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A Feminist Scholar Explains This Year’s Red Carpet Activism

The #MeToo movement showed up at award shows this year. Was it effective?

The women stand in a huddle, smiling at the camera, all wearing black.
Actresses and activists attend the Golden Globes. From top left: activist Tarana Burke, actresses Natalie Portman, Michelle Williams, America Ferrera, Jessica Chastain, Amy Poehler, and Meryl Streep. From bottom left: activists Ai-jen Poo and Saru Jayaraman.
Photo: Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

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The typically glamorous churn of awards season took on a fiery tone this year, as growing numbers of women in entertainment come forward with accounts of sexual assault in professional situations. Ahead of the Golden Globes, heavy hitters like Reese Witherspoon and Shonda Rhimes helped launch Time’s Up, an organization and legal fund pushing for workplace equality and an end to sexual harassment. To get the message out, Time’s Up leadership encouraged Golden Globes attendees to dress in black, and it got what it wanted: a sea of women (and many men) in black gowns and tuxes, many of them accessorized with Time’s Up pins. At the Grammys, musicians wore white roses in solidarity with the #MeToo movement. For the BAFTAs, black emerged once again as the color of the night.

With the Oscars coming up on Sunday, we’ll be watching to see whether women once again use their couture to make a statement — and whether they’ll be studiously avoiding interviews with E! host Ryan Seacrest, who, despite recent allegations of sexual harassment, will be fulfilling his usual duties on the red carpet.

In the meantime, I called up Laura Portwood-Stacer, author of Lifestyle Politics and Radical Activism and a feminist scholar of fashion and protest who has taught at NYU and USC. I wanted to get her take on how effective those black dresses were and what we can learn from this awards season.

So what kind of effect have this award season’s fashion-focused red carpet protests had so far?

The whole #MeToo movement has been a cultural moment where everyone is aware that it’s going on, and so I think with awards season, these celebrities see that it’s a time to have this conversation. It’s not going to be dismissed as “too political” — this is the time to say this. So [the red carpet protests] are kind of shoring up that movement.

And nobody is paying more attention to Hollywood than they are during awards season.

They have all the publicity in the world right now. These are people who have the best publicity people in the world, and they’re marshaling it very effectively. That’s what made the Golden Globes so effective: It wasn’t just some random, superficial thing. They had a machine making sure that everyone was on message. Hardly anyone showed up without a black dress. It became noticeable if you weren’t wearing black.

Then you had the white roses at the Grammys, which were a much more subtle statement.

I wasn’t even aware of the Grammys protest, and I watched it. [The #MeToo movement] was still in the air, but it didn’t feel like an organized protest.

I think it’s really important when you’re talking about protest to make a distinction between activism and organizing. Activism is when you take an action that expresses your view about something, and maybe you’re trying to accomplish something, but maybe you’re acting on your own. Organizing is doing the groundwork to make sure everyone’s saying the same thing, and framing it so people understand the message. I think that the reason the Golden Globes was super successful is that they paid attention to all that legwork.

I wrote about this in my book on anarchists [Lifestyle Politics and Radical Activism]. They do dress very distinctively, but I don’t think most people understand what their clothing is supposed to mean. There’s not a clear message that everyone could articulate and that the audience witnessing Occupy Wall Street could understand. The difference here is that the people who are involved in black dresses were able to frame it like: “This is what this black dress means. This is why we’re doing it.”

What are the challenges of using clothing as a form of protest?

Often style almost gets in the way of the message, because by looking so different, the mainstream is like, “You’re just a bunch of dirty hippies.” It allows people to get cut off from the message instead of absorbing it. In the Golden Globes case, it’s not like they were dressing inappropriately or breaking any kind of norm. They’re still wearing beautiful designer gowns. I think that they really walked that line of having a distinct visual style without alienating people.

And in fact, I was excited to see how people were going to riff on black, by using silhouette or embellishment to do something surprising.

Yeah, it was actually almost fun to be like, “What’s this person going to do with black? That’s an interesting choice.” You could say that lessened the attention on the message, but you remember it.

Red carpet protests have been a big conversation for the last few months, but do you think we’re going to remember all of this a year from now?

I think we will remember it. A couple months ago I might have been more questioning, but I don’t see [the #MeToo] movement going anywhere any time soon, so I think we will. I don’t think it will be effective to do the same fashion-based protest because once you’ve done it once, it stops being as powerful. Unless it’s like, “We’re going to continue wearing black until these conditions change and we have benchmarks to measure that,” I think it would lose its power.

What has surprised you about the Time’s Up protests on the red carpet?

It was pretty cool and powerful that these actresses brought other women as their dates [to the Golden Globes], who are organizers and activists. Many were women of color. These rich white celebrities actually shared their platform, and you could say they don’t deserve a medal for that, but they didn’t have to. It showed an awareness that I don’t think they might have had five years ago, which speaks to the power of the women who did the organizing to make their work visible enough that it has been recognized.

In what way was this awards season fashion protest less successful?

I think you can see it with the Grammys, where it’s a little more diffuse and everyone’s not on the same page about the message. It’s hard to have a unified message when there are so many people, but these protests are most effective when they’re on-message and unified.

What are some historical examples of women using fashion as protest?

The thing that always comes up with protest and fashion is bloomers — early feminists wearing pants. You could say that it’s successful in that we all remember it now, but at the time they were so easily written off as freaks because it was so beyond the pale of cultural norms. That’s an example of a time when — not that they don’t have a point or shouldn’t dress like that — it’s not as effective at reaching your goals.

Unless your goal is just to express yourself. If your goal is to be a radical outlier, maybe you do want to alienate people. That sometimes is the point of a movement.

And like you said earlier, the actresses and musicians who have been using fashion as a form of protest are really playing by the rules of the red carpet, which may make their message more available to a wide audience.

The interesting thing is that I don’t think these women were afraid to make people uncomfortable. The Natalie Portman line [about the all-male slate of nominees for best director at the Golden Globes] was the best thing that happened all night. It was like, “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable about how I dress, I want you to engage with the substance of what’s going on.”

What haven’t we touched on here?

I think the main thing that maybe we didn’t touch on is that when fashion is used for activism, it only really works as activism when the message goes beyond the look. When there’s a campaign or an actual objective that goes beyond, “We’re all going to dress alike.” In this case, with Time’s Up, there was. There was a website you could go to. Everyone was plugging it, and they raised a ton of money. There’s value in just raising awareness, but that can so easily go nowhere.

[Women in Hollywood] struck while the iron was hot. They understood the moment and went with it in a productive way. I think it’s not a coincidence that this is a successful protest and it’s run by people who live media and understand an audience.