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The black gowns on the Golden Globes red carpet weren’t just a gimmick

NBC's '75th Annual Golden Globe Awards' - Arrivals Photo by Kevork Djansezian/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

The red carpet at the 2018 Golden Globes was a careful balancing act. Traditionally, a red carpet is a frothy celebration of fashion — albeit usually safe and sedate fashion — and celebrity gossip: “Look at what that actress is wearing.” “Oh, I didn’t know that pop star was married to that actor.” It’s best watched with wine firmly in hand and pizza waiting on the coffee table.

But this year, in the era of #MeToo and #TimesUp, celebrities walking the red carpet didn’t have the space to be quite so frivolous. They had to acknowledge the systemic misogyny of the entertainment industry and at least pay lip service to making a difference going forward — and, with the Golden Globes being a Hollywood event, they had to do so while being self-congratulatory and glitzy.

All of which made it all the more remarkable that, largely thanks to the actresses spearheading the #TimesUp movement … it mostly succeeded? There were plenty of false notes to go around — especially during E!’s deeply well-meaning and wildly poorly framed interviews — but overall, Sunday night’s red carpet managed to meet the mandate of being filled with pretty dresses and offering up a few new conversations.

Here are the two big strategies the #TimesUp movement used, and why they worked.

The black gowns weren’t just a gimmick

75th Annual Golden Globe Awards - Arrivals Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

The black gowns of the #TimesUp movement served one vital function on the red carpet: They prompted interviewers to begin, “Why are you wearing black?” rather than “Who are you wearing?” From there, it was up to the celebrity being interviewed to launch into their talking points — and those who have been most active in the #TimesUp movement were more than ready to go.

“It’s our job right now, the time is now for us to do the work that will make women and all people more safe and more equal in their workplaces and in their lives,” said America Ferrera.

“The reason we’re here, the reason we didn’t just stay home, is because we feel we shouldn’t have to sit out the night, give up our seats at the table, our voice in this industry because of bad behavior that wasn’t ours,” said Kerry Washington, before plugging the Time’s Up legal defense fund that has already raised more than $15 million to aid those who have experienced sexual harassment or assault in the workplace.

“I’m here because I hear the voices of women who said ‘Me too’ — which, one of them was me,” said Viola Davis. “I hear those people who are nameless, faceless, every day who don’t have a platform to talk about their sexual assault and rape, and I hear those voices. It’s like someone says, there’s no prerequisites to worthiness. You’re born worthy, and I think that’s a message a lot of women need hear. The women who are still in silence because of trauma, shame due to assault. They need to understand that it’s not their fault and they’re not dirty. That’s my message tonight.”

The black dresses provided an opening to use the enormous platform of the red carpet to talk about sexual harassment and assault — and while the red carpet may not be the best place to have that conversation in a substantive way, it’s a great place to have it in a loud and impactful way. You can’t address all the nuances, but you can send your message to millions of viewers watching at home.

NBC's '75th Annual Golden Globe Awards' - Red Carpet Arrivals Trae Patton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

And not for nothing, since red carpets are for fashion along with everything else, the black gowns en masse looked less like a symbol of mourning and more like a showcase of minimalist glitz. They also gave Hollywood’s finest the chance to show off their tailoring, giving celebrity and fashion junkies a chance to play. Black gowns show fit like nothing else, so just for a night, all the elaborate status plays and semiotics of Hollywood fashion were confined to fit and line, like a secret code.

The black gown movement also seems to have prompted some of Hollywood’s most famous actresses of color to wear their hair in natural or traditionally African styles. Viola Davis had combed her hair out into a full and glorious Afro, and Tracee Ellis Ross donned a dramatic black silk headscarf. At the Golden Globes, where hair is traditionally heat-styled within an inch of its life, statements like that are downright dramatic.

Activists were invited to spread their message on one of the world’s biggest platforms

Moet & Chandon At The 75th Annual Golden Globe Awards - Inside Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Moet & Chandon

Eight of the actresses who attended the Golden Globes — Laura Dern, Amy Poehler, Susan Sarandon, Meryl Streep, Emma Stone, Emma Watson, Michelle Williams and Shailene Woodley — brought activists with them onto the red carpet. Throughout the night, they redirected their interviews back to their dates, sometimes seemingly against the will of their interviewers.

“We want to say to all the women who are experiencing sexual violence in the workplace, that they are not alone, that we stand with them,” said Laura Dern’s date Monica Ramirez, board director of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, as E! minimized her talking face and brought it to the bottom of the screen, the better to focus on a just-arriving Saoirse Ronan.

“You know why we’re here? We’re here because of Tarana,” said Michelle Williams, who was on the red carpet with Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement. “You may think we’re here because I was nominated for something, but that’s really not the case. We’re here because Tarana started a movement, and she planted a seed years ago and it’s grown and caught fire. She started the #MeToo movement.”

“It’s deeply humbling,” said Burke. “This is something I started out of necessity and something that I thought my community needed and it’s grown over the years, but I never could’ve envisioned it growing like this. But this moment is so powerful because we’re seeing … collaboration between these two worlds that people don’t usually put together and would most likely have us pitted against each other.”

The move gave women activists one of the biggest platforms in the world — and it also effectively prevented the red carpet extravaganza from focusing on the romantic entanglements of movie stars. Savvily, the actresses who invited protesters to the red carpet were able to both push the #MeToo conversation forward and to present themselves to the world as serious, politically minded professionals rather than unserious, objectifiable romantic objects.

The Golden Globes red carpet faltered more than once and was far from an unmitigated success. But given the very narrow path it had to walk to success, with little room for error on either side, it managed much better than anyone expected it to.