Can wE! All Get Along? The Fashion Police and Oscar Diversity

Curator's Note

Following the 2015 Academy Awards, E!’s Fashion Police held their usual post-Oscars fashion rundown. The former Disney star Zendaya Coleman was up for discussion. Coleman had worn a satin Vivienne Westwood gown, Chopard jewels, and her hair in locs. Fashion Police co-host Giuliana Rancic disparaged the look, commenting that Coleman must have smelled of “patchouli” and “weed.” Coleman took the comments as racially charged. She posted an eloquent response on Twitter, prompting Rancic to publically apologize. Coleman had the final tweet on the issue, writing “I have so many people looking up to me, that I couldn’t be scared, wait it out, nor could I just stand up for me; I had to do it for WE.”

Coleman’s sentiment anticipated the 2016 Oscar season. The Oscars will occur within a media landscape that also includes the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, itself prescient of USC’s major study “Inclusion or Invisibility? Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment” that finds an “inclusion crisis” across the entertainment industry. Meanwhile FX’s The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story taps recent history to engage with attitudes about race, public opinion, and policing. The miniseries recalls Rodney King’s invocation of "we" and the positional shift from King to Coleman is clear. 

Whereas King wondered if “we” all might get along nearly 25 years ago, Coleman’s “WE” recognizes difference and positions Coleman as a voice for the group. This move to collectivize responds to what Angela McRobbie has called “post-feminist symbolic violence.” McRobbie suggests that in the post-feminist climate the bonds among women are “noisily disavowed in favor of what seems like a more ‘modern’ set of behaviors including competitiveness, bitchiness, and verbal violence.”[1] Coleman’s tweet thus signals a response of solidarity against Fashion Police that recalls King’s plea for peace and togetherness during the violence that followed the police acquittals in his case. The difference, however, is difference. Coleman’s “WE” sees difference and the inclusion crisis rampant in Hollywood as it excludes both people of color and women. In marking this, Coleman politicizes the red carpet and uses a platform dominated by women to enter into a discussion about the intersections among race, gender, and the media. Coleman demonstrates how fashion and the red carpet are deeply ideological spaces from which to stake a position.

[1] Angela McRobbie, The Aftermath of Feminism Gender, Culture, and Social Change, LA:Sage (2009): 127.

Comments

Natasha Patterson's picture

A necessary "WE"

Thanks for your post, Julie. I was happy to be reminded on this story. So far, both posts have shown how the red carpet has become a site for important debates about race, gender, and the media (and my post will continue this tomorrow but from a different angle). I especially like your point about how Coleman’s response to Rancic’s ignorant comment helped to bring women together on an important issue. So much attention had been paid to how postfeminism sees women as individuals first, that it’s easy to overlook those moments or spaces in media culture where women actively resist this. How did you see “WE” playing out at this year’s Oscars?

Julie Nakama's picture

The 'we' and the long view

Really good question, Natasha. I was thinking about this “we” as I was watching Chris Rock’s opening monologue. I was struck by how he artfully avoided really claiming membership to any particular “we.” His jokes were aimed at the industry, at the White voting membership of the Academy, at other minorities, and at Black actors who boycotted the ceremony. By pitching jokes from multiple positions, I think he demonstrated both the complicated racial politics of show business, but also defended his own privileged position within the industry - while also pointing to the problems of that position. In terms of fashion, I was amazed at how many times the ABC red carpet broadcast went to Whoopi Goldberg. She seemed tapped to perform as a kind of ambassador for the network. Perhaps this is because Goldberg co-hosts ABC’s chat show The View. Goldberg said that her dress was a custom designed creation based on a dress Bette Davis wore in All About Eve. The historical reference here is interesting because it seems to contextualize the current moment within a long view of the industry, just as Rock did in his monologue.

Raffi Sarkissian's picture

Fashion and Fragility

Thanks for the post, Julie! I am so happy one of the other posts brought in Zendaya because it is a clear extension of race politics on the red carpet, especially how Giuliana’s comment proved as a “break” from the fawning of red carpet commentators on Viola Davis and Lupita Nyongo in the years prior (which always felt a bit precarious to me). And Zendaya’s response was another great example of women of color speaking and representing themselves, turning the red carpet into a cultural battlefield — or rather, revealing the battlefield beneath the veneer of Hollywood glamour.

When I was following this controversy last year, I was also a little surprised by Giuliana’s apology that followed Zendaya’s statement. It wasn’t the typical, “sorry IF you were offended, it wasn’t my intention.” It seemed as if Giuliana really did a bit of research and searching because she noted, if I’m correct, that even though it was not her intention, she realizes that intentions may not matter and that her words hurt people regardless. In other words, it wasn’t a fake apology - and now I’m wondering if Zendaya’s rhetoric of solidarity helped prompt that turn.

I also think this was the event after which Kathy Griffin quit her post at Fashion Police, citing the “mean” nature of fashion police as something she did not want to be a part of. So, I think it is telling how one small ignorant comment can really show how increasingly fragile this awards fashion industry might be!

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