Heroes Don't Wear Capes

Jennifer Mills shares her take on the controversial cape worn by acting royalty Natalie Portman

Jennifer Mills
24th February 2020
By @GageSkidmore on flickr
How we dress is inherently political. When we get up, we make choices that reflect our values, ethics and personality in order to decide what we wear that day. We see this on an everyday level, especially on our university campus – political groups dress differently to each other. Whether it’s ripped jeans and Doc Martens, suits and ties, XR t-shirts or trench coats, you will always make an assumption of someone’s political beliefs based on the outfit they have deliberately decided to wear.

So, why is it that when Natalie Portman decided to express her opinions through her clothing at the Oscars in February she was praised as a hero? Surely, her choice is no braver than the one everyone else makes each day?

Portman’s Dior dress for the Oscars was beautiful – the colours were modest but flattering, making the 38-year-old shimmer on the red carpet. It’s a shame that the matching cape came with such a shallow and predictable message. On the collar was written the names of the six female directors that Portman deemed to have been snubbed by the Academy when nominations were decided. I suppose Portman must see herself as a better judge than the prestigious Academy, which has had over 90 years of experience in film criticism and awards.

Image Source: @natalieportman on Instagram

The Academy Awards did not feature any female directors in its nominations, and I fail to see how this is a political decision rather than a testament to the exceptional material produced by male directors over the last year. Perhaps, instead of criticising the Academy for snubbing women, Portman could further her own directing career and produce something better than the likes of Scorsese or Tarantino? Maybe then she could personally increase the female representation within this category?

is fashion an effective form of activism?

Whether you agree with Portman’s outrage at the lack of female nominees in this category of the awards or not, it is important to acknowledge that this is a political statement. So is fashion an effective form of activism? Yes and no; it is a necessary form of activism, but it is also one that every single person participates in, knowingly or not, and by merit, one that has lost its potency. Anyone can wear clothes. It’s simply absurd to praise it as brave or inspirational.

It’s absurd to the point that actual activists find this brand of protest offensive. Real activist Rose McGowan posted on Facebook that Portman was “an actress acting the part of someone who cares”. I am inclined to agree. Portman has taken an issue she claims to be important and is combating it in the easiest way possible – putting on an outfit. I might be more impressed if Portman had stitched on the names on the collar herself.

Image Source: @natalieportman on Instagram

There is nothing wrong with Portman’s choice to protest the lack of women nominated for this particular award, but rather the media’s attempt to use this as a way to bring the issue of women’s representation back into the centre frame. In truth, her outfit has only been considered ‘brave’ because it fits a narrative that the media celebrates. Would the same be said about someone wearing a MAGA hat? Would Portman wear a similar cape with all the male directors had the award only received female nominees?

Portman is not brave, but a cliché

Fashion being used for political statements is a fabulous every-day way to express yourself and your opinions, but celebrating Natalie Portman for doing this as something inspirational is exceedingly shallow. Portman is not brave, but a cliché. Her cape, a flimsy soapbox – a reminder of a brand of activism that has all but frayed away.

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