It used to be that the Oscars was the show, yet every year an estimated audience of one billion viewers tunes in just to watch special coverage of the Academy Awards Red Carpet star arrivals. Not the ceremony itself, just the red carpet. Why? What is it about that long stretch of cerise shag pile that makes people tune in? Do we really need a show about stars arriving for another show? Yes, apparently.
“The Oscars is the highest example of red carpet spectacle in the world” (HREF1)Nothing screams to the world “I have arrived” the way an invitation to walk the red carpet does. In that respect, it becomes important to our society to see who exactly is granted this privilege, and evaluate whether they deserve it. Likewise, there is pressure on those we are watching to meet our expectations and fulfill our need to watch “the popular and the beautiful celebrate their popularity and beauty” (HREF1). School formals, corporate functions and rugby awards nights all hijack this symbol in an attempt to bring a touch of Hollywood to their night and make attendees feel special. Every movie premiere and every awards show in the entertainment industry stages their own red carpet arrival, but of all the red carpets in the world, the one belonging to the Oscars is the reddest.
“The famous Red Carpet entrance has, over the years, become the setting for rampant individualism and competition. Who is wearing the best dress? Which up and coming is dating which executive? Who’s in the ten-mill bracket this year? Who will win that gold icon, join the ‘in’ crowd and add another zero to their pay packet? Which post bash party will be the most exorbitant? This frothy pre-ceremony catwalk preserves the highly ideological notion that something called talent brings you happiness, power, good looks and fame.” (HREF4).
As the only part of the Academy Awards to directly involve members of the general public (fans can purchase tickets to sit in the bleachers running the length of the red carpet, but entrance to the ceremony is by invitation only), the red carpet is the one moment where some degree of interaction between celebrity and fan is possible. As such, it is the only place where a degree of intimacy can be imagined by the audience, the main ingredient in a successful relationship between media products and consumers. What is interesting is how the red carpet walk has developed from a chance for stars to be interviewed and show off their outfit to mean so much more. Rather than just being a glorified catwalk, the red carpet has become its own little world, with its own customs and expected codes of behavior, dress and social standing. So iconic has the image of the red carpet become, that it now exists in a separate place within society.
Although the classical rituals of laying robes for royalty and religious deities were adopted innocently enough by Hollywood almost a century ago, red carpet events have really evolved with the advent of pervasive global media coverage. Despite its long history, the red carpet was made for the media of the 21st century, even to the extent that the exact colour of dye used on the rug is one that best shows up red on television (HREF2). The Red Carpet now stands alone as a symbol of power, glamour and success – three highly valuable commodities in our society. The Red Carpet Foundation, naturally based in the United States, describes the red carpet as one of the entertainment industry’s “longest lasting legacies…playing a unique role in our cultural identity”. (HREF3)
Yet troublingly, this cultural institution is one built on façade and superficiality, a result of image after image being created without any substance to it. Unlike the Oscars ceremony, which does have the business of presenting awards to quantify its existence, the red carpet exists purely as a media spectacle. It is there just to be looked at, and in this respect fits neatly into the work of post modern theorist Jean Baudrillard.
Baudrillard was concerned with the post modern preoccupation with appearance, what a self centred emphasis on image and style becomes the dominant force in how we create ourselves (Elliott 2001, p131). He theorized that a world consisting of “glittering media surfaces and radiant commodified images” (p140) would lead to what he termed a hyper-reality, where repetitious images of excess intensify in the collective minds of the public and become more real than our actual reality (p136).
Perhaps when Baudrillard first tossed about the idea of hyper-reality he had some premonition of the space we now know as the Oscars Red Carpet. Foxtel’s 24 hour continuous broadcasting “Live From the Red Carpet” summarises everything Baudrillard pointed to when he became concerned the audience was the victim of the image. Round the clock coverage of actors and actresses arriving on the red carpet, overlaid with inane commentary by supposed style gurus, does not advance society. The viewer remains stagnant, simply consuming image after repetitious image. His ideas about a world driven by explicitly excessive and transparent imagery could surely find no better fit than within an analysis of the way this seemingly inconsequential event has been packaged for society’s consumption.
“Who arrived with Donatella Versace?”
“Who’s going to Elton’s party?”
“Did anyone see Oprah talking to me?”
“Does Joan Rivers like my dress?”
To some level, we are all susceptible to the razzle dazzle of high wattage stars, and it is this form of seduction that is at the heart of Baudrillard’s notion of the hyper real. The version of the red carpet that we see on television is pure fiction, a ‘fantasyscape’ (p136) that becomes more vivid and intense than the more benign, less perfect reality that exists behind the cameras. The viewing audience in not privy to the networking, marketing and publicity seeking games that go on between the Hollywood studios as they fight to get their stars on the red carpet.
We hear rumours of designers lavishing stars with gifts and money in order to get them to wear their gowns, yet we see no evidence of this. All we, the viewers, see is the end result – ethereal Hollywood goddesses gliding down the carpet. Nor are we privy to the sight of said goddess being led by her publicists away from lesser known media entities, and towards the ones who matter – Joan Rivers, Oprah Winfrey et al.
Media coverage has ensured that an audience clamouring for a glimpse of their favourite star is given ample quantities of what they want. Even their arrival at an event becomes valuable currency for a society demanding information about them. The Red Carpet provides the perfect opportunity to cover, without distraction, the stars and their image. Inevitably, the 30 minutes a star spends on the red carpet becomes worth more to audiences than the two minutes they may spend presenting on stage.
Part of the fascination with watching the red carpet must also lie in seeing famous faces allowed to act in ways considered taboo in ordinary society. Thos who are granted the privilege to walk the real Hollywood carpet find they are also accepted into and arena where ‘anything goes’, where extreme examples of behavior are not only condoned, but encouraged. Where else are we allowed to talk about ourselves, encourage gratuitous compliments from virtual strangers and blatantly preen ourselves for photographs? The result is what Marxists would consider a highly fetishised space of “irrational reverence or obsessive devotion”, where stars compete with each other to enact expected modes of behavior (HREF1).
Partly a throwback to the bohemian image thespians have long cultivated within society, where marginal tendencies were encouraged, there are stars that make a point of being the most extraordinary of all attendees. Celebrities such as Cher, Angelina Jolie and Bjork have created a reputation for trying to shock on the red carpet by wearing eccentric clothing, kissing their brother, and laying an egg (?!?!) respectively. In the ordinary world, to enact these forms of behavior attracts criticism for displaying narcissistic tendencies, broaching taboo forms of behavior and generally considered off-putting, yet on the red carpet it is accepted. This is one occasion that is all about maximum exposure, and whatever can be done to heighten the attention is just part of the game. If you don’t want to be noticed, best you sneak in through a side door.
It is commonplace for stars to wear haute couture gowns and designer diamond jewellery borrowed for the evening, so much so that media don’t ask ‘What are you wearing’, but ‘Who are you wearing’. Now, any female will tell you that borrowing clothing from a shop to wear to a party then return it the next day is one of the biggest crimes a girl about town can commit. Yet for the Oscars, designers like Valentino and Versace WANT the actresses to do it. Not only that, but sometimes the gowns have been worn a couple of times before! Julia Roberts started a continuing trend when she wore a vintage gown the year she won her Oscar. Where else can a woman admit to wearing a second-hand dress to a black tie event?
Jewellers such as Harry Winston give literally millions of dollars worth of jewellery to veritable strangers and presumably cross their fingers it will all be returned in one piece – all for the possibility that someone watching at home will rush out the following Monday to grab a pair of earrings as seen on the lobes of Gwyneth Paltrow. Ironically, the only person I heard admitting to the crime of wearing her own jewels was the perennially plastic Dolly Parton. “Whay would aye wear someone else’s stuff when aye can wear maye own?” she hollered to a stunned Richard Wilkins. Indeed, but if your boobs once belonged to the makers of Tupperware, what difference does it make whose diamonds you wear?
Of course, the notion that stars inhabit a world far removed from the great majority is not new, and the sight of the red carpet at the Oscars is only the manifestation of this fact. On a daily basis, celebrity allows for excessive displays of behavior as it “radiates greater material and symbolic power than non celebrity” (Rojek p31). It is seeing so many people in possession of this power all in one location that is truly dazzling to audiences.
Recently, Hollywood has begun to use the red carpet as a means of communicating to the wider community. In 2001, the glitz and sparkle of the red carpet was hyped unprecedented levels as Hollywood attempted to counteract the downturn in the USA economy. The following year, as America reeled from the shock of 9/11 and US troops were days away from being sent overseas, the red carpet was shortened, stars were discouraged from acting as outlandishly as previous years and the majority of the world’s press were denied access. The following year, it was back in all its glory – shinier than ever (HREF4). Small changes may be made to the televised ceremony, but the red carpet remains the site where Hollywood chooses to make the most visible statements. This, more than anything else, confirms the awareness that all eyes are on the red carpet. When next you watch the Oscars look closely for the second carpet, the other entrance that the stars don’t use. Often visible in the background, it’s for the other attendees – the ones that are not famous and therefore hold no social currency. It is the best illustration of what we consider valuable and praiseworthy.
There is a great romanticism about the Oscars and its history, and it seems cruel to treat it too cynically. Yet so much of what is celebrated during this annual event is intangible and, for most people, unobtainable. In many ways it summarises much of what is worrisome about our culture today. Soren Kierkegaard, as far back as the mid 1800s, foresaw the future of the human condition if we continued to place too much social importance and emphasis on the surreal. Believing that human experience in modern times consisted of three spheres – aesthetic, ethical and religious, with the aesthetic sphere being considered the lowest of them – his work centred on what he saw as the decline of religious, the ethical, priorities (Carroll p184). He theorized that if left only with the aesthetic sphere of pleasure and sensual experience in which to experience life, we become focused on the pursuit of temporal happiness, and indulge in passion and beautiful pleasures, a state he likens to the love affair (p 185). While on the surface it doesn’t sound like too bad a state to be in, anyone who’s experienced the rollercoaster of a love affair knows that eventually things crash to the ground and the illusion is shattered. What Kierkegaard is implying is that without an ethical or spiritual base to fall back on, it is not enough to just have everything looking and feeling pretty as it is in Hollywood. We require the substance underneath to sustain us when the shiny media image presented to us begins to tarnish. Real life can’t be stage managed the way the red carpet is, so us mere mortals require something more tangible. We may all secretly crave a chance to set foot on Oscar’s red carpet, but we don’t really want one running through our own house, do we?