Despite being an awards ceremony dedicated to celebrating the highest artistic achievements of the television industry, the lasting image of Monday’s Emmys had very little to do with the best TV of the year. It was Sofia Vergara’s body spinning on a pedestal – the star of ABC’s Modern Family, and one of the most successful women of color in Hollywood, reduced to set decoration while the CEO of the Television Academy, Bruce Rosenblum, raved about his industry’s “diversity” and ability to give audiences “something compelling to watch.” Though Vergara has defended the incident as a harmless joke, thousands on Twitter criticized the Emmys for perpetuating the sexual objectification of women and Rosenblum's tone-deaf assertion of “diversity” during a program that gave no awards to women of color.
But the Emmys' decision to use Vergara’s body as a statue just underscores what was essentially a theme of the night: women as bodies, not artists. After all, the event also began with women spinning on virtual pedestals while their appearance was assessed by millions, thanks to E! Entertainment’s 360º “Glam Cam.” And while few men of Hollywood are ever subjected to the same level of judgment on the red carpet, nearly every one of the women in attendance walked up and smiled for the critiquing reporters and cameras - accustomed to people paying more attention to what they look like than what they say or do.
As a filmmaker and former actress, and someone who has had the fortune of attending red carpet events in the past, I know the feeling of being a piece of meat on display for the media – the way they yell out for your attention, then seemingly discard you after snapping a photo or looking you up and down. It can be traumatic, and something incredibly difficult to stand up to. Especially in the moment, and especially when you know the billion-dollar entertainment industry that employs you is partially propped up by, and certainly profiting from, this kind of objectification of women.
Yet when we don’t speak up, and when we as viewers tune in without complaint, we allow the media to normalize treating women as second-class citizens. Nearly every major entertainment publication had a story Tuesday morning about “fashion” successes on the red carpet, focused primarily on what women were wearing – not men. This emphasis on female appearance, during a night that’s supposed to be about achievement, further separates women from men in the industry, devalues them as artists, and leads to powerful men like Rosenblum reducing Emmy-nominated actresses to sexual objects on stage without blinking an eye.
Thankfully, more and more women in Hollywood are choosing to reject and subvert that objectifying gaze (Cate Blanchett at last year’s Oscars is one prominent example), and are being joined by millions online. The Representation Project – the non-profit organization that grew out of the success of my 2011 documentary critiquing media sexism, Miss Representation – led an online campaign on Monday called “#AskHerMore,” which had Twitter users encouraging red carpet reporters, in real-time, to focus less on who celebrities were wearing, and more on their talent.
Offering alternative questions and challenging influential TV hosts to do better, activists used the hashtag to reach millions worldwide, and made a significant dent in the mainstream conversation around women at the Emmys. It’s clear from this, and the widespread negative reaction to the Vergara stunt, that the public is hungry for change.
Now it’s up to us – women and our allies, in the industry and out – to keep up the pressure through the rest of awards season. Perhaps by next year we can convince the Emmys, and the rest of Hollywood, that if they are truly committed to inclusive representation, they might spend less time ogling the bodies of women, and more time celebrating and awarding their talent on stage.
Jennifer Siebel Newsom is the founder and CEO of The Representation Project, a call-to-action campaign and media organization established to shift people's consciousness, inspire individual and community action, and ultimately, transform culture. She is also the writer/director/producer of 2011 award-winning documentary Miss Representation, which explores how the media’s misrepresentations of women contribute to the underrepresentation of women in positions of power and influence.