What Will Happen When the Red Carpet Is Forced to Get Serious?

With a wear-black protest in the works, Sunday’s Golden Globes could represent a shift for Hollywood’s most vapid tradition.

Workers roll out the red carpet along Hollywood Blvd. for the 89th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California, on February 22, 2017 (Mike Blake / Reuters)

The red carpet, in one of its earliest iterations, was a setting not only of honor, but also of danger. In The Oresteia, when the king Agamemnon returns from his battles at Troy—to a wife he has, in multiple ways, betrayed—Clytemnestra, seeking her revenge, goads him to walk on the path normally reserved for the gods. “Now my beloved,” she tells him, “step down from your chariot, and let not your foot, my lord, touch the Earth. Servants, let there be spread before the house he never expected to see, where Justice leads him in, a crimson path.” Agamemnon protests—“I am a mortal, a man,” he reminds his wife; “I cannot trample upon these tinted splendors without fear thrown in my path”—and, yet, finally, he capitulates: Hubris, by proxy. The gods, angered. The conqueror’s fate, sealed.

The version of the red carpet Americans reserve for our own small gods has traditionally been far removed from such epic matters: the stuff of airy banter, of preenings and posings, of mani-cams and GlamCams and double-Spanx, of product placements in which people themselves are the products on display. The red carpet—an ornament that has become, TV being what it is, an event—has also been a setting of gender essentialism, performed and made pretty. The women, with their skin exposed, their bodies molded and swathed in fabrics that assume the decorative nature of even empowered femininity: gauzy chiffons, delicate laces, luscious ruffles, bright colors. The men, on the other hand, in comparatively drab—comparatively colorless, comparatively conservative—tuxedos. The women, for the most part, the fluttering flowers; the men, for the most part, the sturdy stems. The men, as they make their way down the carpet, often asked, “What are you working on?”; the women, often asked, “Who are you wearing?”

There have been varied efforts to update all that through the years—the #AskHerMore campaign, the removal of the mani-cam, the recent canceling of E!’s mercilessly snarky Fashion Police—and, yet, none have changed the fundamental nature of the red carpet’s proceedings. Until, perhaps, now. At the Golden Globes this Sunday, the red carpet will likely be notably different than it has been in years past: slightly less vapid. Slightly less superficial. Slightly less hubristic. The red carpet, indeed, might be one more thing that is adjusting to—and helping to define—a post-Weinstein world.

It started, as so many things in Hollywood will, with attention to images. In December, several Hollywood stars announced that they would be wearing black on the red carpet to express solidarity with victims of sexual harassment and violence—and with the current iteration of the #MeToo movement more generally. This week, it was revealed that the initiative—criticized in many quarters as a form of sartorial slacktivism—was simply one more component of the #TimesUp campaign, which attempts to bring structural reform to Hollywood and beyond.

It’s a change the media covering the event are embracing in their own ways, as well. On Wednesday of this week, Choire Sicha, the editor of The New York Times’ Styles section, issued a note to readers declaring that paper’s coverage of the Golden Globes would be different, this year, than it has in years past. “The red carpet,” Sicha noted, “is now a prime soapbox to speak out about harassment, sexism, racism, industry practices—as well as Hollywood success—and we want to continue to cover that.” To that end, he wrote, the paper will be devoting some of its best reporters, writers, and editors to its coverage of the carpet itself. And it will be bringing an intellectual rigor to its coverage of the Globes overall: “Now that the curtain is finally being lifted on some of the grimy underbelly of Hollywood,” Sicha noted, “we feel it’s more important than ever to not treat awards shows as silly things for silly people.”

The Cut, New York magazine’s style and fashion blog, made a similar declaration, announcing the ways it would be modifying its own coverage of the carpet as a spectacle. “This Sunday,” Emilia Petrarca wrote, “although we will definitely be watching the Golden Globes, we will not be ranking the ‘best,’ ‘worst,’ or even ‘weirdest’ red-carpet looks. Instead, we will only identify which designers dressed which actresses, in whatever colors they choose to wear, because that feels like relevant information. Ultimately, we’re doing this out of respect for the cause and in acknowledgement that, well, the game has changed. At least for one night.”

Whether the game has changed more fully—whether the rules have shifted in any meaningful way, for Sunday and beyond—remains, certainly, to be seen. What is clear, though, is that awards ceremonies of the Golden Globe-ian caliber, with all the pageantry that accompanies them, are in many ways metaphors for the state of play itself: symbols of the status quo, glittering snapshots of who is powerful and popular and respected at a particular point in Hollywood’s history.

That historical heft is in part why #OscarsSoWhite has been such a crucial movement, not only for the Academy Awards, but for Hollywood in general: It is about structures and contexts. It is about who is represented—who is seen and heard and valued—in the Hollywood of the moment. The awards institutions themselves (the 75th annual Golden Globe Awards; the 90th Academy Awards) are extremely aware of their own moment-ratifying capabilities; that is part of why their ceremonies have been so tightly controlled, so highly contained. The opening numbers; the monologues; the mourning of the departed; the honoring of lifetime achievements; the presentation of statuettes: There’s a sameness to the spectacle, across years, across ceremonies. And it is a sameness that has been embraced, by extension, by red-carpet proceedings that have studiously insisted on portraying celebrities as fundamentally decorative: They, too, play their parts. They, too, serve the spectacle. Red carpets, the Hollywood versions, have existed primarily to provide images—fodder for all those best-dressed and worst-dressed lists that will illustrate a given night’s show—and they have, year after year, ceremony after ceremony, revealed their disinterest in treating celebrities as much more than cheerfully mobile mannequins.

But: Just as political discourse has become more and more normalized in pop culture, it has also made its way to Hollywood’s awards shows. Colored ribbons, acceptance speeches with a message, the other stuff of political engagement—last year, President Trump was the unofficial star of the Oscars telecast. And, this year, the politics will likely make their way to that last bastion of ceremonial vapidity: the pre-show’s own “crimson path.” Because politics are in the ether, certainly, but also because, via the Time’s Up campaign, they have been intentionally included on the carpet. It’s much harder for Giuliana Rancic to make small talk about a star’s gown when that gown is meant to symbolize the affronts of systemic sexism. And, at the same time, it’s much harder for that star to tell her winsomely relatable story of eating In-N-Out in the limo on the way to the Beverly Hilton when she is swathed in such a symbol. The clothing—the superficial, the beautiful, the choice—forces the issue.

The move to wear black to the Globes was, when it was first announced, rightfully criticized as a distinctly empty gesture in a time that calls for structural change. (Mic: “Is a red carpet political statement in any way, shape, or form really effective enough to make real change? We doubt that.”) Its supporters, however, insist that it will be making more than a passive, superficial point. “There’s a misconception that this is a silent protest,” the actor Eva Longoria, a prominent advocate of Time’s Up, told The New York Times. But, she insisted: “Instead of asking us who we’re wearing, they’ll ask us why we’re wearing black. We’re using that platform and using our voices to say we can change this ideology, and shatter the sexism that teaches men that women are less.”

Longoria is talking about the “motion picture” made extremely literal, and extremely political: images converted into movement. All those celebrities clad in funereal black, the actor is suggesting, will inevitably lead to conversation—to action—when it comes to what the wearing of black is meant to represent: a night’s sartorial decisions aimed at structural change. Another extremely legitimate criticism of the wear-black initiative has been the fact that #OscarsSoWhite didn’t get the same wide-scale, ultra-visible form of protest that the wear-black initiative is attempting to achieve on behalf of Times’s Up. You could read the discrepancy as a sorry commentary on Hollywood’s political priorities—on the limits of the scrutiny the entertainment industry is willing to aim at itself, and on that industry’s still-too-narrow approaches to diversity and inclusion. You could also read it, though, as reflective of differing efforts toward achieving the same broad goal: lasting structural change, in Hollywood and beyond. #OscarsSoWhite became a movement—and one that effected change that will remain with the Academy for years to come; Time’s Up, in the most generous interpretation, is hoping to do the same thing.

Hollywood, after all, is a place of images. Pictures are its products; they are also its currency. And while the red carpet has long been the place where so many of those images are manufactured—the stars, brought down to earth and then sorted into slideshows and best-dressed lists—images alone are no longer enough: This is a moment in which celebrities are, like everyone else, newly able to raise their voices and have their say. It is a moment of humanized stars. And it is a moment that finds audiences newly appreciative of the political implications of even—of especially—their entertainments. On Sunday, accordingly, “Who are you wearing?” likely won’t be the question; “Why are you wearing it?” could be. Harvey Weinstein; feminism; anger; complicity; justice; structural solutions to structural inequities—the stuff of real conversation—all could be, as well.

It’s a small thing that could lead to a bigger thing. Carpets are also paths. Interviewers may still, certainly, ask the stars who pass them by about diets and manicures and sequins and Spanx; to do that, however, would be a dereliction of duty. It would be its own kind of Grecian hubris. On Sunday, the long-honed vapidity of the red carpet may well be turned on its head. The clothes may well be the focus. But they may also be, finally, no longer the point.