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Debra Messing's 2018 Golden Globes red carpet speech sets powerful new precedent

The women of Hollywood have finally thrown a wrench in the tradition of treating female actors like fashion props.
Image: Debra Messing arrives for the 75th annual Golden Globe Awards
Showing us all how it's done.Mike Nelson / EPA

Debra Messing, among the first A-list celebrities interviewed by E! Television during its Golden Globes red carpet special Sunday, used every second of her time on camera to preach intersectional feminism and diversity. Even better, she fearlessly called out the network for its egregious gender pay gap — which recently made headlines — while live on E!.

Messing’s use of her red carpet moment sets an important precedent — and not just for women in the entertainment industry. Powerful women banded together at the Globes to demand equality and the right to work free from harassment and abuse for all women, regardless of industry. By using their enormous platforms and celebrity power to shine a light on the discriminatory conditions women face in the workplace, and backing it up with a concrete action plan, women everywhere stand to benefit.

Speaking to E! host Guiliana Rancic, Messing said, “We want diversity, we want intersectional gender parity, we want equal pay. I was so shocked to hear that E! doesn’t believe in paying their female co-hosts the same as their male co-hosts.” The “Will & Grace” star went on to note that she missed Catt Sadlier, an E! host who quit in December over pay inequality. “We stand with her and that’s something that can change tomorrow. We want people to start having this conversation that women are just as valuable as men."

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And Messing didn’t stop there. She went on to demand more diversity among workplaces, emphasizing women of color, and a gender balance of “50/50 by 2020.” It was a powerful moment.

Messing wasn’t the only high-profile actress to leverage her platform to address gender discrimination. Several others, including Meryl Streep, Reese Witherspoon and Michelle Williams, brought activists as their dates and used their time on the red carpet to speak about systemic inequalities and injustices in the workplace, focusing on underserved and underrepresented communities.

These comments were, no doubt, meant to help raise awareness of the newly launched Time’s Up initiative. But importantly, they also showed us what red carpets should look like in the future.

Historically, red carpets have been little more than voyeuristic fashion shows, with actresses’ bodies served up for our consumption, objectification and critique. Media coverage predictably focused on the good, the bad and even — some might say especially — the ugly looks of the night. It almost never centered on women’s voices, their hard work or career accomplishments.

Historically, red carpets have been little more than fashion shows, with actresses’ bodies served up for our consumption and critique.

Inane questions like "Who are you wearing?" and “Are you excited for tonight?” and even the occasional “How did you lose the baby weight?” served as blueprints for red carpet interviewers. For year after year, the same narratives persisted; they were stale and they were sexist.

But the women of Hollywood have thrown a wrench in this tried and true tradition of treating female actors like fashion props. It's time to #AskHerMore. And their coordinated efforts, from wearing all black (as “a moment of solidarity, not a fashion moment,” as Eva Longoria told The New York Times) to reclaiming the red carpet conversation, has set a new and empowering blueprint for the future.

For once, women’s voices and experiences dominated and controlled the narrative, forcing national and entertainment media to discuss weighty issues — like pay equality, diversity, sexual harassment, and equal representation — when they otherwise might not. These topics and women’s lived experiences, which were typically hushed and certainly never the focus of award shows, are now unabashedly in the forefront of our collective consciousness. There can be no backsliding now.

It’s frustrating that, despite years of hard work by women of color and marginalized communities, it took wealthy, predominately white women to garner the attention that gender discrimination deserves. But, as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility. Finally, on the red carpet, rich and powerful women came together to begin fulfilling that obligation.

As Oprah later said in her searing acceptance speech for this year's Cecil B. DeMille award, time’s up — on women being treated like objects, on the media asking empty questions, on discrimination, harassment and abuse and on women’s voices being secondary, no matter where they are or what they’re wearing.

Maureen Shaw is a writer, activist and proud mama of two. Her writing has appeared widely online, including in Quartz, Teen Vogue, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Rewire, ThinkProgress, Romper, Parents and more. She tweets prolifically at @MaureenShaw.