Putting Sofia Vergara on a revolving pedestal was gut-wrenchingly insulting, but it wasn't sexist

The incident wasn’t about sex as much as it was about race

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I look at Sofia Vergara, star of Modern Family, and I am reminded of the classic screen sirens of the 1950s. She is Marylin Monroe repackaged. If anything, she is evidence of how little progress has been made in broadening our definitions of feminine allure. And therein lies my objection to what happened at Sunday night’s Emmys. As part of a segment on diversity in television, Bruce Rosenbloom – the CEO of the academy behind the television awards – invited her to stand on a revolving platform, while we applauded him and his ilk for finally allowing the non-white community on their screens.

It was as gut-wrenchingly insulting as the day Mattel dipped Barbie in brown paint and presented her as a mascot for black women.

“Our success is based on always giving viewers something compelling to look at,” Bruce chortled as onlookers were treated to a 360 degree view of Ms Vergara and her ‘how are you actually breathing in that?’ white gown as she was turned, kebab-style, on a pedestal.

Seconds later, Twitter predictably lost it, the usual ‘social media activists’ furiously typing their indignation at such a blatant display of ‘misogyny’. Ms Vergara later accused critics of the display of having an epic sense of humour failure, imploring them to see the incident in context and “lighten up a bit”.

I’m with Sofia, in that the backlash missed the point. While it’s understandable that some might find the spectacle of a woman standing on a rotating pedestal whilst the host encourages us all to have a little perv objectionable, it was a poignant metaphor for any television awards show. If you don’t enjoy seeing celebrities dressed in their finery braying “look at me, LOOK AT ME!”  whilst flicking their hair and sycophant-ing all over each other ad nauseum, then the Emmys, Oscars, Grammys etc are not the shows for you. I suggest perhaps instead flicking over to EastEnders, or a soothing nature documentary.

More important, however, is what preceded the “compelling to look at” quip. For Bruce Rosenbloom seemed to suggest that Ms Vergara’s acceptance into the echelons of the Hollywood A-list represents a gigantic leap forward in ethnic diversity. “Our Academy is more diverse than ever before, both in front of and behind the camera“, he self-congratulated.

This comment was largely overlooked, so I can only assume that viewers found the notion of the second ever Latina actress to win an Emmy being presented as a token of successful ethnic diversity policy in television acceptable. This is despite the fact that Ms Vergara has long, blonde, straightened hair, pale skin and the sort of paradoxically slim-but-curvy figure which some women can only achieve through the judicious use of a surgeon’s knife.

At a glance she shares the same physical attributes as Barbie, yet she apparently represents the best hope ethnic minority women have for being included in social notions of what constitutes ‘compelling to look at’.

Fashion, beauty and media companies do this all the time and it drives me to distraction. The ‘plus size’ models who are in reality a size 10 or the ‘real women’ in adverts who just happen to look like models can have just as much of a negative impact on women’s self-esteem as their size 6, professional counterparts. Of course, history tells us that progress tends to happen at a snail’s pace. Yet I can’t help but feel that holding up an ethnic minority woman who has been forced to squish herself into a Caucasian approximation of what it means to be beautiful as evidence of ‘diversity’, then demanding that the public clap like seals being thrown tuna, is as daft as it is damaging.

Kneejerk ‘sexist!’ reactions to pop culture are inextricably embedded in Twitter’s universal timeline. Not only are they part of the reason feminism has a marketing problem (#WomenAgainstFeminism anyone?) but occasionally they prevent us from seeing the bigger picture. Yes, the film and television industry is still woefully inadequate in being capable of representing everything a woman can be. Yes, this must be changed. But this incident wasn’t about sex as much as it was about race and the prevailing fact that, in order to succeed, non-white people of all genders are still consistently being told they must shape themselves into a more acceptable (read: more Caucasian) form.

When a Colombian performer can accept an award without the Hollywood powers-that-be feeling the need to condescendingly draw attention to how MARVELLOUS it is that our society now graciously allows ‘those people’ onto stages and screens, that will represent real progress in ethnic diversity.

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