The theme of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s newest costume exhibit, “China: Through the Looking Glass,” reflects a “collective fantasy of China,” curator Andrew Bolton explains. That was certainly apparent the evening of May 4, as hundreds of famous attendees, mostly from the United States and Europe, donned elaborate, fantastical, China-themed costumes for the opening gala.
There were several beautiful pieces by Chinese designers, some gorgeous stars from China and the west, and a whole lot of red dresses, a color symbolizing fortune and luck. So, what was missing?
For starters, any mention whatsoever from the international fashion press or attendees of the ongoing brutal and inhumane crackdown on free speech and human rights going on on the ground in China, one that’s being called the most repressive in 25 years. Even Amal Ramzi Clooney, a human rights lawyer who sometimes represents jailed journalists in repressive regimes, attended the gala in red dress.
Last year, China detained at least 940 activists, editors, journalists, lawyers, and consultants working on human and civil rights, a 72% increase from the year before, including moderate bloggers and editors, artist Ai Wei Wei’s lawyer, and one eight-year-old girl. As one Chinese news assistant described the situation: “The Party has long grabbed anyone with rebellious political views, and now it has finished grabbing the ones with modest views. Now it’s coming for anyone who speaks at all.”
It might seem unfair to expect attendees and the fashion press to make any reference last night to weighty topics like free speech and human rights abuses. It was, after all, just a party, and one paying homage to the West’s decades-long appropriation from China, rather than The Party.
However, the Met’s China’s evening was just the latest example of Western celebrities’ and industries’ ongoing embrace of a fantasy of China, while deftly managing to completely ignore what’s happening on the ground. This China blind spot is particularly notable because it comes as the western entertainment industry tackles serious issues at home and in other parts of the globe.
In recent years, mainstream studios and actors have taken a critical look at Japan’s war-time atrocities, the brutal poverty of modern India, the history of misogyny in US offices, and North Korea’s dictatorial regime. Actors are supporting wildlife preservation, global women’s rights, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and south Sudanese independence. This year’s Oscars were the most political in years.
The fashion industry is a strong supporter of gay rights, while fashion bloggers call out fat-shaming and probe the roots of the Bangladesh Rana Plaza tragedy. Western musical icons have embraced feminism and the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Though when it comes to China, the world’s most populous country and nearly its largest economy, those strong voices mostly fall silent. Hollywood hasn’t made a movie overtly critical of China’s policies in many years, and western cultural icons don’t chime in when issues are in the news.
In March, for example, five Chinese women were arrested and held for weeks, for planning a rally against sexual harassment, which sparked a global outcry including support from presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton—but celebrities, the fashion industry and Hollywood mostly ignored it.
When pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong continued for months last year, after Beijing signaled it would not allow representative elections as earlier promised, Oscar-winners Common and John Legend were the only celebrities from the world’s largest, most powerful democracy to offer their public support (unless you count Kenny G, who later apologized to China).
There’s a huge list of issues that Chinese movie makers can’t address themselves, because Communist Party censorship won’t let them, but Hollywood won’t either, from the mysterious lives of China’s wealthiest families and top politicians, to the persecution of the current leadership’s political enemies.
Last year, director Oliver Stone courted controversy by telling Chinese movie makers at the Beijing International Film Festival that they needed to make a film about Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution. At this year’s festival, Stone wasn’t there, and attendees Arnold Schwarzenegger and Luc Besson said nothing of the sort.
What’s behind the self-imposed blackout? Money, probably. China’s growing box office clout means that about 25% of the latest Fast & Furious movie’s $1.4 billion box office take is coming from the country—and studios need to have their films approved by Beijing before they can show in China. China is now the world’s largest luxury goods market, contributes a growing part of ad revenues to publishing companies like Conde Nast, and has become necessary stop on global concert circuits—all activities that need the blessing of the government to continue.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising, then, that political issues were swept under the red carpet on Monday night. Instead, the biggest controversy sweeping the Met Gala party seemed to be whether or not an attendee should really be carrying a dragon-themed purse.