as most of you know, i’m on tumblr. for the most part, i like to follow critical feminist tumblrs that often post interesting photography, great quotes, links to interesting fiction and non-fiction, and so on and so forth. i discover a lot of inspirational and amazing things via tumblr. but sometimes, as in the rest of my (internet or everyday) life, there are moments where i feel… shall we say… alienated?
one of those particular times is during what i refer to as “peak pop culture moments:” a long-running television series comes to an end, a celebrity who i have never heard of does drugs and it is a BIG. DEAL, an a-list couple gets divorced, etc. many critical people love their fair share of pop culture, and i’ll give ’em that. that’s cool. i mean, i’m not going to lie; it’s often strange for someone like myself, who doesn’t own a television and consumes relatively little mainstream culture, to see images of mainstream media sandwiched between an audre lorde quote and calls for safe and legal access to abortion services. but it’s cool! i mean no judgement by acknowledging its existence. the point of this post is not to call out feminists who are attempting to marry their love of america’s next top model with their criticisms of the modelling industry and body policing. (all of this reminds me of teresa chun-wen cheng’s zine, dirty (un) feminist secrets).
but! what i do want to talk about is what i find potentially most alienating about pop culture. no, it’s not beauty pageants (they seem like this incredible archaic vestige of gender norms and femininity whose allure i cannot deny… plus, have you seen drop dead gorgeous?) no, it’s not that: it’s award shows. more specifically, the red carpet that happens before an awards show.
award show red carpets are perhaps, in fact, the pinnacle of what i loathe about pop culture, and what i cannot for the life of me every bear witness to without feeling ill and generally an overwhelming feeling of alienation. since the golden globes happened earlier in january, and now with the oscars happening today, i know regardless of whether i care or not, i will be seeing what celebrities wore and i keep on trying to put my finger on exactly why they bother me so much… so here is me trying in words.
when the entertainment television shows and blogs were abuzz with who wore what on the red carpet of the golden globes this january, it was martin luther king jr. day in the states. of course, they weren’t only talking about what people were wearing; this year, the most talked about topic was probably how many people host ricky gervais offended with his jokes… and i think some people won some awards for some stuff? but that doesn’t really matter. the stories we talk about after the trophies are handed out, however, are who was wearing what. but this is my problem: people aren’t talking about clothing. rather, more often than not they are actively engaging in really shitty body policing and shaming attitudes that masquerades itself as fashion commentary. and we are the ones consuming it.
(if anyone knows the name of this artist please let me know!) operations are standing by by jean bevier
the body shaming/policing
for those uninitiated few, the basic premise of the red carpet is as follows: have the stars and creators of hollywood movies arrive so they can be photographed for the press before going into a theatre to watch their movies. this of course has extended to award shows, and expanded from its originally small hollywood publications and radio, to television and the internet. (sidenote: i would source these statements if i could but when you google “history of the red carpet + awards shows” most of what you find is a bunch of celebrity gossip about who wore what. how apropos.) today, in 2011, we broadcast the red carpet on television, and talk about who wore what in as many media as possible. the main commentary is still made by a few paid “red carpet reporters” whose job it is to yell the names of celebrities until they look in their direction, in an attempt to get a moment of their time and find out what brand they are wearing, who did their hair/makeup, and how expensive their jewelry is.
we, the viewer, are encouraged to make judgements about who is the best dressed and who is the worst dressed. there are always, of course, unspoken rules about what clothes are “appropriate” for the red carpet and/or suited to the celebrity’s “body type.” this is where we get into the territory i find murky and uncomfortable.
think about the language used when a joan rivers type is describing what someone is wearing. think about it as you’re watching or reading red carpet coverage of the oscars today. joan rivers is known for being unforgiveably mean when panning fashion choices on the red carpt. in once case, she describes a dress as “fashion birth control” because, of course, women only dress to be perceived as fuckable (by men, of course) ((this is namely my problem with the entire concept of the man repeller but that is another blog post)). not to mention who is assigned to be a red carpet reporter; namely comedians, “celebrity reporters,” and in more recent years (gay) male fashion designers. this propagates a culture where a “reporter”/fashion designer can grope a woman’s breasts without her permission, and it’s alright (well, not quite alright if you actually ask the person who was groped – NSFW link). and of course this is often argued that it’s to “touch the fabric” or see how the dress is built, where it is simply reinforcing the idea that women’s bodies are accessible at all times. for the purposes of my critique, i’d argue that there is very little differentiation made between what a person is wearing and what that person’s body is like or worth, and this touchiness speaks to that question. but also, we must think that using language like, “that dress/that fabric did her no favours,” or “someone with her body type should not wear that cut” is simply policing people’s bodies masquerading as fashion commentary. sure, short and fat people are permitted on the red carpet, but only if they wear things that give the illusion that they are tall and thin.
an article that adequately represents this point is sarah nicole prickett’s article in Eye Weekly, January Jones and the slutty double standard. while her article calls attention to how the mainstream media villifies and makes assumptions/shames a blonde white woman’s sexuality based on what she is wearing (not only is she wearing red, but she is showing cleavage! and even sideboob!), i definitely disagree with prickett’s conclusion that it is easier for mainstream media outlets to villify a thin white woman than a “hugely abnormal” body type like that of her co-star, christina hendricks. just another example of how women are consistently pitted against one another; we cannot defend a thin blonde woman from being called a slut without criticizing a large busted woman of being out of control.
reporters like joan rivers and the internet/blog equivalent, go fug yourself.com, set the standard for mean-spirited attacks on what celebrities wear on the red carpet, and often turn them into personal attacks; if helena bonham carter wears two different coloured shoes and have a big hairstyle, not only does she LOOK crazy, she must BE crazy. replace ableist word with a sexist one (slutty, whorey, old, etc.) and the point remains the same. but here’s an interesting twist on this entire discussion: celebrities have very little say in what they wear at public events like these. there are entire teams and industries built around what an a-list actor will wear to what event. which leads me to my next point:
the illusion that what celebrities wear represents who celebrities are.
red carpet culture encourages us to convince ourselves that if we like what an actor is wearing, we like the actor themselves. and this is fair enough; how many people have gotten really excited when making a friend who is not only stylish, but wears the same size shoes as you? so can you imagine fantasizing about that with a celebrity who has endless access to all kinds of high-end fashion designs? we might OMG I DUNNO like share each other’s closests! you could borrow my thrifted lanz dress that sarah jessica parker wore, and i could wear your alexander mcqueen SS05 dress! (don’t even pretend like you don’t wish you could wear a fucking carousel for a dress, you know you want to)
i feel like i totally understand why this happens, and would be lying if i said i didn’t fall into this fantasy camp at times (hello michelle williams, tilda swinton, etc…). but i feel like it is important for us to acknowledge all of the capitalist/industry planning that goes into these kinds of events. but i think it is important not to lose sight of the main reason the red carpet takes place: to set trends, and most of all, to sell dresses.
consumerism/capitalism as fashion/style
the first question red carpet reporters who is wearing what brand. that’s because the viewer is supposed to take note, and suddenly have the amount of money required to purchase a designer dress (not to mention have an occassion to wear it to). okay, fine, that’s an exageration, but it’s not far off. in reality there is an entire industry of high-fashion knockoffs which will pick a handful of the “best” dresses to replicate and sell in department stores. yes, sometimes “the dress of the season” might be a dress from an actual film (most recent example, kiera knightely’s 1930s style green gown in Atonement and all of its knockoffs) but for the most part, this happens on the red carpet. the dress that is deemed “the best” is most often simply the most universally neutral, inoffensive. as soon as the celebrities have paraded down the red carpet, the knockoff industry is sketching out designs and getting ready to peddle those dresses to the future prom queens only a few months away. this is something i could go into at length but i’ll just leave it at that: the red carpet makes money for the fashion industry at many different levels. there is certainly an exorbitant amount of planning that goes into deciding which actress wears what dress, including contracts and free swag and ad campaigns. to me, reducing the fun of dressing up into a business opportunity kind of bums me out. i understand that this is how it works, but i dislike how it doesn’t necessarily present itself as such.
see, i love to get decked out to the nines with my friends and prance around, work it for the camera, tell people it’s Thrift Store Haute Couture circa 2006. and i mean, yeah, i’ve definitely seen garments on the red carpet that i would love to wear myself, and i do quite enjoy the escapism permitted in wearing (or fantasizing about wearing) extravagant, over the top clothes. but when it happens within this specific context, i feel like so much of what it represents is just straight up, inexcusably oppressive. for example, the fact that someone can’t show up with hairy legs or armpits without it being the talk of the town the next day. i have vivid memories of this being ingrained in my mind as a young girl in the 90s – remember the kerfuffle when julia roberst dared to not shave her armpits (or hell, maybe even just forgot to) and where a sleeveless dress back in 1999? what a shitshow.
Julia Roberts at the London red carpet premiere of Notting Hill, 1999. She is waving to a crowd behind a reporter and we see her armpits aren’t shaved.
on top of enforcing those “beauty” norms (thin, all potentially visible body hair removed, falling within a narrow definition of what is acceptable/appropriate), the red carpet also offers us of a visual showcase that hollywood is white, straight, polished. the sea of white actors, reporters, and handlers on the red carpet is kind of astonishing when we think of the racial makeup of the city of los angeles itself. even worse, when there are people of colour, and when the media talks about the handful of actresses who happen to a colour of skin other than white, the media constantly exoticizes them. “latin siren” sofia veraga “flaunts her famous curves” at the golden globes this year. in fact, i’ve never heard of her purportedly “famous curves.” i have heard she’s the best part of a sitcom called modern family, but no, she is latina so she must be famous for her goddamn curves. think of the way you’ve heard any number of women of colour described on the red carpet; penelope cruz as voluptuous, salma hayek as fiery or sensual, jennifer lopez as bodacious. it begs the question, what is worse? the complete erasure of people of colour in Hollywood, or their constant tokenization and exoticization when they are present?
a perfect (terrible) example of how white-washed hollywood is: the cover of vanity fair’s 2010 “new” hollywood issue, the year gabourey sidibe (a fat black young woman) was nominated for best actress at the academy awards.
you may have noticed that throughout this entire tirade (sorry, it’s come to that) that i have not mentioned very many people of the male persuasion. this was not unintentional; it reflects the kind of culture the red carpet breeds. yes, women and men (and people all across the gender spectrum but there is very little place for us to talk about that in a hollywood space) wear clothes, but it seems that it is only “fashion” when it is on women’s bodies. men are present, but they aren’t the main show. of course, we will make a passing comment here and there about male actors’ suits, but it is not nearly in the same vernacular or tone as the way we talk about women’s fashion choices. for the most part, red carpet reporters comments will lean towards the “clueless men of the real world! take note of how great this ridiculously rich celebrity dresses, and take a lesson.” men are given a short passing glance, because at the end of the day it is easier and more socially acceptable (i would even argue socially encouraged) for us to tear down women’s bodies and fashion choices.
it’s just so strangely muddled: we so often argue that “clothes make the man,” that our clothing is an outward representation of who we are and what we’re about. but when it comes to what celebrities wear on the red carpet, it is about what we are being sold. what image is this actress portraying by wearing a plunging neckline? what role should that actor be cast for when he is wearing a very stiff expensive christian dior suit? there are so many other aspects i could get into: the fact that whenever the celebrities are asked their honest opinion, many complain of the discomfort of wearing 4 inch heels, the terrible fear of potentially losing half a million dollars worth of jewelry, how they had disordered eating for weeks beforehand in order to fit into a sample size. the behind the scenes of this fantasy land beauty factory is of course really, really ugly.
aside from that, i just get really grumpy about the way the mainstream media talks about fashion. describing a dress as “romantic” or “elegant.” and seriously, do you EVER describe any of your friends outfits as “breathtaking?” do they look “radiant” or do they positively “glow” when wearing thousands of dollars worth of conflict diamonds? can we just stop? not to mention the way fashion reporters talk about pregnant women’s bodies. for the record! now and forever! may it be established! NEWSFLASH: a pregnant woman’s belly is not a BABY BUMP. IT’S A FUCKING PREGNANT BELLY. if we want to get really accurate about this shit we could call it a FETUS BUMP or a UTERUS ENGORGED BY ITS CURRENT HOUSING OF A FETUS BUMP.
so at the end of this rant, i feel like i can wrap up my feelings in some manner. tomorrow after the oscars, people might ask me, a known lover of fashion, who i thought was the best dressed on the red carpet. i can never answer that question. it doesn’t matter what my answer is. i feel like no matter what i say, i would be participating in a side of fashion i’ve always hated the most: the elite, classist universe of hollywood’s relationship with the fashion industry. that’s it. the reason i dislike red carpet culture so much (and have devoted many hours to writing and researching this article) is because it represents the exact opposite of what i love about fashion. the red carpet sets the “trends” for the masses, dressing an elite largely homogenous group of people in a palatable boring representation of glamour, beauty, and wealth. those “trends” fall into categories such as: strapless, knee-length, beige/”nude”, or the “long sleeve” as is the purported case with this year’s golden globes. to me, that isn’t fashion. that is business. that is capital. what fashion really is to me is revolutionary. it is throwing off the shackles of prescribed trends and the idea that you can (and should) buy style. it is saying fuck you to that. it is representing yourself, your identity, however complex or simple that might be. it is being playful, it is storytelling. and at the end of the day the only thing i feel like a red carpet dress is trying to tell me is that my body isn’t acceptable, my friends bodies aren’t acceptable, i’m too poor to afford to look that good or glamourous… and who wants that? not me.
PHEW. well. if you’ve stayed with me until the end, you deserve a little high-five or something. this is something i’ve wanted to get off my chest for a while now. to end off, i’ll leave it to you, dear patient readers: do you have a way of reclaiming red carpet culture? do you think i’m totally off-base with these critiques? will you be watching the red carpet of the oscars tonight, and what will you get out of it? i’d really like to hear how other people feel about this.
not so recommended reading/viewing: