Why Subtle Red Carpet Looks Won’t Start the Revolution

Actor Lena Waithe attends the 'Heavenly Bodies: Fashion & The Catholic Imagination Costume Institute Gala' at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 7, 2018. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

When the movie of the year is about class struggle, what are the most effective ways to communicate a socially conscious message in Hollywood? At this year’s Academy Awards, Natalie Portman showed up in a Dior cape with the names of female directors snubbed by the Academy embroidered in the lining as a “subtle” way of honoring her cause. While she was trying to add to an existing conversation about gender inequality in Hollywood, the statement itself didn’t quite land.

Initially lauded as a tasteful nod to all the women whose work was passed over for best picture, the conversation quickly changed once people turned the spotlight on Portman’s own working history in the film industry. Critics were quick to point out that in her own career, Portman has only worked with a handful of female directors. To those commentators, the embroidered gown was an attention-seeking virtue-signal rather than a sign of solidarity.

In this vein, actress Rose McGowan called the dress “deeply offensive.” Portman responded in a statement, saying that her attempts to work with more women throughout her career never came to fruition, which she described as an invisible “ghost history.” McGowan later apologized for her initial criticism, saying she “lost sight of the bigger picture.”

Buried in the past week-and-a-half of breathless coverage about two disagreeing celebrities is the real story: subtle gestures are no match for unsubtle problems. Best picture winner Parasite, a thriller that was as politically charged as it was entertaining, proved that audiences and critics alike want to see social issues addressed in pop culture.

The Kim Family (Woo-sik Choi, Kang-ho Song, Hye-jin Jang, So-dam Park) in a still from 'Parasite.' (Courtesy of NEON CJ Entertainment)

And yet, how effective are political statements at awards ceremonies themselves? The Academy Awards are an anachronistic celebration of wealth, privilege and institutional tradition at a time when income inequality in the United States is the highest it’s been in over 50 years. A financial report reveals that $44 million was spent on the 2017 Oscars “and related activities.” That’s not to mention other expenses, like the infamous “goodie bags” estimated to cost about $255,000 each this year.

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But stars can’t help themselves. In part as a way to direct a portion of those vast resources to something other than self-celebration, actors have occasionally used the visibility of the Oscars as a platform to champion personal causes or make political statements, to varying degrees of success. Joaquin Phoenix talked about climate change and veganism in his best actor acceptance speech; Brad Pitt criticized the Senate Republicans for not letting John Bolton testify.

Politics aren’t only confined to award winners. On the red carpet, stars take stands on myriad issues, where fashion can turn paparazzi shots into powerful images. In solidarity with sexual assault victims at the 2018 Golden Globes, female celebrities rejected the tradition of red-carpet fashion by wearing exclusively black gowns. They turned an event typically centered around scrutinizing women’s bodies and clothing choices into a political statement.

Actor Meryl Streep, activist Ai-jen Poo, actor Natalie Portman, activist Tarana Burke, actor Michelle Williams, actor America Ferrera, actor Jessica Chastain, actor Amy Poehler, and activist Saru Jayaraman attend 19th Annual Post-Golden Globes Party at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on Jan. 7, 2018. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Director Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite brought extra scrutiny to the optics of class and celebrity at this year’s Oscars. The film, about the wealth inequality between two South Korean families, took four categories, including the first best picture awarded to a non-English language film. About the uncomfortable lengths a poor family will go to for a chance at a better life, Parasite highlights the way money protects people from making morally questionable decisions (by rendering them oblivious to others’ needs).

Just as a well-made film doesn’t necessarily undermine its socially conscious message, a flashy designer garment can still speak volumes. Communicating through clothing takes advantage of the scrutiny red carpet outfits typically attract. But the most effective arguments are attention-grabbing, loud and impossible to misunderstand.

When Lena Waithe wore a trailing rainbow cape to the “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion at and the Catholic Imagination” Met Gala in 2018, it was a bold statement that resonated with people all over the world. A custom Carolina Herrera suit isn’t a form of protest accessible to everyone (or anyone, really). But that doesn’t make the photos of a woman defiantly representing her identity in the midst of its complicated relationship with the Catholic church any less powerful.

Waithe’s outfit wasn’t merely improved by its message; it was the message. The cohesion of her argument and its visual execution made the outfit a resounding statement. In contrast, Natalie Portman relegated her feminist argument to the edge of a cape. The women directors’ names appeared as a stitched-on afterthought, as though the cause wasn’t worth the dedication of an entire outfit. To many, it seemed like the feminist message was secondary to Portman’s desire to wear a nice dress.

Parasite’s win is not only big because it's the first non-English language picture, but because it proves great movies can be darkly funny, satirical, dramatic and heartfelt while also dealing in pressing issues of the day. It shows that social critique has a place in Hollywood, and that even if there are occasional missteps, the spotlight is a worthwhile place for continuing important conversations.