although Gaga and her jazzy collaborator Tony Bennet did give a short interview to Ryan Seacrest, Gaga walked by Seacrest’s E! colleague Guliana Rancic without skipping a beat, totally ignoring the TV personality’s high-pitched request for her time. Although the cold-shouldered gesture could be interpreted as a personal snub (as many celeb gossip blogs have), Gaga was just following a recent trend of major stars being highly selective of whom they grant interviews on the red carpet.
In fact, Seacrest was the only interviewer who seemed to score quick chats with some of the night’s biggest celebrities, including Rihanna and Katy Perry. But not even Seacrest’s magnetism could draw in the likes of Madonna and Beyoncé, who refused to open their mouths for the E! cameras. That’s not to say that it was always easy for Seacrest to ask the “tough” red carpet questions. When he asked Nicole Kidman about which designer she was wearing, the actress looked visibly befuddled, and an awkward silence ensued. Kidman’s only response after the terse moment was, “I don’t know what to say.”
The E! red carpet specials have been recently criticized for being insipid and borderline sexist with their zoomed-in focus on what female celebrities are wearing. The distaste has been pegged on the “mani cam,” an E! award season red carpet gimmick where actresses get asked to “strut” their hands on a miniature red carpet to show off their manicures, nail color and borrowed jewelry. At the Screen Actors Guild awards in January, Julianne Moore, Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston all refused to do it, prompting a social media campaign, #AskHerMore, to encourage reporters to be more thoughtful when interviewing female stars.
Although #AskHerMore is clearly well intended, the campaign is misguided in assuming that entertainment reporters don’t know what they’re doing. It’s not as if Seacrest and his red carpet squad at E! believe they are sexist when they inadvertently reduce these lauded women to what they’re wearing, but that’s what the E!’s audience tunes in for. Perhaps more importantly, designers send celebrities these dresses with the intention of getting TV exposure. I used to believed that actresses were obligated and actually wanted to be asked who they were wearing, so they can name-drop the designer and continue a relationship for when they need a dress at the next televised award show.
Sexist or not, female celebrities are now instinctively tied to the fashion choices they (or their team of stylists) make. They may not have asked to be in that position, but the fact is that they are in that position. They can either choose to embrace it or forgo it altogether, but it’s unbecoming to choose to be a fashion darling on magazine covers and then begroan being asked about their outfits. Natalie Portman can’t pick up the phone when Christian Dior calls to ask her to be the new face of the fashion house and then keep her mouth shut whenever someone asks her who she’s wearing on the red carpet.
“The red carpet is one of the only — if not THE only — arena in Hollywood in which women stand to profit more than men,” wrote Jessica Goldstein on ThinkProgress, advocating for women to “take the money and walk” as a sign of female empowerment in Hollywood. “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.”
Of course, female celebrities have the option to decline red carpet interviews, offers to do fashion magazine spreads and an invitation to the Met Gala. In fact, I’m kind of surprised more haven’t done so, considering the recent tenuous relationship with the pony and dog show that’s celebrity culture. Just even a decade ago, appearing in magazines and TV shows was the only major way that stars could plug their projects to a mass audience. It made sense back then to put up with insipid questioning. Today, however, stars have a direct connection to the public with social media. Ariana Grande has three times as many Twitter followers as E! That’s perhaps why she refused to give any red carpet interviews at the Grammy’s. Whatever she had to say or show she could have done it on the limo ride there.
While female music stars like Katy Perry and Rihanna dominate social media, actresses aren’t as engaged in social platform. Seven out of the 10 most followed Twitter users are musicians while out of the top 20 half of them are female musicians. Katy Perry, for example, has close to 65 million followers. The most followed actress on Twitter is Emma Watson with 13 million, three million fewer than Pitbull. Other major actresses don’t even break the one million-follower mark. Julianne Moore boasts half a million, while Reese Witherspoon only has 356,000. Respectable figures by all means, but a little disparate considering their A-list status. That’s perhaps one of the reasons why actresses still are bound to participating in traditional media outlets.
It may be more effective for these actresses coming together to demand more thoughtful red carpet interviews to invest in their social media presence. That way they can take the reigns and dictate the terms of public engagement. If Reese Whiterspoon had 15 million Twitter followers, she may feel less pressured to succumb to insipid questioning in exchange for plugging her next film.
And if for whatever reason she ever did want to show off her manicure, well, there is always Instagram.