When is a dress more than a dress? Can a dress make a political point?
On Sunday night, if anything was refreshing about the Golden Globes red carpet, it was what was said, not the widely-hyped what was worn.
The talk, as repetitive and halting as it was—and sometimes focused on E!’s own shortcomings as Debra Messing, Sarah Jessica Parker and Eva Longoria took aim at the network over the circumstances of the departure of Catt Sadler—was of the need for political and cultural change.
Actresses and actors were dressed in black to signify support, along with pins, of the “Time’s Up” movement, targeting sexual abuse, assault and harassment in the workplace. People said “Time’s Up” a lot. Sure, the viewer thought at home: we’re agreed on that, now what?
If you were expecting revolution, the sight of dresses still costing thousands of dollars and expensive diamonds draped around perfectly proportioned necks should have provided a cooling corrective.
This was, in many ways, a very traditional red carpet. There was nobody in black T shirts, sweaters and jeans. No-one came in Bermuda shorts. The fashion statement was of the most conservative kind: the celebrities attending were wearing exactly the same kind of expensive dresses and tuxes that actors and actresses wear to awards ceremonies. They just happened to be black.
Rose McGowan, who has accused Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault and is the subject of E!’s new documentary series Citizen Rose, observed the parade balefully. “And not one of those fancy people wearing black to honor our rapes would have lifted a finger had it not been so. I have no time for Hollywood fakery, but you I love, @AsiaArgento #RoseArmy” she wrote to her friend Asia Argento.
Naturally, the black dresses were exquisitely embroidered and detailed. Nothing about the clothes screamed resistance to oppression—unless we now judge oppression to be best resisted in sheer Saint Laurent.
The Globes red carpet was quintessential Hollywood: a sweeping gesture, a distinctively right team to be on, a lot of soft-focus empowerment posturing, and yet also cold, hard business as usual, with designers either gifting or custom-making gowns for celebrities.
The difference was, this time anyway, was that nobody asked an actress “who” she was wearing. Giuliana Rancic on E! said that instead they would be asking celebrities “why” they were wearing the black threads they were wearing. So, that was the grit in the pearl. It wasn't so rough.
The red carpet became a parade of right-on restatements: of affirmations of equality, and standing together against sexual abuse, assault, and harassment. Two freshly popularized campaigns and hashtags—#MeToo and #TimesUp—were minted in conversation.
This was admirable and a significant primetime moment. But what—you wanted someone to ask the parade of woke-or-die celebrities—would the Time’s Up campaign actually do? How would it work? Who was it for? How would it be administered? And why should it be considered radical or brave for any sentient person to be in favor of equality and against any kind of harassment or abuse?
Most notably, the questions about the need for the campaign were being mainly asked of women.
Men, who in the majority of cases have been responsible for alleged abuse and harassment, were not grilled in any meaningful way about Time’s Up. A male-created can of worms has become women’s collective problem, and on the red carpet women were being made to answer for it, to clear up the mess.
Another set of questions should have been asked of the men of Hollywood: why do you think your power has gone unchecked for so long; how has patriarchy become such a warped ticket for abuse in this town; what should men do to help bring about change?
This strange, polite, wanting-to-do-the-right-thing Red Carpet was the precursor for an evening that uneasily married Hollywood’s unctuous bent for self-celebration with a variety of proclamations about the need for equality and the need to fight abuse.
These were nothing if not eloquent—from Oprah Winfrey down they were inspiring and the right thing to hear at the right moment. But what was missing, on red carpet and Golden Globes stage, was someone, anyone, interrogating how this change would take place. How should it change? What was needed specifically? How would studios change? How would they manage and enforce change?
You might argue that the Golden Globes is no place for such inelegant specifics. But the Golden Globes this year cast itself in this softly avenging role, or saw itself as some kind of political crucible, and so all those questions should and could have been asked.
Instead, the red carpet became a kind of mushy set of right-on homilies and safe and inoffensive micro-conversations about “the need for change,” and various other things nobody could possibly disagree with.
Lest anyone–the horror!–approach any minefield too serious, E!’s coverage featured regular mentions of the “fun” that people would have, y’know, after they had talked about the serious sexual abuse and harassment stuff.
There was, you suddenly realized, no anger on the red carpet; if the Golden Globes was true to the injustice, abuse, and dirty linen flapping in the Hollywood wind ever since the revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged abuse, the prevailing mood on the red carpet could have been one of fury and challenge.
But instead we had a whole series of mini-Oprah shows—of statements of resistance and strength, a determination not to dwell in any negativity—until the main Oprah show so stunningly hit the stage.
The Golden Globes, as befits a room of story and fairytale evokers, was its own staged, very determined journey from darkness to light, with the men’s silence and utter inability to engage with the issues of the evening so obvious it was as jagged as a smashed glass amid all those bottles of Moet.
If you were expecting anything more profound, then you misunderstand Hollywood. For, even when mired in a disgraceful set of sexual abuse and harassment scandals, this is still a town of business. It wants to move on, and doesn’t know how.
So, at the Golden Globes, it both sought to atone and carefully draw a line. The red carpet seriousness and Seth Meyers’ knowing jokes about minorities signaled less a desire for serious self-introspection and willingness to institutionally change, but more a sense of brisk business as usual with nods in all the right directions.
The gnarlier truth is the fight back against the abuse and harassment that has occurred is only just beginning; the other smashed glass amid all those bottles of Moet, drowned in the bubbly froth of platitudes, was how the hell was that going to work exactly?
Instead, we were required to delight in the implicitly political, very expensive black dresses worn by the very privileged and serious actors in the service of showcasing very famous designers, and making very serious points.
Some of the actors were accompanied by accomplished activists like Marai Larasi and Monica Ramirez. The presence and prominence of these passionate activists was to be welcomed, but the impetus for them appearing on our screens wasn't their own amazing work but in the context of Hollywood sexual abuse and harassment. Where was mainstream Hollywood's support of them before all of this exploded?
We were encouraged to laugh at the irony-drenched jokes about white men and their weaknesses, about the shame of Weinstein and Kevin Spacey and their ruination; not what they had done and to whom.
The standout moments of the evening were ones when the anger broke through, and other glasses were smashed alongside the Moet: the actresses who skewered E! over Sadler while on E!; Natalie Portman’s brilliantly sour interjection about the all-male best director list; and at the heart of Winfrey’s barnstorming oratory there was the anger of injustice.
There was, if you looked very hard, another, far angrier Golden Globes struggling to peek out and be heard beyond the veil of richly detailed, expensive black gowns and sugar-coated empowerment speak on Sunday night. The future, agenda-changing life of #MeToo and #TimesUp depends on it.