What Did Black Dresses on the Red Carpet Really Say?

The 75th Golden Globe Awards arrived amid what many are calling the Hollywood sexual harassment reckoning, and a few promising things happened as a result: Oprah gave an acceptance speech that rightfully earned a tearful standing ovation. Debra Messing called out E!’s massive pay gap between the male and female hosts while being interviewed by the network. Eight activists, including Tarana Burke, creator of the #MeToo movement, walked the red carpet and were given a platform for their causes. Laura Dern gave a memorable speech. Women in Hollywood (and some men) came together collectively to speak in support of Time’s Up, an initiative formed three weeks ago to combat gender inequality and sexual harassment in not just the entertainment industry, but all workplaces.

But the wave-making call to wear black on the red carpet didn’t add up for me. A few weeks ago, when celebrities declared their intention to wear black on the red carpet, at first as a protest against sexual harassment in the workplace, and then as a way to show solidarity with their “sisters” across all industries, I was skeptical.

For the life of me, I don’t understand why fashion, an industry that is having a similar reckoning, was extricated from the conversation when it could have been used to advance it. It seems that whenever women want to have more meaningful conversations on the red carpet, it means giving up the “frivolous” topic of fashion. Don’t ask me about my dress, ask me about my cause (see: #AskHerMore). Yet, history has shown you can do both (even on the red carpet). When done thoughtfully and audaciously, clothing can be not only a form of protest, but it can speak volumes; Amber Rose’s bodysuit covered in phrases used to slut-shame women comes to mind.

As The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan questioned: “One could argue that the decision to wear black is, in fact, using the power of fashion to deliver a message. And to some degree that is true. But mostly it reads like the proper response to sexual harassment is to change one’s attire.”

Black is a color chosen for its easy adaptability; it doesn’t stand out at a black-tie event, let alone on the red carpet. It’s a color that calls upon men, who would normally wear black tuxedos anyways, to do so little work. And it’s a color that was chosen for a hodgepodge of reasons: from mourning and “death to the old Hollywood” to an awakening to “men have been wearing black for years, it’s our turn” to “a moment to stand together in a thick black line, dividing then from now.” But even with all of the accompanied “standing in solidarity” speeches, the choice of color felt destitute, risk-free and a bit confusing. And it enabled participants to comfortably abide by the norms of Hollywood instead of, say, opt out completely.

As Jenna Wortham put it in her New York Times piece, “There is something unsettling about how little these celebrities have to lose by taking these stances. They aren’t risking financial ruin, nor are they vulnerable to violence, as is the norm for most who take a bold position. It feels completely privileged, and a little complicit, to still participate in the larger system that has condoned sexual violence in their industry.”

Aside from a groundbreaking moment or two, the Golden Globes were business as usual. Before the show, rather than begin prompts with straightforward wording like, “With all of the sexual assault claims in Hollywood,” interviewers tiptoed around reality: “With everything that’s happening” was the common euphemism used instead. Like the all-black attire, the interviewers played it safe, kept it digestible, and — unless the celebrity in question kept her foot on the pedal — quickly diverted the conversationg back to the normal round of questioning.

In lieu of “Who are you wearing?” E! News opted to instead ask celebrities, “Why are you wearing black?” But after a while, all the answers sounded the same. I wish they’d asked more focused, thoughtful questions, ones that would require the celebrities who opted to send a message through clothes to really say something with words, questions like: “Why did you choose this designer and what is his/her commitment to making change? What is your commitment?” Or to the men, “Men wear black tuxedos all the time. Are you wearing black tonight in solidarity? If so, how are you personally going to help change the rules of behavior in Hollywood?”

The award show followed mostly-traditional suit: There were few people of color who won awards. There were no women nominated in the director category. There was a white male host. There was a standing ovation for an alleged rapist. There were glam-shots, there was a glambot. It all still felt very lighthearted and Hollywood, with a willingness to touch on only that which was convenient, and not that which would have put the status quo on serious guard.

I wanted there to be more awkwardness. I wanted a Sacheen Littlefeather accepts the Oscar for Marlon Brando moment. I wanted the men to feel more uncomfortable. I wanted everyone to dress with the intent to make change, not to mourn. I wanted to be confident there was going to be, as Denzel Washington said, follow-through. I’m glad Time’s Up, an organization that promises such follow through, was put front and center. However, I’m still not sure what to believe about a Hollywood wherein celebrities still willingly take roles in Woody Allen films. I wanted to believe that every single person wearing black wasn’t complicit in Hollywood’s toxic behavior (looking at you, James Franco), but I’m not there yet.

At first, I wondered if the most impactful statement would have been to boycott the awards altogether; imagine a red carpet without the A-list stars. But to that, Kerry Washington made a valid point: “We shouldn’t have to sit out the night. We shouldn’t have to give up our seat at the table because of bad behavior that wasn’t ours.”

I wasn’t a fan of the “blackout” when I read about it, and I still wasn’t convinced when I saw it on the red carpet, but I was moved by celebrities who used their voices and platforms to create awareness for those who don’t have the same platform to speak their truth, especially those at the forefront of Time’s Up. But I want more. And assuming all will show up over the course of the forthcoming awards season, I beg of celebrities, red carpet journalists and everyone watching: make a little more noise, ask the hard questions, wear only women designers or brands that align with your initiative, use fashion to speak louder.

And then, follow through. Because, as Oprah said, the time is up.

Click here to donate to the TIME’S UP Legal Defense fund. Click here to get involved with anti-sexual violence organization RAINN 

Feature collage by Emily Zirimis, photos via Getty Images. 

Tahirah Hairston

Tahirah Hairston is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter @tahairyy and Instagram @tahairy.

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