We seem to be making a series at Inverted Answers in these months, something that goes along the lines of “Let’s talk about events that are supposed to be about some kind of art, but have actually become about what women are wearing and what they are allowed to wear”. I’m referring, of course, to the recently concluded Cannes Film Festival, revisited this year by the trippy nightmare of a sexist dress code.
The “Flatgate” controversy that began last year and is native to Cannes is back with a (flip-)flop.
In 2015, a group of women were denied entry to the festival- to a screening of Carol, in fact, a film lauded for its feminist ideals- based on the fact that they chose to wear flats rather than high heels.
This year, Julia Roberts chose to hark back to that incident by going barefoot at the premiere of her own movie.
Roberts, no doubt, took a bold and clever step by exercising her choice. However, in the midst of the adulations that poured in, a vital point is in danger of being obscured.
The ridiculousness of women’s footwear-choices still being an issue worthy of headline-inducing controversies in 2016, especially at an event about films, is stark.
As Hadley Freeman said in this article, the controversy highlights the ludicrous, archaic ideas of what elegance constitutes when it comes to being a woman according to exclusive high society. Even more damningly, it is glaring proof of the fact that no other interpretation is allowed.
Women themselves, according to these customs, are not allowed to interpret what elegance means for them. The practice effectively wipes out individuality and enforces a single concept of womanhood, while suppressing women’s voices.
Opposing such a culture of silent oppression is difficult because the rules of the culture are undefined and unstated. Its enforcement in practice as a convention, however, is all the more strict and hierarchical because of that: the arcane concept simply adds to the mystique of an elegant woman that society is so quick to praise. The defiance of these customs, in turn, thus becomes rare, as to defy is to automatically be lesser than those who conform. The scope of change, thus, reduces proportionately.
Men, too, must be dressed in formal attire at Cannes, including their footwear: a fact that everyone is quick to point out in response to protests for change. But men are not in acute physical discomfort and at risk of developing actual physical problems from the guidelines in place. Men are not socially or, according to fashion, confined to dresses that severely restrict their ability to move freely. For women, on the other hand, it is compulsory to be so– in fact, as before, their sense of style is called into question if they’re not bending over backwards to accommodate narrow definitions of beauty and appropriateness.
Beyond this exists the truth that everyone should be able to see but prefers to ignore: the idea that Cannes is no longer about the films.
Like the Met Gala, it has become about the surrounding gilding.
Women at Cannes, especially the actresses and directors, are there to present their work.
They are intelligent, professional, creative personas who have put in an enormous amount of effort towards creating a work of art in their chosen medium.
Yet the focus, when it comes to women, is not on their work but on their lipstick colour; not on their contribution to cinema as an art and a craft but on which designer’s gown they are wearing.
All of that work is somehow considered invalid when they happen to not pass Cannes’- or any event’s- retrograde fashion standards. In fact, that is considered to be normal: in a society that lives to assign women specific roles, intellect and beauty can never co-exist in the same woman. One recalls the cringeworthy moment at the SAG Awards in 2015 when the “ladies” of the cast of Downton Abbey were asked the names of the designers whose gowns they were wearing: and that’s all they were asked.
The Cannes Film Festival’s story is part of the inevitable dilution of entertainment events into a media circus satisfying its appetite for women.
The narrative is yet again about something other than what the event was originally about, both in the media and in culture. The focus is again disproportionately on women: on their bodies, their images, how they present themselves. The judgment is meted out as much to the films as to the women who are involved in the event. And no one questions it, because it is expected. It has been perpetuated for decades. After all, this is what happens to women in society every day. To play the role of a human woman, women at Cannes, and women in general, are forced to conform to standards of beauty and dress that are then turned into stereotypes and used as food for mockery.
Cannes is a film festival. At such an event, women’s roles in films should be celebrated: in how many ways they contribute, how they are not compensated properly for that contribution, how they do not have visibility for it, how they are presented through it and how, in turn, they present it. It should talk about the engagement of women as creators with the medium of film. It should be a celebration of art and women as artists. Instead, we see women as tools, with the festival actively participating in the feeding frenzy of women’s bodies.
Even if fashion is a major part of “high-culture” events– the term which itself indicates an inherently classist exclusivity- it is supposed to be fun. It is supposed to be about comfort, style, elegance. It is supposed to be a representation of how you choose to present yourself to the world.
But women at Cannes are no longer in control of the way they want to present themselves: indeed, they never were.
If they are not in control of that narrative, the expression is not theirs anymore. Their voice has been stolen from them. They are being asked to cut themselves to fit another’s cloth. That is neither fashion nor art: it is vapid sexist foolishness, it is nothing at all.