Once a year, we gather around our TVs to watch a parade of stars crowd onto the red carpet at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre for the Academy Awards, waiting to see what our favorite actresses are wearing on the big night. Yes, it’s frivolous, yes we could all be pursuing something more intellectual in our spare time—I write this as I look at the unopened Alexander Hamilton biography on my nightstand—but no, it’s not anti-women.
Let me take a step back: The debate over whether or not the red carpet is sexist started in earnest three years ago when Cate Blanchett quipped: “Do you do that to the guys?” after E! talking head Giuliana Rancic asked the actress what she was wearing at the SAG awards. Swiftly, organizations like the Representation Project started the#AskHerMore campaign to encourage entertainment news hosts like Ryan Seacrest and Rancic to ask women more about their accomplishments and less about who they’re wearing during red carpet interviews. And just like that, caring about what stars wore to awards shows started to feel almost dirty.
This all sounds admirable on the surface—who among us doesn’t think women should be praised more for their achievements?—but at the same time, it throws us back to the outdated idea that any woman who considers herself a feminist can’t also care about fashion, which is ridiculous.
Let’s remember that the red carpet is, in essence, just another version of a runway show. Actresses willingly step into the role of clothes hangers to show off their designer labels, and it’s as close as most of us will ever get to seeing a couture gown up close.
To be sure, our favorite actresses are very much active participants in this whole spectacle—find me a nominee who shows up in a black dress from Macy’s—and that’s because there is, quite literally, a cottage industry behind making these red carpet moments happen.
There are the stylists, who charge thousands of dollars an hour to put red carpet outfits together, hair gurus, nail artists, makeup pros, fashion labels who stand to profit enormously from the exposure gained from an actress wearing one of its dresses, and the actresses themselves who have been known to be paid by brands—sometimes in the millions—to wear a specific dress or a pair of diamond earrings. Score points with a fashion house, and an actress might just score a lucrative advertising contract that’ll equal big bucks well beyond the red carpet (Jennifer Lawrence reportedly signed a $20 million deal with Dior in 2014 to appear in the brand’s ads and show up on red carpets exclusively wearing the label).
The fact that so much money is circling around the carpet is because it’s satisfying a demand from a predominantly woman consumer who loves fashion and loves to see her favorite actresses dressed up. As for why men aren’t getting the same treatment on the red carpet, it’s pretty simple: no one cares what they wear. Do you really want to know how George Clooney is cuffing the pants of his tuxedo this year or what pair of black shoes Bradley Cooper chose? Snooze.
At its best, awards show fashion can be boundary-breaking for women. Lupita Nyong’o became a household name largely because of her grace and otherworldly beauty on the red carpet. Helen Mirren, every time she steps out, sends a message that you don’t need to be a twentysomething to be ridiculously sexy. Likewise, Octavia Spencer proves women who aren’t a size 2 can land on best-dressed lists.
Sexism is still rampant, don’t get me wrong—Hollywood included. Top actresses are still often paid far less than their male co-stars, top women directors are still few and far between, and the C-suite at studios is still occupied largely by men (and yes, these issues essentially mirror those women face in the workplace in general), but fashion on the red carpet? It’s just not the problem.
So, to the actresses who say “fashion just isn’t my thing, why should I be obliged to participate?” My answer is, don’t be. There’s no rule you have show up to the red carpet in a fancy dress and answer questions about it. Wear whatever the hell you want! And to the actresses who love putting on those fancy dresses a few times a year—and make big money doing it—I say keep on keeping on. You have a choice, and both are respectable. And to everyone at home who can’t wait to see what Emma Stone, Michelle Williams, and Nicole Kidman show up in Sunday? I say, grab the popcorn. I know I’ll be.