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?”