In an essay for the New York Times' Jan. 28 Sunday Arts section, writer Amanda Hess pointed a sharp finger at Hollywood's award show machine. Having served as platforms for #MeToo and #TimesUp activism, recent awards shows give off the impression that Hollywood culture is under serious renovation. Hess spoke with The Frame contributor Rico Gagliano on why she begs to differ:
I'll admit that award shows are in a very strange position because they are built to celebrate Hollywood. And now is — outside of the context of awards shows — not really a time when Hollywood seems to have earned this self-celebration.
For Hess, the root of the issue is that Hollywood asks the same women it harassed to be spokespeople for its so-called progress. Actresses who have suffered career-long histories of physical and emotional abuse are expected to gush on the red carpet about how much hope their industry holds.
In regard to how entertainment can change from the inside out, Hess asks the same question running through everyone's head: Where are the men in all this? Where are the public statements of ownership and proclamations of change? If red carpet footage fails to provide accountability on the part of Hollywood's male execs, it's fair to question Hollywood's potential for progress.
On the position of women at these awards shows:
The representation of women, I think, puts them in a real double bind. At the SAG Awards— and we saw this at the Golden Globes — women [were] being put forward. Women who, even by virtue of just existing in Hollywood, have gone through a lot and are generally under-valued in Hollywood, and are being asked to now be representatives of the industry and to put on a smiling face. To say that everything is going to be better because they have these initiatives and talk about how wonderful that is. It's this real double-edged sword where women are both under-valued and in some cases over-represented as a way to smooth that over publicly.
On whether women could simply boycott awards ceremonies:
I don't know that it is reasonable to expect. I think it would be interesting if it were to happen. But for women in Hollywood, they don't have a lot of agency in that way. They're stuck in this system. The effort to wear black dresses on the Golden Globes red carpet actually came from this pretty radical space. Eva Longoria explained why there was this effort to get women to wear the black dresses and it was about signaling that women were not going to "twirl around for the cameras" this time. That they have been asked to use their faces and their bodies to sell award shows and movies and products. And this is not the time for that. Because, of course, the problem is that there was a relationship between harassment and abuse of women and the idea that their bodies are for selling products. Eva Longoria is aware of that. However, what we saw, once these individual women made this decision and went on the red carpet, was that all of these structures that were built up to promote Hollywood and sell women were still in place, and had just sort of subtly re-calibrated themselves to try and acknowledge what was happening, but then continued to do what they always do.
On bringing activists to award shows as red carpet dates:
There are some real pluses to this. They're not appearing with men, which means that they're not being defined by their relationship status, which is obviously a huge tendency in Hollywood. But, because this is still Hollywood, the appearance of the activist is really threaded through a traditional lens, which would be that there are these beautiful actresses who are glamorous and they have valiantly brought with them these regular people. This is something that Ryan Seacrest had a lot of trouble navigating. In one interview he spoke with Michelle Williams who brought the founder of #MeToo, Tarana Burke, as her date. The vibe was very much, And who is this? When he finally started to speak with Tarana, the E! [network] cameras changed their focus to Dakota Johnson, who was twirling around showing her black dress. And they shrunk Tarana's image to the size of a credit card in the corner. This is something that happens even if it's a celebrity speaking. But in this context it showed that the impulses of Hollywood are rankly sexist.
On the current responsibilities of TV networks:
I'm not sure that E! News would ever change what it does. I can't expect them to become a serious journalistic outlet. But I do find it interesting that the entrance of this idea has caused the awards show to look suddenly so sexist and hypocritical, in a way that it always was. And so it's possible that that pressure might lead to some changes. But I think what I'm really interested in is not about whatever E! does. Because E! and the Oscars are always going to be set up to promote stuff. That is what they do. What I'm interested in is people who buy those things, understanding better that that's what they're doing. And understanding how they're doing it — understanding that they're using women to do it.