A Ballad of Token Gestures and a Cat named Choupette
On the 1st of May, we got a glimpse of the new Hunger Games. Featuring an all-star cast magnificently adorned in costume, a rife political climate of dystopian inequality between rich and poor and an endearing tribute to a—perhaps problematic but most importantly influential—leader and icon: Karl Lagerfeld. Sorry, I mean President Snow. Wait, what do you mean this isn’t about the release of the trailer for the new Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes (2023)? Oh that’s right, I’m actually talking about the 2023 Met Gala.
And by 2023 Met Gala, I really mean every Met Gala. But let’s focus our attention on its most recent iteration. I understand the appeal of ogling at Hollywood’s annual dress-up party, and I know it makes you feel like a pseudo-fashion-expert commenting on all the curiously eccentric outfits the A-Listers rock up in. I mean, this year’s Gala included multiple cat costumes, Billie Eilish slaying (her brother also slaying; you know, what’s-his-name?) Emma Chamberlain reuniting in a delightfully awkward, yet endearing, interview with Jack Harlow, and, following her Marilyn Monroe dress last year, Kim Kardashian ‘keeping it low-key’ for this year’s Met Gala (which in her case means literally dripping in pearls). And I agree, it can be fun to distract ourselves from our ordinary lives with endless streams of TikTok commentary about the celebrities, the drama, the awkward interviews, the unfortunate photobombs (such as one particular chrome posterior). It’s even more fun to see who showed up, who didn’t show up, who sat next to who, what they talked about, and where the hottest gossip is. The list goes on and on and on.
Every year, when Met Gala season comes around, it always feels like a special occasion.
So sorry to burst your bubble on this one but, the Met Gala really isn’t for you. The occasion might seem well-suited for copious public attention. But it was never designed to please you, and if you and everyone you know stopped caring about the Met Gala—the ‘Super Bowl of Fashion’ as they like to call it—it would absolutely still exist.
The Met Gala began as a fundraising event. Nowadays it’s become more about the red-carpet-fashion-show element, and one might assume that’s where you come in, but that’s not the case. It is very much still about making money, embellished with the public-facing spectacle of it all (which also, conveniently, makes the Met even more money). The Met Gala is thus, really all about the stars who attend. Maybe it seems like it could be the perfect opportunity to amplify a diversity of voices, new and old, and redefine what fashion means. But this is not the case. For one, the event is so exclusive that top fashion brands handpick celebrities to display their stunningly impractical designs, and only look for the best of the best. Every person at the invite-only event has to also receive the personal approval of organiser Anna Wintour. That leads to my next point which is that an event which ‘defines’ fashion, has little need or motive to redefine fashion. Of the celebrities who attended this year, most were white and almost all were conventionally attractive and skinny; the exceptions including token body-positive advocates like Lizzo and Ashley Graham. The Met Gala is also fundamentally, a space for well-known elite designers to flaunt their wealth of fashion expertise, making it super exclusive, inaccessible and basically incapable of change.
Throughout the years, the Met Gala’s numerous themes have also reflected the elitism which underpins the whole event. The theme this year was “Karl Lagerfeld: a Line of Beauty”, which really sends home the message that this high profile function mainly serves the purpose of reinforcing old and worn ideas about the kind of people who deserve a platform (if you didn’t know, Lagerfeld—late Chanel fashion designer—is known for his fatphobia and misogyny among other things). In addition, previous themes including ‘China: Through the Looking Glass’ (2015), ‘Heavenly Bodies: Fashion & the Catholic Imagination’ (2018) and ‘Orientalism: Visions of the East in Western dress’ (1994) lend legitimacy to the suspicion that the Met Gala fetishises and exploits different religious and cultural styles through a distinctly Western lens, appropriating them as part of a larger elitist conception of fashion. Maybe they can satisfy diversity requirements by adding Lizzo to the guest-list, whose act of rebellion consists of merely existing as a fat woman, but it’s hard to label the Met Gala as anything but a party for wealthy elites, affixed with a few unconventional celebrity guests, to disperse criticism.
Beyond just the Met Gala, I think we need to reconsider the insane amount of wealth and influence afforded to celebrities. It is hard to deny that they play an important role in pop culture—from starring in our favourite movies to singing our favourite hits—and this role brings with it the unrelenting microscope of the public eye. Maybe they are genuinely really talented, and maybe they do work really hard to achieve such success, but their skillset is limited to entertainment value. Most, if not all, celebrities—especially A-listers—sit comfortably within the top 1% of wealth.
In the United States, those in the top 1% share in about a third of the country’s wealth, while the bottom 50% hold less than a sliver of a score (roughly 4%). Especially since the pandemic, wealth inequality in virtually every country has grown, and the separation between the rich and poor has only become more visible. Events like the Met Gala demonstrate how wealthy celebrities continue to lavish in luxury while the majority suffers with the rising cost-of-living. Yet these forums are still being treated in public like trendy, unproblematic epicentres for social culture.
When it comes to celebrities like Taylor Swift, who produce music that we can’t help but feel personally connected with, often the privilege and wealth they inherit is overlooked. Swift may be talented, sweet, and incredibly hardworking, but her story begins in a stable home (yes, it was a mansion), with supportive parents who were willing to move to another state to pursue her ambition. Despite her net worth now being at least half a billion dollars, she is still attached to the charming country girl persona, and fans still spend thousands to watch her in concert. To offer a different example, the Kardashian family, who can claim little talent other than remaining throughout their lives entirely unscathed by poverty and economic struggles, are often idolised for the successes they achieve despite having no institutional barriers to overcome.
This dynamic between the increasingly mega-wealthy and the increasingly mega-poor is just as dystopian in real life as it is in Suzanne Collins’ books. Except it’s going to take a lot more than a Katniss-Everdeen-type heroine to change it.
The reason that we need to change it, has just as much to do with the problem you can see as it does with the problem you can’t. While the cameras were turned toward the red carpet on the night of the Met Gala, homeless people behind the scenes were shooed off the street to make way for the event. Across the United States, more than 580,000 people are homeless and 42 million people are considered to be living in poverty. At the same time, just three of the Met Gala attendees donned jewellery at the event of the combined value of $50 million.
These two worlds will continue to diverge unless this issue is addressed, and Hunger-Games-esque events are genuinely held accountable for the ignorance of elitism they represent. But the most plausible way this can be achieved is to reduce the financial gap between the wealthy and the poor anyway. Easier said than done.
Before I go, I have a final message for the world’s worst nepo baby King Charles III: You can shove your coronation up your ass. 👑