Wearing black on the red carpet is a feeble form of protest

WASHINGTON • Actress Rose McGowan is outraged. Boiling over, explosive.

She is angry about sexual assault, rape, complicity and the use of the word "alleged" in connection to accused sexual predator Harvey Weinstein. And some of that rage is being aimed at her fellow actresses who intend to wear black to the Golden Globes next month - to call attention to the same epidemic of harassment and assault that has enraged McGowan herself.

Her disdain for this silent form of protest was expressed in a now-deleted tweet in which she reserved particular wrath for A-lister Meryl Streep, whom McGowan blasted for working with Weinstein. (Streep has said she knew nothing about the producer's behaviour.)

As with so many tweets that involve all-caps disgust, McGowan's led to a heated thread full of public shaming, righteous explaining and lots and lots of flame-throwing from the sidelines.

Nonetheless, she has a valid point.

Walking the red carpet dressed in black is a feeble form of protest.

Why is a symbolic gesture even necessary? Are we not beyond symbolism? There has been an ongoing lament that women on the red carpet are asked only about their attire - expected to twirl in front of a glamour-cam and let another camera ogle their manicure and jewellery.

Actress Rose McGowan (left) has lashed out at her fellow actresses, who intend to wear black to the Golden Globes next month to protest sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood.
Actress Rose McGowan (above) has lashed out at her fellow actresses, who intend to wear black to the Golden Globes next month to protest sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood. PHOTO: REUTERS

In recent years, the #askhermore movement demanded that interviewers talk to actresses about their work, about their philanthropy, about something other than who designed their dress.

Yet this awards season promises to be one in which every actor walking the red carpet can be assured of being interrogated about a whole lot more than their frock.

They will most certainly be asked about sexual violence, the culture of silence and what constitutes justice. Those are weighty topics to chew on during a 45-second interview on the red carpet. Still, a lot can be said in that short amount of time.

Fashion can speak volumes in a single glance, but nothing is quite as eloquent and powerful as words spoken from the heart and the head.

Understandably, there is a desire to expand the solidarity of the #MeToo movement, which made plain the breadth of the problem, to provide a visual image of women aligned and displaying their strength in numbers. (And one supposes that every possible colour of lapel ribbon was already dedicated to another cause.)

But why black? Why choose a kind of full-body uniform that drains women of their individuality and paints the issue at hand with a single, nuance-free stroke?

Sexual harassment pours out of our shared culture and spreads in myriad, horrible ways. It effects women in countless degrees and variations of awful. Putting on a black dress is too easy. It doesn't begin to communicate the treachery and loss. And it obscures any belief in a way forward.

In a recent conversation with a New York-based designer whose work is regularly featured on the red carpet, the designer's first impulse was to support this fashion gesture of solidarity. The designer's second impulse was to note that wearing black seems both silly and, to some degree, inappropriate. Aesthetically, black can be sophisticated and elegant. Socially, however, it also speaks of mourning and grief. Choosing a little black dress for a formal event is classic but safe. Forgettable. It's social camouflage.

At a moment that has women seizing their authority and raising their voices, the point is to be seen and heard. To stand, to act. Wear red. Wear retina-searing fuchsia or yellow. Wear sequins and rhinestones.

Careers have been damaged in myriad ways; souls have been wounded. There are losses to mourn but not there, under the spotlight, on a night when there are performances to celebrate, successes that have been achieved despite it all: Jessica Chastain, Frances McDormand and, yes, Streep as Katharine Graham in The Post.

Taking the fizz out of fashion is also regressive. It smacks of sexism to say, even indirectly, that fashion - that quintessential realm of women - must be shunned in order for women to be taken seriously or for them to say something serious.

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.

If an actress is a basic-black kind of woman, fine. If she is otherwise, why not show up in glorious plumage and then serve up some give 'em hell commentary on the red carpet or from centre stage?

The Golden Globes offers a prime opportunity to make a point that sadly needs to be reinforced in Hollywood and elsewhere: Women are thoughtful, unique individuals. They are not interchangeable playthings. They have a voice that should be heard. And they should be seen in all of their wondrous shades.

Black does not do their story justice.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 22, 2017, with the headline 'Wearing black on the red carpet is a feeble form of protest '. Print Edition | Subscribe