Does This Dress Match My Race? The Problem with E! Network’s Constant Race Based Fashion Critique

Claudia SanchezClaudia Sanchez is a Freshman Communications Studies & Media Studies major.

The United States has always had a history of being racially divided. There is currently a focus on the rise of racially motivated hate crimes and police brutality, but just as relevant is the portrayal of African Americans and other minorities in mass media.

The E! Network has carved a niche as a producer of easy to digest reality shows and celebrity news. Unfortunately, the network recently started a huge controversy on social media networks, including Tumblr and Twitter, through its Red Carpet coverage.

Zendaya Coleman, an actress and singer, was critiqued on E!’s Fashion Police after appearing at the Academy Awards last month. Coleman wore a lovely light silver gown and dreadlocked hair. Her outfit was not criticized by Fashion Police host Giuliana Rancic; instead Rancic said, “Like I feel like she smells like patchouli oil. Or weed,” while referring to her hair.

The fact that natural African American hair is immediately associated with drugs, shows how some people view African American culture. African American culture is not viewed as something valuable, something that gave rise to a myriad of advancements in science, literature, or art, in the eyes of the E! Network.

The truth of the matter is that without African Americans we would not have the music, film, or media we have today. Where would we be, culturally, without Little Richard, Oprah, or Maya Angelou? These people created new genres of music, a new way to format talk shows, and a world renowned style of writing, all while being criticized for their looks and race.

Rancic apologized for her comment by simply stating that it was meant as a joke and not meant to offend. However the comment was offensive, not just to Zendaya Coleman, but to many social media users, who proceeded to attack Rancic.

Coleman was rightfully offended and instagrammed a thoughtful response to Rancic. In her response Coleman pointed out that many successful people of color wear dreadlocks, [which obviously do not smell like “weed or patchouli oil”] ranging from Selma director Ava Du Vernay to Harvard professor Vincent Brown. Coleman also powerfully wrote that she wore her hair in dreadlocks to “remind people of color that our hair is good enough.” The fact that African American people are consistently being told that their hair is not good enough is appalling because hair does not dictate anything about a person, their interests, or their career choices, hair is simply a personal choice.

The channel and Rancic clearly thought the comment was comedic and appropriate. In fact, Fashion Police’s employed writers came up with the “joke.” While the network let Rancic take the fall for being racist, Kelly Osbourne, another co-host for the show, tweeted that the line was written into the show and was rehearsed three times. The channel had full control to edit out the comment, which they knew would cause controversy, but they did not. They left it in the show and let Rancic apologize, instead of saying that it was the fault of the network’s writers, editors, directors, and performers.

This however, is not the first time the E! Network and Rancic have been criticized of being racist in Red Carpet coverage. Last year, Rancic asked Aziz Ansari to show her how to dance because, “you look like you have good rhythm,” to which Ansari responded, “Okay, what about…this is a move that’s called ‘What? That’s racist…don’t say that again!’”

Not only is E!’s Red Carpet coverage is racially insensitive, it is also damaging to their main demographic. According to Time Warner Cable’s report on E! Network’s viewer demographics, the majority of E!’s viewers are African American and Hispanic women between the ages of 18 to 34. These are minority women consistently being told that their race is not good enough for mass media consumption.

As a Hispanic woman, I see so few people that represent who I am and what I look like in the entertainment world. To see women like me being criticized for their facial features, hair, and other things they cannot control is disappointing. To be perfectly honest, I do not feel incredibly offended when people criticize a Hispanic woman’s features, I feel more offended that a major American network still refuses to acknowledge that you should not mock people for their race or use outdated stereotypes as a joke.

Red Carpet coverage is meant to be a quick and simple way to introduce actors and actresses, their clothing, and what they are working on. It should not be a racial minefield where minorities are criticized and mocked by Fashion Police’s mostly white cast. The E! Network’s Red Carpet coverage was supposed to be entertaining and light, however it has lead to a discussion on the conflict between race and entertainment, and who should be in control of resolving the issue. However, they appear to prefer to create controversy for higher ratings.

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