On the 22nd of February, millions of people around the world tuned in to watch the 87th Academy Awards. The Oscars, easily Hollywood’s most awaited pinnacle of glamour, glitz and arguably, good film-making, has over the years become a strong platform to spotlight systemic issues that plague the film industry and American society, at large.
To begin with, the Oscars 2015 left a gaping hole in the diversity department with its entirely whitewashed list of nominations in key categories of Best Actor Male and Female, setting off a widespread twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.
However, this wasn’t the only trend to set Twitter a-flutter. #AskHerMore, part of a larger campaign to set Hollywood’s long-standing sexism problem right, urged journalists and reporters on the Oscars Red Carpet to ask the women walking the red carpet, questions beyond their outfits and their looks. Most Hollywood reporters’ line of inquiry has thus far only fuelled objectification and undervalued the formidable achievements of women not just as performers in front of the camera, but as the technicians, directors, producers, editors and story-writers behind it.
There were no women nominated for the category of Directing. #OscarWomen
— Women’s Media Center (@womensmediacntr) February 23, 2015
The campaign was launched by the Representation Project previously known for its efforts to veer the conversation about representation (well, mis-representation) in more constructive directions. It was nudged along on social media by the likes of Amy Poehler (through her organization Smart Girls), Geena Davis, Shonda Rhimes, Lena Dunham, Reese Witherspoon, Hillary Clinton’s PAC, Gloria Steinem, among many others. The campaign made available a list of twitter handles of A-list red carpet reporters like Giuliana Rancic, Ryan Seacrest, Robin Roberts, urging users to post more substantive and meaningful questions to the women of Hollywood. MAKERS, a digital platform dedicated to telling the stories of powerful and enterprising women in the United States, even drew up a list of questions for some of the celebrities.
In a single night, the hashtag registered over 25 million impressions. The real triumph, however, came when this momentum spilled over to the offline space, most importantly- the red carpet.
“How difficult was it to portray the full extent of living with Alzheimer’s?” “Who do you consider most influential in your life?” “What is your next work project?” These questions certainly sang a very different, much-welcome refrain from the inane and overdone- “Who are you wearing?” “How long did it take for you to get ready today?” “Give us a twirl/ show us your clutch-nails-<insert generic accessory here>”
ABC’s Robin Roberts even dedicated some air-time to talk about the campaign and why it is most relevant and necessary. Buzzfeed went one step further by asking women to share one piece of advice for young girls of the world today. It is interesting to note that unlike most viral trends, that succumb to a hushed denouement just as rapid as their entry, #AskHerMore is still trending in some circles and has kept the dialogue ongoing, even a week after the Oscars.
The success of the campaign can, in some ways, be attributed to the fact that it speaks to a much larger problem that pervades most of American visual culture. The Oscars isn’t the first instance where women have been reduced to their clothing choices, granted that they may be intricate to one’s identity. The yearly Superbowl, a grand sporting extravaganza, has been a prime occasion for advertisers to release sexist commercials that freely dabble in overused stereotypes to peddle everything from fast food to vehicles, to a heterosexual male demographic. The entertainment channel E! operates a “Mani-cam” to capture perfectly polished cuticles of female celebrities on red carpets as well as whole programmes that exist only to rate red carpet outfits and looks.
The most recent controversy stirred in this pot is directed at the Oscar appearance of one of Disney Channel’s child stars, Zendaya Coleman. Of biracial ethnicity, Coleman had her dreadlocks dissected by a panel with E!’s Giuliana Rancic commenting that it “might smell like patchouli oil or weed”. These comments reflect the kind of objectification that women of colour in Hollywood face, a potent cocktail of racism and sexism that isn’t always addressed.
#AskHerMore has the potential to step beyond just Hollywood; its appeal lies in its universality and how comfortably it lends itself to other cultures, visual, digital and experiential, like sport, music and business. Beyond Twitter, it also raises possibilities of being manifested in other forms of media, through scholarship, imagery, film and music. Will #AskHerMore continue to live on and sustain a more nuanced debate and dialogue like it has? Or will it die a slow, silent death as most viral trends and hashtag activism? Only time will tell.
Article by Prashanthi Subramaniam