As the travelling circus that is the acting awards season rolled onto the SAGS this week, one of this season’s most feted performers, Cate Blanchett, shook up proceedings with a red carpet outburst that has reignited the debate about Hollywood sexism.
The Australian star of Blue Jasmine has swept the board for best actress so far, but took exception to a sweeping shot of her Givenchy dress as she paused for a red carpet interview. The heavy favourite for the Oscar pointed at the cameraman and demanded to know, “Do you do this to the guys?”
The obvious answer to this question is, of course, no. Shots of identikit tuxedos are never going to be as interesting or aesthetically pleasing as those of couture gowns. It is unlikely that a male actor will attract much attention for what he is wearing, unless he dons a kilt like a true Scotsman and trips on stage like Jennifer Lawrence. Blanchett left herself wide open for criticism by appearing to bite the hand that has fed her so lavishly over the years, but it is not the interest in her dress which is really the problem here so much as what the fixation with female appearance represents. Male actors are rewarded and celebrated primarily for their talent whilst their female co-stars have far more column inches examining their bodies than their performances.
The comment board criticism of Blanchett’s outburst is predictable: that she had probably spent hours getting ready for the event and had most likely borrowed the expensive gown, so what did she expect; Would Cate have been happy had she been ignored completely by the paps?; Acting is a “lookist” profession, with both male and female film stars cast because of how they look as well as their acting ability; She is a highly paid, privileged woman who is able to pick and choose roles in a notoriously difficult profession, and the camera panning of her dress was hardly an invasive “up skirt” shot. All fair points, but I doubt that Blanchett was looking for sympathy so much as railing against an industry which remains deeply sexist.
Really great film roles for women remain few and far between. In writing Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen has created two fabulous female parts, both brilliantly brought to life by Blanchett and her co-star, Sally Field, but too often the females on the silver screen are portrayed simply in relation to men, as the love interest or sidekick of the male protagonist. Nowhere are women subjected to the male gaze more than in film. It may well seem a bit rich for a beautiful actress to complain about being objectified, but Blanchett has previously spoken out about wider feminist concerns relating to women in film, such as the lack of interesting roles for older women compared to older men.
Geena Davis, the actress and founder of her namesake institute on Gender in Media, has highlighted data showing there are three male characters for every speaking female in family rated films. Davis, who co-starred in one of the great female film stories in Thelma and Louise, pointed out the effect of not giving women equal screen time: “We are in effect enculturating kids from the very beginning to see women and girls as not taking up half the space.” The “talkies” have been with us for nearly a century, but too often the women on screen remain silent.
The casting couch may not be as prevalent in Hollywood (or the British film industry) as it once was, but many actresses have spoken about the sexism they have encountered, particularly early on in their careers when they were in positions of relative powerlessness – the pressure to do nude scenes, for example, or the sleazy encounters with directors. It is not only female actors who have problems being taken seriously as there remains a distinct lack of female directors and writers with real clout in Hollywood. Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman ever to win an Oscar for Best Director, and the majority of big budget films continue to be written and made by men, for men.
The media obsession with female bodies naturally extends to awards ceremonies, with commentators clamouring to offer their opinion on the best and worst dressed stars. Of course, a lot of it is just fun and games. For many people, the dresses are the only thing worth watching the Oscar ceremony for, with fashion writers praying every year that someone “does a Cher” and rocks up in something hideously inappropriate just because it makes a change from all the tasteful, vintage Dior and Chanel (a very honourable mention must go to Bjork here – remember the swan around her neck in 2001?).
The celebrity obsessed tabloids will, as ever, be on full alert to helpfully report on who looked “worryingly thin”, who might have had a bit of pre-Oscar “work” done, and who has clearly been back on the carbs. The broadsheets will carry the same pictures, but will concentrate more on “the work” done in films than to the bodies and faces in question. The interest in posh frocks will not go away as long as actresses continue to wear them, but if we see Blanchett’s protestation as an expression of frustration over the way women are exploited and marginalised in the film industry, then it was a point worth making.