Is Red Carpet Coverage Sexist? Battle Lines Drawn at Oscars Over #AskHerMore

Jennifer Lawrence Oscars Red Carpet Main - H 2013
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Jennifer Lawrence Oscars Red Carpet Main - H 2013

An executive producer for E! red-carpet coverage and the creator of #AskHerMore weigh in on the questions asked of women at the Oscars.

Should "Who are you wearing?" be banned as a staple Oscars question? This year's award season has been marked by a growing conversation about whether reporters are asking women the right kind of questions on the red carpet and a hashtag offering solutions with #AskHerMore.

The #AskHerMore campaign started in February 2014, created by the Representation Project, and gained popularity at the Emmys last year. Viewers expressed frustration at what they perceived as sexism in the questions asked, and journalists also weighed in pointing out that women were asked about fashion and baby bumps while men chatted about their childhood roles and fellow nominees.

This year at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, Jennifer Aniston, Julianne Moore and Reese Witherspoon all refused to put their hands in E!'s famous mani-cam. This is after the 2014 Golden Globes when Elizabeth Moss flipped off the mani-cam. At last year's SAG awards, Cate Blanchett called out an E! camera operator panning up her body to show off her dress, asking if he does that to the guys. The red carpet itself is optional and celebrities can skip it entirely if they so choose, but it is also becoming optional to answer questions one dislikes. For example, Nicole Kidman refused to answer Ryan Seacrest when he asked her who she was wearing at the Grammys, and went as far as pretending she didn't understand the question. "I don't know what to say," she responded.

So what does this all mean? Is it wrong to ask about couture fashion at a red carpet celebrated for its glamour? E!'s Live From the Red Carpet show last year delivered 3.1 million total viewers. Should such a massive platform be used to promote social issues rather than designers? Would a show such as this one still draw 3.1 million viewers? Without question, it is important to maintain gender equality and avoid treating actresses like mannequins, but does this mean ignoring the style aspect altogether?

Ryan Seacrest tried eliminating the "Who are you wearing" question in 2010, and was criticized heavily for it. "Hey Ryan, Talk to the Dress" read a New York Times style column headline that detailed the backlash from fashion bloggers. “It was almost like he wasn’t that interested in the designers,” designer Nicole Miller said. “He seemed more interested in the celebrities and their careers.”

Five years later, and celebrities' careers are exactly what the #AskHerMore campaign is asking to hear about. Jennifer Siebel Newsom, founder and CEO of the Representation Project that started the campaign, told The Hollywood Reporter that the red carpet of today "obviously perpetuates an unhealthy toxic culture."

"Imagine a world where celebrities were championing their causes on the red carpet," said Newsom. "Can you imagine the impact? Their messages would trickle down as inspiration for others to get involved in causes." She added, "There's so much opportunity here for the media to right the wrongs that it has been perpetuating by limiting women to [be defined by] their beauty and sexuality." 

Samantha Skey, the chief marketing officer for women's lifestyle media company SheKnows, said the #AskHerMore campaign is important, and should be used within the context of the Oscars red carpet. Skey told THR that the red carpet has become "a runway for fashion" and that she understands interviews are structurally formatted to be done quickly. "It's not an in-depth one-on-one Inside the Actor's Studio interview," said Skey, whose organization sometimes conducts red-carpet interviews (although never at the Oscars). She said she understands the struggle to balance time constraints and what viewers want to hear about, while asking a question that provokes a thoughtful, insightful and unique answer. "But wouldn't it be nice if we asked directly if the representation of [Lyndon B. Johnson in Selma] should impact Ava DuVernay's nomination as [best] director?"

"A lot of people do want to know who [an actress] is wearing," admitted Skey, saying that the question can easily be added as an opener. She said she'd like to see more opinion questions being asked on the carpet.

"There are big feminist issues and big race issues underpinning the Oscars," said Skey. "And you have all of these people who have a huge influence, and you have all of these people interviewing them." If you only ask them about shoes, she said, you miss a big opportunity.

"These are topics that women in Hollywood and women in media are discussing anyhow," said Skey. "You don't have to say, 'I think the Academy is massively racist.' You can say, 'This year's off, last year was on.' But that's an interesting conversation that can ensue."

Gary Snegaroff is an executive producer for E!'s red-carpet coverage who has been working on it for 20 years. "When it comes to E!, I think the charge is off the mark," he told THR when asked about his response to the #AskHerMore campaign. He said that if E! spends "more than a moment on people's outfits" it's because the person that is being interviewed wants to. 

"It's the first thing that we talk about because it's natural to say to someone, 'You look lovely, tell me about your outfit,' and I do think the stars welcome that. Generally we go to questions about projects they have, who they are with, what they expect tonight — a whole range of issues that have been researched across the entire awards season, and that's what the interview is about." 

Snegaroff said he "absolutely" thinks men and women are asked similar questions on the red carpet. "When we talk to Matthew McConaughey or Neil Patrick Harris, we talk about their fashion as well, and it's also something that varies from person to person. Some people want you to talk about their fashion and other stars less so."

BuzzFeed recently made headlines with a video asking men at the BAFTA awards similar questions to those sometimes asked of women. They asked a confused Eddie Redmayne to do a twirl and talked to Michael Keaton about Spanx. A central element of the #AskHerMore campaign on Twitter had people asking why men seem to get more interesting questions on the carpet, without an emphasis on clothing or what they are carrying. Skey said she thinks there is "a practical element" to explain the reason.

"I think that men's fashion is just far less interesting, and they don't carry clutches," said Skey. "It's just not that interesting who made your tuxedo, nobody really cares. That's a deeper issue maybe, around what fashion and beauty means to men and women. I think the way it's covered is understandable, so as a result of that, yeah. The men get more meaty questions. When you don't have the hurdles of 'Who are you wearing? Who did your hair? Whose jewels are these?' You've got those half dozen questions that are stocked that don't exist for guys."

That's not to say men are never asked about their clothes. In fact, there has been an increasing amount of attention paid to men's fashion. At the Independent Spirit Awards red carpet on Saturday, Miles TellerDavid Oyelowo and more were asked to talk about their suits.

Newsom said that while some men do get this question, men aren't objectified in the same way as women and don't experience the same pressures put on women. "There is an imbalance," she said. 

"The first question needs to be more about characters and roles, directors, supporting cast, their hobbies interests, then you can ask a question about what they are wearing. It was never initially about what you were wearing," said Newsom. "Essentially it's become — it's cheapened women. There's an element of being an actress in Hollywood, it's like worsening a product. It's like you're a prostitute. It's like you owe someone something and you don't. You've earned that opportunity and that nomination and you've worked hard for it."

The tension between what to ask and what not to ask lies not only with the person doing the interviewing, but also with the actor and their relationship with their designer, stylist and publicist. Publicists on the red carpet are often standing right offscreen, attempting to control the interview. At times, they may urge the host to ask about the dress, the shoes and the jewelry, particularly if the actress is a brand ambassador for a designer. Some actresses are loaned their couture gowns for free or are reportedly paid by designers to wear dresses or jewelry, with the expectation that they will discuss the designers in interviews. In this way, the red carpet has become a giant public relations platform for designers to showcase their brand not only with their gown but with the woman wearing it. 

"Everybody relates to it on a financial basis," designer Reem Acra told Refinery 29. "You have someone big wearing your dress on the red carpet and automatically the next day the emails or orders will pour in. We don't relate to it this way. [For us] it's more about showing what the brand is." 

Newsom is right in saying the red carpet was not always about fashion. Vanity Fair credits Joan Rivers and Melissa Rivers as the duo that "revolutionized the red carpet from a runway — with little celebrity-reporter interaction — into its own brand of entertainment that, for many, was just as interesting as the awards ceremony that followed."

Joan Rivers once said that when she first asked "who are you wearing," the New York Times criticized her for "improper grammar" and said nobody cared about what designers people wore. In 1999, the mother-daughter team were bumped off the carpet 30 minutes early and replaced by Geena Davis. “And she gave all of these interviews beforehand and a press conference and guaranteed everyone that she would not ask actresses who they are wearing. ‘It is about the actors,’ " Melissa Rivers told VF. "And then, literally, 10 seconds into her first interview with Helen Hunt, which I still remember, and [Geena] was clearly out of questions, she asked, ‘And ... who are you wearing?’ ”

“Other reporters always said, ‘I’m not going to ask that. I’m going to ask how [the actors] feel politically,’ " said Joan Rivers. "But actors don’t want to hear that! They’re nervous. They haven’t eaten for three days. They’re trying to remember who the damn designer [who made their dress] is. Their hair is held together with extensions. You can’t ask them anything difficult!”

To prepare for the Oscars, Seacrest watches every movie that is nominated and researches actors' past, present and future projects, practicing his questions with the help of flashcards. He prepares hundreds of questions in advance. In 2012, Seacrest gave fans a look into his studying process, posting a photo of himself with a Jennifer Lopez flashcard and sample questions: "Presenting with Cameron Diaz? This an official girls night out? Describe the feeling when you know you've chosen the perfect gown. Twins Max and Emme just turned 4 on Wednesday. How'd you celebrate?" 

During his phone interview with THR, Snegaroff took a look at Seacrest's prepared questions for the Oscars on Sunday. "There's not a single fashion question on here," he said.

This year's Oscar red-carpet hosts will have a long list of suggested questions they could ask, provided by fans, journalists and organizations alike. Amy Poehler's Smart Girls has teamed up with the Representation Project to help come up with premade questions people can tweet at reporters with the #AskMeMore hashtag. Questions ask the ladies what inspires them, how they prepared for their roles, what their favorite book is. Digital and video storytelling platform Makers also has a list of questions like this one for Julianne Moore: "'Still Alice' touches upon some primal fears that we all have, like the confusion of memory, the fear of death. What was the greatest challenge of getting inside your character's head for this role?"

As for the questions Ryan Seacrest will ask, Snegaroff said that while fashion is of course a "large interest" to viewers it "is a very small part of what we do." He said this is E!'s version of the Super Bowl, with 250 staffers, more than 20 cameras and 8 and a half hours of live coverage. He referred to it as "a real celebrity tsunami" in the "absolute best sense."

"Ryan Seacrest makes it look so easy and I assure you it is not, to have the biggest stars coming at you, you have 90 second to two minute conversations before they are pulled along and another huge star comes up and you have three hours of that. It's absolutely crazy. You plan, plan, plan but you do not control that environment."

One thing we won't be seeing at this year's Oscars is the mani-cam.

"We had actually decided before the 2015 award season started that we weren't going to have the mani-cam at the Oscars this year as we just don't have enough space for it," said Snegaroff. "The clutch-cam and the 360-cam we've never had at the Oscars before simply because there just isn't any room for it."

There might not be space for the mani-cam, but the real question is: Will there be room for this "red carpet revolution"?