In the Line of Fire
by Gail O'Neill, Style Editor at Southern Seasons Weddings & writer for ArtsATL
Picture: Christopher Polk/Getty Images
As the popularity of red carpet coverage from telecasts like the Golden Globes, Oscars and Grammys gradually eclipse the actual awards shows themselves, what began as a harmless precursor to the main event has morphed into a blood sport— with women in the crosshairs 99% of the time.
In what feels more like a Colosseum than a celebration, Worst Dressed lists are as hotly anticipated as Best Dressed lists. Postmortems recounting every flaw and/or misstep are de rigueur from network morning news shows to the most obscure blogs. And even the inherent elegance of the red carpet has been undermined thanks to innovations like the “Mani Cam” and “Glam Cam 360”— inelegant gizmos that seem better suited for horse trading, Best In Show competitions and auction blocks— designed to scrutinize every inch of a subject’s body.
The irony that something as fun and frivolous as fashion might be used to savage highly-accomplished women on the same night their peers gather to acknowledge and applaud their gifts as performance artists cannot be overstated. Though when style and substance meet, it can be a game-changer.
After hitting all the right sartorial marks on the red carpet leading up to last year’s ceremony, Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o was empowered. On-going benefits for the 32-year-old have included enhanced professional opportunities, lucrative clothing and cosmetics campaigns and requests for public speaking engagements more befitting a head of state than Best Supporting Actress. Fortunately, the Yale School of Drama graduate has proved worthy of every microphone proffered so far.
But what of the voices that are eliminated from the conversation owing to the speaker’s visage, age or inability to fit into a size 0 haute couture gown? Conversely, what voices receive inordinate airtime owing to the speaker’s superficial charms though she may have nothing worthwhile to contribute? And what is lost when we mindlessly conflate a woman’s worth with her looks?
Of course, it can be argued that a celebrity’s fame precludes her humanity: making her fair game for any slings and arrows that come with the territory. But the dichotomy of a performer’s success or failure being hinged upon outward appearance is a razor’s edge that even non-celebrity women are forced to negotiate as the lines between public and private life blur.
Whether the proliferation of social media, meticulously managed on-line profiles and selfies have accelerated a problem-waiting-to-happen, or merely held up a mirror to our propensity for being our own worst enemies, the resulting quest for perfection has been toxic.
Sure, we take our daughters to work, pay massive lip service to “girl power” and call out iconic toy brands like Lego for (alleged) gender-biases in marketing, but we simultaneously cultivate the insidious lie that youth and beauty, not brains and purposeful living, are what really matter.
Though the practice of female genital mutilation is generally derided as unevolved and barbaric by women throughout the West, no one questions the sanity of women from LA to New York who volunteer to have their flesh sliced open so implants can be inserted to “enhance” their bust lines. We excoriate mature actresses for overdosing on Botox and fillers, while overindulging in those same cosmetic procedures from local strip malls to our dentist’s chair. Far too many women are masters at trash talking themselves while gazing into dressing room mirrors… within earshot of their little girls. While anorexia, eating disorders, body dysmorphia and other expressions of female self-mutilation and self-abnegation show no signs of abating.
The Vatican recently quoted one woman’s observation that plastic surgery is akin to “a burqa of the flesh,” in anticipation of an assembly on ‘Women’s Cultures: Equality and Difference,” and went on to characterize all cosmetic procedures as a form of “aggression” against the female body.
Unfortunately, the church’s choice to hire Italian actress Nancy Brilli as their spokesperson was met with equal measures of derision and ridicule owing to the blonde’s inorganic sex-appeal.
But glimmers of hope are emerging from the belly of the beast.
Last year, Cate Blanchett called out red carpet camera-operators for ogling actresses at the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Jennifer Aniston and Julianne Moore dismissed the Mani Cam at this year’s SAG Awards as “silly.” And when Reese Witherspoon started the #AskHerMore campaign on Twitter— to protest the media’s habit of focusing on women’s wardrobes to the exclusion of their work— Shonda Rhimes and Lena Dunham were two of thousands to tweet their solidarity from the Academy Awards last month.
No doubt, these are all baby steps on what is destined to be a long road. But if they inspire us to ask more of ourselves, perhaps those first small steps will culminate in one giant leap for womankind.