The Oscars are nonsense. They’re Hollywood’s Homecoming Queen elections, as insular, as clique-ish, and as disconnected from any actual merit as any Homecoming election in any rich white high school. Rich white people congratulating each other for the kinds of achievements attainable only by people sitting atop an obscene amount of money– their own or someone else’s. They ask you to believe that the actual best acting, best directing, best editing, and best design of the year just always happen to be located in the one narrow strip of filmmaking that (entirely coincidentally!) has the most funding.
So the Oscars are more or less the Tonys of the filmworld– limited to a very narrow strip of exceptionally well-funded work while we all pretend the awards somehow represent the best of the nation’s work as a whole.
Most of the artists who receive Oscars or Tonys did a fine, in many cases excellent, job. I begrudge them nothing and honestly wish them nothing but the best. But it’s important to remember that we don’t give awards for the “best” work in theatre or film because we don’t even consider most work, and, most importantly, there’s no objective way to measure whose artistry is “the best” once you’ve eliminated some of the obvious worst– and, let’s face it, when it comes to Oscars for acting, even that’s seldom done.
We give these kinds of awards based on how an artist makes us feel; generally, how an artist makes us feel about ourselves. There’s an old saying: “When the audience cries, it’s not about you; it’s about them.” The people who vote for these awards are no different.
Despite the fact that these awards are meaningless as measures of artistic merit, they contain an immense cultural value. A great deal of that stems from the narrative of artistic supremacy created by Broadway and Hollywood. There are an entrenched group of extremely wealthy and powerful people whose fortunes depend on you continuing to believe that Broadway and/or Hollywood represent the pinnacle of American performative art. They’ve built and expertly marketed a superstructure of dreams and wishes that will make people who’ve never worked in either Broadway or Hollywood defend their artistic supremacy as if they’re defending their own children. I actually admire the way Broadway and Hollywood have controlled that narrative. There’s a terrible beauty to that level of cultural manipulation.
An immense part of that narrative of supremacy is rooted in the cultural supremacy that comes from cultural saturation, something only money can buy. A film like Fifty Shades of Grey–a film of questionable merit on many fronts— had the financial backing to play in theatres all across the country (and the world, but our cultural exports are a story for another blog), saturate the market with advertising, and command enormous press attention, garnering $166 million at the box office ($570.5 globally) and a basket of award nominations for The Weeknd for Best Original Song (Oscars and Golden Globes among them), while literally hundreds of much better films lacked the financial backing to receive such culturally potent– and lucrative– attention. Fifty Shades of Grey becomes, therefore, a permanent part of our culture, attaining a position of influence unrelated to merit, created by the wealth of its backers. People in the BDSM community were largely aghast at the misconceptions about themselves and their lives now lodged like a tick into the national consciousness. Now people who have never met anyone in the BDSM community “know” what “those people” are like, will make decisions about “those people” based on that. The power of cultural saturation coupled with the myth of artistic supremacy is immense. Everyone sees X + X comes from an “important” source = X is truth, even when X is demonstrable bullshit.
This is why, despite the fact that I will laugh in your face if you tell me the Oscars have artistic meaning, I think it’s crucial that we look closely at the messages we’re sending when we shut people of color out of those awards, because those messages have immense power in the real world.
First of all, do not bother to comment that a number of people of color were nominated for the Oscars this year, including Best Director and Best Original Song, mentioned above. I know many people who work behind the camera, and I am keenly aware that the current discourse is limited to the actor awards. It irritates me that tech people, directors, designers, and writers are so easily disregarded, and that the work of actors is regarded as so much more important in a medium where the work of the actor is actually of far less import than the underscoring, cinematography, and editing. The cultural primacy of the film actor exists, whether I like it or not. There’s a culturally important mythology around film actors that just doesn’t exist for most of us behind the camera. They are our mythological figures– our Achilles, our Ajax, our Helen, even our Artemis, Athena, Hermes, Apollo. We create unending mythology about them and their lives. The mythological Jennifer Lawrence is a combination of Artemis and Dionysus in our culture right now. Yet the real Jennifer Lawrence is just a young woman, no different than any other. We have raised her (more accurately, a mythologized version of her) to a mythological height that makes what she eats, what she wears, what she says, what she does, and who she sleeps with a matter of national interest, just as humans once created stories about what their gods ate, wore, said, did, and nailed. Film actors are seen, in essence, as metaphors for Human.
Because the Academy members are nearly uniformly white men over 60, the awards are almost always given to other white people– human metaphors that are emotionally potent for the person voting on the award. When an award is given to an actor of color, these older white men are still voting based on how the artist makes them feel about themselves– in this case, self-congratulatedly “not racist.” Then, satisfied that they got the Good White Person cookie, they go right back to nominating and awarding reflections of themselves.
So when we choose a thin, able-bodied, all-white pantheon to honor for film acting, it says that the people who are the best metaphors for Human are thin, white, and physically “perfect.” Our culture is filled to the brim with negative portrayals of people of color. When children grow up, they look to the culture at large to determine what’s expected of them. Are we really OK with a culture that tells children of color– on the cusp of becoming the largest population of children in this country— that they’re not as worthy as white children? For that matter, are we really OK with telling our girls that their worth is indelibly attached to their attractiveness to men? Because we do both, all the time, and they’ve resulted in a million different kinds of cultural and personal problems.
So I applaud the Academy’s response to the current controversy. I think increasing the amount of women and people of color on the panel is the best thing the Academy can do, since that diversity will result in more diverse choices. What needs to happen concurrently, of course, is better representation of women and people of color across the board in Hollywood, just as there should be on Broadway and across the professional theatre community as a whole.
But let me be clear here: (coughs, turns on mic) NOTHING CHANGES IF ALL THE GATEKEEPERS CONTINUE TO BE WHITE MEN.
The Academy is making the best possible decision. I hope it happens in time to make swift changes, not glacially slow ones, as is too often the case. And our own best possible decision is to increase the number of women and people of color who are in gatekeeping positions of power in the rest of the film industry and in theatre.
It’s a massive problem if the solution to a lack of diversity becomes asking white men to please hire more women and people of color, thank you. We need more women and people of color in these decision-making, content-creating positions of power or all we’re doing is preserving the cultural primacy and power of white men.
I’m not saying that we should fire all white men and give their jobs to women and people of color. I AM saying that when these jobs become available– when it’s time to hire artistic directors, producers, and the like– let’s consider hiring someone other than the white guy every single time. I’ve been watching this for a couple of decades now, and almost every time a position of power opens up, it’s filled by a man, usually white, always able-bodied, usually straight. Out of 70 LORT member theatres, 50 (71.4%) have white male Artistic Directors, 16 (22.8%) are led by white women, 4 (5.7%) by men of color, and zero by women of color. When you consider that white men are just 31% of the population, that’s significant favoritism at play.
It’s nonsense to say that there are just fewer women qualified to produce either theatre or film. The indie world is dominated by women. We just don’t promote them to the high-paid gigs as often as we do the straight white guys because our hiring practices are exactly the same as our awarding practices– the white guys in power are looking for reflections of themselves.
We’re asking the existing people in power who created the lack of diversity in the first place to create the diversity we want. And they will, to a point, if we push hard enough. But as soon as the cultural attention moves elsewhere, those people– straight white able-bodied male people in power– will go right back to making decisions that reflect their own experiences of the world– will go on making decisions that mythologize people like themselves– because they are human, and that’s what humans tend to do. And yes, there are many white men who are committed to diversity in their theatre or film companies, but they are, obviously, the exception or we wouldn’t be here, sitting in the middle of dismal diversity stats.
All I’m asking is that we, who work in these industries, make conscious decisions to include women and people of color when we’re hiring for these gatekeeping positions. We understand the immense cultural power of the actor, but we who work in these industries– most of us behind the scenes– also understand the even more potent gatekeeping power of the people who choose the actors– and everyone else on staff.
There’s nothing wrong with telling stories from a straight white male perspective. They are humans who deserve to have their stories told. But we need to make room for the other 69% of our population as well. The way to do that is to ensure that the people making the decisions about what stories get told, how they’re told, and who tells them are representative of the population as a whole.
In case you’re interested:
Over the course of its history, 66 Black actors have been nominated for an Oscar and 15 have won; 28 Latino actors have been nominated and 9 have won; 17 Asian actors have been nominated and 4 have won. This is the 88th Oscars, meaning 352 awards to actors have been given overall out of 1760 nominees.
Black actors nominated = 3.75% of total nominations; Black actors awarded = 4% of total awarded
Latino actors = 1.6% of total nominations; 2.5% of total awarded
Asian actors = 1% of total nominations; 1.1% of total awarded
For comparison, Black people are 13.2% of the US population; Latinos are 17%, and Asians are 5.6%.