February 13, 2015

Sociology on the Red Carpet

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

In the entertainment industry, the first two months of the year are unofficially known as awards season. There are more awards shows than most of us know about, culminating with the Academy Awards at the end of February. While it may seem that awards shows are trivial or just entertainment, we can learn several sociological lessons from these events.

Both awards shows and pre-show red carpet walks are  heightened examples of Erving Goffman’s front stage/back stage idea. Goffman detailed how there are different sets of rules and expectations for social interactions based on whether we are in public or private spaces. Our “front stage” performances are often very different from our “back stage” behavior where we might let our guard down more.

Red carpet events are the ultimate front stage; people on the red carpet do so with the knowledge that they are being observed and judged. These shows contain performance rituals that participants are supposed to partake in. Celebrity guests are expected to dress in formal attire, wear fancy jewelry, have their hair dramatically coiffed for the event, and pose for the numerous photographers along the way. Typically, their clothes and jewelry are supplied by others and must be returned after the “performance,” so they are literally wearing costumes. What people—especially women—wear to these events garners the most attention, often even more than the awards themselves. 

Celebrity participants are also expected to engage in friendly conversation with reporters covering the event and discuss what they are wearing. The interactions between all parties on the red carpet—the guests, the correspondents, and fans that might be in nearby bleachers observing—are supposed to be warm and friendly. Celebrities who move down the carpet too quickly or don’t pose for every photographer who calls their name might be considered rude; photographers sometimes hurl insults at them in the moment to embarrass them for failing to play along with the ritual. Once inside the awards show, guests are expected to smile, even when they do not win, to laugh politely at the show’s host (who is often a comedian), and to appear interested in any musical performances. There is literally a stage at the event, but even the audience is on a figurative stage in front of cameras.

A celebrity’s performance at the awards show setting is typically more important than the show itself, with special attention paid to gaffes (“she mispronounced a word!”), snubs (“he didn’t thank his wife in his acceptance speech!”) and breaches in decorum (“Kanye West jumped on stage again!”). And one of the biggest parts of this ritual is publicly critiquing a celebrity’s appearance and debating the all-important question of who was “best dressed” and who was “worst dressed.”

This all might seem a bit obvious, even banal. But award shows are a heightened example of how public behavior is part of others’ expectations and scrutiny—not just for celebrities during televised events. Every social situation brings with it expectation and judgment of performance (think about how this applies to a classroom, for instance).

The red carpet also teaches us about issues of status. In fact, historically the red carpet itself denoted high status, as the privileged entrance of a head of state or royalty. Who is typically part of the red carpet process today, and what does this teach us about status?

Anthropologist Vanessa Diaz has studied the media production process, and had focused specifically on the issues of race, ethnicity, class and gender in red carpet politics. She found behind-the-scenes divisions amongst photographers; those who have access to the red carpet as “legitimate” participants compared with the paparazzi, who are more likely to be Latino immigrants and not afforded access to high-status events. (Click here to check out her chapter in Contemporary Latina/o Media.)

And while we may see more ethnic diversity among the celebrities who appear on the red carpet now than we did in the past, the production process still largely casts white performers in parts unless a description specifically calls for a person of color. The award nominees, particularly within film making, also tend to be white, as critics who wonder why Selma director Ava DuVernay was not nominated for a best director Oscar have pointed out. In this New York Times column, David Carr notes that the Academy (the people who get to vote for who wins each Oscar) is 93 percent white and 76 percent male with an average age over 60. (We might also look at the age diversity of those on the red carpet; how many men over 50 appear there compared to women over 50?)

Lastly, we should consider why awards shows exist at all. They are marketing events crafted to create interest in products; the show itself seeks revenue from advertisers, and the industry as a whole uses an awards show to create buzz around the cultural products they sell, such as music, movies, and television shows. In an attempt to generate excitement from consumers, these shows count on mini-dramas (“Who will win?” “What will she wear?” “How will the host do?” “What if s/he runs into his/her ex?”) to draw us in and convince us that the answers to these questions matter. A “failed” award show performance of a celebrity provides even more publicity.

The free gift bags, the dresses, and jewelry that celebrities receive for their appearances are essentially advertisements intended to inspire viewers to shop for knockoff dresses, shoes, and handbags that celebrities have modeled for potential consumers. Celebrities may receive freebies if they agree to have their picture taken with a product; ABC News reported that some of these gift packages may be worth as much as $40,000 and include things like vouchers for restaurants, vacations, and even Lasik eye surgery. A celebrity sighting at a hotel or restaurant may increase business, or so the proprietors hope.

Whether you view awards shows as entertaining and fun or mindless and superficial, there are sociological lessons embedded within them. What other sociological concepts can these shows teach us about?


Very interesting topic and so true! I know people who have Oscar parties like most people have super bowl parties. I says so much about our culture and society when we put more emphasis on entertainment in this country and actually empower that elite minority group (successful entertainers), by wanting to wear the same clothes, makeup, hairstyles, even listen to there thoughts on politics as if they have been privy to more inside information than the rest of the populas.
I can see the value however of the power of music or films that can help one relax or "escape" from mundane normal life.
It would be nice to have additional role models that would encourage kids to learn more by staying in school and advancing in education. Public service to enrich your own communities and therefore selfempowerment.

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