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Red Carpet Activism: Progressive or Performative?

The 20th century saw the red carpet become a symbol of elegance and power that is now core to our celebrity culture. The timeless runway never fails to capture audiences with its competition for ‘best dressed.

But in recent years there has been a redefining of what makes a statement in fashion. In 2018 particularly, celebrities strove to walk the red carpet with a political agenda. Now more than ever, activism is in.

Social media movements have made being outspoken become fashionable. So when social progression becomes the latest trend, it’s no wonder household names are joining the discussion.

The red carpet is our best glorification of fame. It brings to life a gatekept luxury that only the few get to experience. However, 2017 picked at the façade of Hollywood with the exposure of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct and the gender pay gap. Viewers began to see through Hollywood’s illusion when A-listers assembled to speak out.

Contrary to mainstream knowledge, the ‘Me Too’ campaign actually began in 2006 when created by Bronx activist and survivor Tarana Burke. The movement originally intended to break the silence of marginalised women, that were also survivors of sexual assault. But in 2017, Weinstein survivors took over the movement, when actress Alyssa Milano posted to Twitter:

If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet. — Alyssa Milano (@Alyssa_Milano) October 15, 2017

The campaign was successful in unravelling the hidden sexual harassment inside Hollywood’s workplace. Although, it can be said that Burke’s initial intentions have been overtaken by appropriation.

Burke seems perfectly complacent with this, as she still continuously campaigns to empower and encourage survivors to revoke their silence. Her groundwork has inspired a generation of women to speak out against their injustices, making the workplace universally safer for women.

“It’s beyond a hashtag. It’s the start of a larger conversation and a movement for radical community.” @TaranaBurke

However, once again Burke’s initial purpose has become lost in communication, with the take-over of focus on economic inequality at the 2018 Golden Globes.

The ‘Time’s Up’ movement followed from ‘Me Too’, but refers more to the economic disparity between genders.

The Golden Globes black out in 2018 is the campaign’s most poignant display of uprising. This included attendees wearing all black to the ceremony as a stance against the gender pay gap, thus changing the outstanding question from “who are you wearing?” to “why are you wearing black?”

Today the gender pay gap is often disregarded as a thing of the past. It’s common knowledge that during the previous century male actors were paid significantly more than their female counterparts. For instance, Clark Gable received over $120,000 for working on Gone With the Wind (1939) for only half the amount of days as female lead, Vivien Leigh, who was paid a mere $25,000.

In December 2017, Catt Sadler quit the E! News network upon discovering her male counterpart was potentially earning twice her salary. As she was unable to attend herself, the Golden Globes allowed her former co-workers to express their solidarity with Sadler.

Debra Messing, draped in black, announced on the carpet “I miss Catt Sadler, and we stand with her.” Through Messing’s support, Sadler received the exposure her injustice deserved.

Actress Natalie Portman caused further disruption by introducing the directing category with “and here are the all-male nominees.” Unfortunately, the panel still didn’t get the message. The following year not a single woman was nominated for the directing category. Again.

Nevertheless, despite the panel’s complete ignorance, the ladies in black still made a dent. Within the first nine months of setup, the Time’s Up Legal Defence Fund raised $22 million.

Is red carpet activism enough?

Following suit, the BAFTAs also called for an all-black dress code shortly after the Globes, but for the Oscars, Time’s Up decided there was to be no dress code. Instead, A-lister ‘activists’ wore pins in support of gun safety in America.

What makes a celebrity is their platform, their audience. So why is it only on the red carpet some celebrities decide to be ‘vocal’? And only on topics that are trending or concern them. Of course this doesn’t apply to all, but what’s stopping celebrities from using their influences off the runway?

The growth in activism has convinced us that being vocal is enough. The #TimesUp campaign arguably spoke over Burke’s #MeToo, silencing the most marginalised voices, instead of speaking alongside them. Red carpet activism seems pre-occupied with the marginalisation of white voices only.

Although the red carpet has taken a step in the right direction in using the platform for change, activism must be intersectional and consistent.


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