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Actresses typically get the bulk of the attention on the Oscars red carpet. It figures: The academy has a frustratingly hard time nominating women in categories where gender isn’t specified. Only five have been honored for directing; the numbers are better when it comes to writing — but not by much. In 90 years, only 16 women have won in the original or adapted screenplay categories. One of those women is Diablo Cody, the mind behind the teen comedy Juno whose origin story seemed as fantastical as her award-winning work. Perhaps not a surprise to anyone who knew her, Diablo showed up to the Oscars in a free-flowing Dior leopard-print gown with a high slit, adding gold flats and a giant dangling earring with a skull. (Flats! A skull!) Few people, male and female, have ever been as much themselves at the award show, so Diablo was both celebrated and mercilessly mocked.
Née Brooke Busey-Hunt, Diablo emerged on the scene as an outspoken feminist with a great backstory. Before turning to screenwriting, she gave up a copy-typing job in Minnesota to become a stripper and blogger. Eventually, Diablo wrote a memoir, Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper, followed by Juno — which would be her first feature. In it, Ellen Page, playing an unexpectedly pregnant teen, spurts Diablo’s titanically clever dialogue. When I was a senior in high school, Juno was everything. Diablo just was so fucking cool: Seeing a sexually frank writer with a distinctive voice and a punk aesthetic was revelatory for me. The internet agreed:
If [feminist website] “Jezebel” were a person, she very well might be up and coming screenwriter Diablo Cody, an ex-stripper and phone sex operator who pens hilarious movies with serious Oscar buzz, dresses like Courtney Love did about halfway through her glam makeover (she wears satin jumpers but also combat boots), writes a blog called the Pussy Ranch, and has made it her mission to create films with multifaceted female leads.
Before Juno was even formally released, Diablo was a sensation. She’d already been tapped by Steven Spielberg to write the pilot of upcoming Showtime show, The United States of Tara. But as much as Diablo was Hollywood’s new darling — one who wasn’t afraid to call bullshit on the way women were treated in the industry — she was also on the defense. She got ahead of the well-trod notion that her work was “too stylized,” telling Entertainment Weekly: “I’ve met so many hyperarticulate teenage girls who are not just shallow and image-obsessed.” A profile in the New York Times highlighted criticism from a Minneapolis-based writer who claimed that Diablo “wrote her own Wikipedia entry before living it.”
But not everyone was so taken with the newcomer. “The diamond collar, the leopard print, the visible tattoos,” Molly Friedman wrote at Gawker. “Kudos for daring Academy members to Take Notice and all, but an animal print dress will always be an animal print dress: tackiness exemplified.” Another writer over at Amoeba Music’s blog (a place you might think would welcome a different look) took issue with her tats. “I know this may make me unpopular, but as anyone who knows me knows, I firmly believe that tattoos (and chewing gum) have NO place on the red carpet on such a night as the Oscars,” Miss Ess declared. “I mean, I know she was a stripper and all, but the Oscars are all about glamour, people. And leopard print, that’s a whooooole other story.”
Diablo did have her fans, including Dana Stevens at Slate, who applauded her boldness (while still comparing her look to that of a cartoon character). “As for Diablo Cody looking like a grown-up Pebbles Flintstone, I have a feeling she, too, would be delighted at the horror her outfit (a rhinestone-trimmed leopard-print muumuu slit to the hip, with skull-and-crossbones earrings and gold ballet flats) has provoked,” Stevens argued. “I was all prepared to hate on Cody for being overpackaged and overconfident of her win, but she won my heart by showing up in a nutty getup clearly of her own devising and giving a speech that was unrehearsed, warm, and completely free of prefab Juno-esque zingers.”
The same day the nominations came out, Diablo appeared on Late Show with David Letterman — in leopard, no less. And EW tapped her to write about her experience at the Oscars (blogging was in high demand!), where Diablo described getting fitted for her dress: “Since I’m no longer permitted to dress myself, the Frock of Overexposure has been chosen by my studio-approved stylist. Upon arriving at Dior, I am shoehorned into a beautiful dress that evokes butterscotch, leopards, and Jesus. It is totally mega-swish.”
Leopard print, of course, has a reputation, one that Diablo was capitalizing on when she chose to make it her signature. As Colette Shade wrote in Racked, its history traverses high and low culture. On one hand, Shade explained that when worn by someone like, say, Jackie O, leopard print can “evoke a kind of old-money femininity bolstered by the kind of unimpeachable confidence that comes from having a great investment portfolio.” On the other, it is “a signal of poor taste and of ‘trashiness,’ which really means that it represents the sexually available lower-class woman.” Diablo was successfully embracing both sides of leopard at the Oscars: She was at the fanciest event imaginable, slyly winking at her semi-scandalous past, one she was proud to flaunt. “People who wear leopard told me they feel beautiful, they feel strong, they feel powerful, they feel sexy,” photographer Émilie Régnier told Racked. One would assume that Diablo felt exactly that way on the red carpet. She looked it.
Almost immediately following the ceremony, Diablo was beset by twin controversies that, when combined, say a lot. First: her shoes. Word emerged that she elected to wear those flats over a pair of $1 million Stuart Weitzman heels. The 2018 version of this story would probably applaud Diablo for choosing comfort over fashion and independence over brand loyalty, but in 2008, this was more fodder for her enemies. In a MySpace post — yes, a throwback — Diablo explained that she signed up to don the footwear without realizing it was a publicity stunt. “This looks really attention-whorey, and for once, I didn’t do it on purpose,” she wrote. Jezebel’s Dodai Stewart, defending Diablo, pointed out the vitriol over on Oh No They Didn’t, where readers wrote comments like, “Uh, you’re a stripper/screenwriter. Whoring out should not be a problem for you,” and called her a “cunt.”
But that wasn’t the worst of it. Almost immediately following Diablo’s win, a website called Egotastic leaked nude photos of her. And because she used to strip, the consensus among some publications was simply: Take a look! Bloggers even seemed to take the fact that she wore a leopard-print dress as permission to provide leering commentary. “After all, one glance at her proudly displayed tattoo and that Oscar dress she was wearing (which she so demurely held with her free hand so as to not give America an internationally broadcast upskirt), and you know she had to be one hell of an exotic dancer,” Kevin Carr speculated at Film School Rejects.
Diablo’s Oscar run was a mere 10 years ago, and conversation around women, their bodies, and their place in the industry has both evolved while remaining frustratingly stagnant. It’s hard to imagine that outlets today would celebrate the leak of nudes rather than condemning such an action for the massive violation it is. On the other hand, the system Diablo was intent on disrupting is still very much in place. She told EW way back when that she felt a “responsibility” to try to direct because “there’s such a paucity of female directors.” Now we have the likes of Kathryn Bigelow, Greta Gerwig, and Ava DuVernay, but 10 years later, Diablo’s point still very much stands. (Her own directorial debut, Paradise, floundered, but as she said, “There are worse things you can do in life than direct a bad movie.”)
In general, loud women are frowned upon. And Diablo was a loud woman with a loud style that she wasn’t going to change just because writers are supposed to blend into the background, typing in solitude in darkened rooms. Leopard print isn’t what you’re supposed to wear to the Oscars, but where would we be if women did only what they were supposed to? We probably wouldn’t have female writers or directors. This year, Diablo has a new feature called Tully, reuniting her with Juno director, Jason Reitman. It premiered at Sundance to acclaim, so perhaps she’ll get another Oscar nomination. And if Diablo attends, hopefully she’ll wear flats.
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