When the 87th Academy Awards rolled around earlier this year we were poised to find out more from the women of Hollywood than simply which designer they were wearing. As we prepare for more red carpet moments at the Cannes International Film Festival this week, we revisit MOJEH Issue 26, where we explored The Representation Project’s campaign to #AskHerMore.
‘This is a movement to say we’re more than just our dresses,’ Reese Witherspoon told reporter Robin Roberts on the red carpet at The Oscars this year. ‘There are 44 nominees this year that are women and we are so happy to be here and talk about the work that we’ve done. It’s hard being a woman in Hollywood, or any industry.’ When Reese Witherspoon began to promote The Representation Project’s campaign to ask women about more than simply their gowns on the red carpet, the #AskHerMore movement spiralled. Reaching more than 25 million people, the viral campaign made a real-world impact, as actors and journalists began to draw attention to the fact that there really is more to an appearance by an actress on the red carpet than her gown.
Founded by Jennifer Siebel Newsom and using film as a catalyst, The Representation Project’s mission is to overcome all limiting stereotypes (whether gender, race, class, age, sexual orientation or circumstance). Siebel Newsom, a former actress who was asked, at the start of her career, to remove her Stanford MBA from her resumé and lie about her age, directed the 2011 acclaimed documentary, Miss Representation. Exploring the under-representation of women in positions of power and influence in the US, the film’s motto is, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’. Challenging the mainstream media’s portrayal of what it means to be a powerful women, the #AskHerMore red carpet movement was a natural extension of this message.
Comedian and actress Amy Poehler’s organisation, Smart Girls, spread the #AskHerMore missive for the SAG Awards, Grammys and the Golden Globes, which Poehler hosted, with equally funny and vocal counterpart Tina Fey. ‘The #RedCarpet is open and we want the media to #AskHerMore! Let’s go beyond ‘who are you wearing?’ and ask better questions! #GoldenGlobes,’ tweeted Smart Girls (whose rallying cry is, ‘Change the world by being yourself’). As the campaign swiftly gained traction with the acting community and beyond, the support came flooding in, culminating on Oscars night. ‘I love the Oscars AND fashion like many of you & am excited to share #WhoAmIWearing later tonight (not yet!). But I’d also love to answer some of these questions…’ posted Reese alongside a list of alternative questions such as, ‘What accomplishment are you most proud of?’ and ‘What potential do filmmakers and characters have to make change in the world?’. ‘Ask her about the causes she supports, not her support garments,’ tweeted Lena Dunham. While Julianne Moore chimed in on the night, telling Entertainment Tonight, ‘I think it’s important to ask everybody about more than what they’re wearing. Ask them what they’re thinking, ask them what their work is about.’
Women on (and off) the red carpet are ready for a new narrative and it’s not hard to see why. ‘What a woman wears can be a wonderful form of self-expression, but the issue is that it usually has very little to do with what she has personally accomplished and what she actually represents,’ says Dina Butti, the Dubai ON Demand television presenter who has interviewed stars from Matthew McConaughey to Blake Lively. The #AskHerMore movement isn’t just about women tiring of the vapidity of red carpet interviews – it strikes a deeper chord, drawing attention to wider equality issues. When you consider that fewer than a quarter of films feature a female protagonist and only 29 per cent of speaking characters in top Hollywood films are women, there is a profound gender imbalance being reflected back at us. The women that do appear on the big screen are four times more likely to be sexualised or wearing revealing clothing, not to mention the lack of substantial roles for women over the age of 40. If you believe that you can’t be what you can’t see, there’s a generation of young women out there that don’t have access to enough fulfilling role models on-screen.
Off the red carpet and inside the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood on Oscars night, Patricia Arquette fought back. Arquette used her acceptance speech to highlight wage inequality in America, where women make up half of the US workforce but the average working woman earns only 78 per cent of what the average working man makes (rising to 85 percent in the media industry). Not only did Arquette use her (literal) platform to eloquently highlight a taboo subject, she caused Meryl Streep to jump out of her seat in delight, punching the air in support (and promptly becoming our best meme of 2015).
A slew of young actresses are using their celebrity to spread positive and worthwhile messages while refusing to be defined by their appearance. Emma Stone, Jennifer Lawrence and Scarlett Johansson have each taken a public stand against insulting interview questions about their bodies or appearance (‘How come you get the really interesting existential question, and I get the ‘rabbit food’ question?’ Johansson half-joked in a joint interview with Robert Downey Jr.). Similarly, Cate Blanchett’s loaded query to E! News reporter Giuliana Rancic at the 2014 Screen Actors Guild Awards, ‘Do you do that to the guys?’, made her thoughts abundantly clear about the camera panning up and down her body as she was talking, examining every inch of her outfit for the benefit of viewers. Dina Butti has experienced this pressure first hand. ‘When you’re on television, it seems like everyone has an opinion on how you look – and it’s amazing how much time people will dedicate to critiquing it,’ she tells us. ‘However, as with most challenges in life, it toughened me up and encouraged me to prove that my success wasn’t based on superficial qualities.’ But should those in the public eye have to ‘toughen up’ to endure the endless scrutiny?
Siebel Newsom’s message is that the film industry has to be held accountable for the culture it perpetuates. Each forthright response to the micro-aggression of a sexist question or comment works to strengthen the next actress’ response just a little. E!’s Mani Cam is no longer a feature of the red carpet after stars including Reese Witherspoon, Julianne Moore and Jennifer Aniston refused to be judged on the colour of their nails (‘No. I’m not doing that,’ said Moore politely at the SAG Awards – also retaining a vestige of dignity by refusing to lift her skirt for the accompanying Stiletto Cam). These small changes, built-upon by widespread campaigns like #AskHerMore, combine to make a difference. Julianne Moore was led into a discussion about Alzheimer’s research at the Oscars (she played an Alzheimer’s sufferer in her Oscar-winning performance in Still Alice) and Witherspoon discussed the genesis of her film Wild, which was produced by her company Pacific Standard whose entire purpose is to ‘create interesting roles for women’ in light of their scarcity elsewhere. It isn’t a fait accompli, Ryan Seacrest spent valuable red carpet minutes asking Naomi Watts about her breakfast frittata recipe, but the conversation has already been broadened.
As the red carpet discussion progresses in minor but significant ways, other women in film take their causes out into the wider world. UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson floored us with her impassioned speech in New York last September at an event for the HeForShe campaign. ‘If we stop defining each other by what we are not and start defining ourselves by what we are – we can all be freer and this is what HeForShe is about. It’s about freedom,’ she said. So too Angelina Jolie, a philanthropist and humanitarian known for her tireless advocacy on behalf of refugees and a fervent campaigner for women’s rights. Three years ago she launched the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, who was inspired to campaign on the issue by Jolie’s Bosnian war drama In the Land of Blood and Honey. Real achievements in the real world. To touch on even a fraction of these issues during an Oscars red carpet televised program (viewed by 43 million people) would bring more attention to these causes in one broadcast than months of steady under the radar campaigning. Expanding the dialogue in popular media could have an impact here too. ‘Now more than ever, women in the Middle Eastern are stepping out from behind the scenes and becoming the pioneering faces of industries,’ says Dina. ‘The more opportunities we have to share our perspectives on important subject matters, the more we can take control and shape the way we are perceived around the world.’ With Forbes Middle East naming 200 of the Most Powerful Arab Women annually, in roles ranging from CEOs to entrepreneurs to governmental powerhouses (Kuwait’s Shaikha K. Al-Bahar is Deputy Group CEO of National Bank of Kuwait, Lebanon’s Nayla Hayek is CEO of Harry Winston and Salma Ali Saif Bin Hareb, Chief Executive Officer of Economic Zones World), perhaps we should highlight these success stories by ‘asking her more’ in our own backyard.
Yet drawing attention to powerful issues isn’t mutually exclusive with reveling in the craftsmanship and aesthetic beauty of one-of-a-kind gowns. Part of the allure of the fashion industry is that it is aspirational; it offers a make-believe version of life in which every outfit is perfectly curated. Nowhere is this more manifested than on the red carpet, and that’s ok with us. As modern women we can admire the fantasy dress and the depth of opinion that gives just a little bit more meaning to the Hollywood parade. ‘There’s nothing wrong with loving fashion and being interested in what they wear,’ Cristina Escobar, communications director for The Representation Project tells ThinkProgress. ‘But the problem is, that it’s the only thing we talk about with women. Men are allowed to be their whole selves: they’re asked about their interests and passions, how it felt to make the film. It reinforces a message that women are valued for youth and appearance and men are valued for their accomplishments.’
One stark reason that ‘Who are you wearing?’ is always going to be relevant on the red carpet has less to do with aspirational dressing and more to do with big business. Much more goes into the creation of that couture gown than simply the star’s personal whim. The value of the publicity generated for luxury fashion and jewellery brands by the right star being pictured in the perfect gown is unquantifiable. Such is the reach of the red carpet – if, as a fashion community, we can build a unique industry out of pre-show arrivals, there is huge potential to build momentum for other causes. As MOJEH reported in Issue 25, contractual agreements, reportedly formed between jewellery maisons and their leading ladies, can earn an actress six-to-seven figures for a one-time appearance at the Oscars. Not to mention that repeated successful collaborations – read: ‘best dressed’ nods – with a brand may lead to lucrative advertising partnerships. The relationship between designers and actors is a careful balancing act of mutual respect and cross-promotion. Which is why Witherspoon revealed on social media, before she hit the red carpet, that her Oscars gown was by Tom Ford, her jewels Tiffany & Co. and her stylist Leslie Fremar. Those are the rules of the game.
As a populist feminist movement, #AskHerMore further empowered a growing dialogue that is pushing back against the beauty pageant atmosphere of red carpet events. This idea that we have reached ‘peak red carpet’ and must begin to find a more meaningful path through a situation in which Amal Clooney can be lauded for her humanitarian legal work and lambasted for her gloves, all at the same event. The harder work is to be found in addressing pay inequality, attitudes and accessibility when it comes to female roles both in front of and behind the camera. This needn’t come at the expense of our interest and joy in high fashion, which will always be one of the more entertaining aspects of the film industry. Just ask a special woman in your life – a friend, a colleague, a mother – more. You might be surprised by the answer.