I didn’t watch the Oscars.
It sort of hurt. When I was a little girl, all I wanted was to win an Oscar. Well, that and become President. But times have changed, in some respects. You couldn’t convince me to run for any political office. Any acting I do these days takes place off screen.
In other respects, unfortunately, times have not changed. The red carpet still asks men for their thoughts and women for their designers. The event is still nauseatingly extravagant – an excess that feels uncomfortable, even in my own home, in the face of dramatic income inequality. In a year of powerful contributions from minorities, this season saw only one person of color in a mix of 35 nominees for acting, writing, and directing. The whole affair is a performance in how to be tone deaf.
On that note – bravo, Academy. That’s one helluva show. (Just not one I want to watch.)
None of this is new, of course, which is why it’s so stomach churning. The only truly refreshing element of this year’s Oscars was the discourse surrounding it. #OscarsSoWhite and #AskHerMore trended on social media as the public expressed their dismay over the direction of awards season. During the show itself, stars seized the moment and used their platform to criticize inequity.
Host Neil Patrick Harris kicked off the show by saying, “Tonight we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest — I mean brightest.” Best Supporting Actress Patricia Arquette received a standing ovation as she demanded wage equality for women. Best Director Alejandro González Iñárritu made an impassioned plea for sane, compassionate immigration reform. The bitter irony of “Glory” bringing down the house was lost on no one. When Common and John Legend spoke following their win for Best Original Song, they didn’t mince words, either – bitingly criticizing mass incarceration, police brutality, and more. Legend was pitch perfect as he invoked the words of Nina Simone:
It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.
While the moments were laudable, they were spiced with disappointment. Arquette may have brought down the house, but she also framed her comments by tying womanhood to motherhood, excluding childless women, trans women, and more. Her insistence that people of color essentially repay a favor was equally cringe worthy, dripping in the trappings of wealthy white feminism. Iñárritu’s win was flanked by a grossly insensitive green card joke from Sean Penn. Viewers got ringside seats to John Travolta having no respect for personal boundaries of the women around him.
It created a jarring experience for those who wanted to be excited about the high points. Chad Meadows – a dear, brilliant, talented friend who all of you should be reading (his stuff is like the smarter, better written, more even keeled, more effectively intersectional version of what you might see here from time to time) – hit the nail on the head in his reaction piece:
Silence is the lump in your throat that won’t let you stand and cheer. You remember that it’s not you they’re clapping for.
Chad certainly wasn’t alone (despite being peerless with his articulation). On Twitter and Facebook, users lamented these stumbling points, but another complaint got traction as well: rage towards those criticizing the event at all.
These events are about celebrating accomplishment, they’d say. These people have been working their entire lives for this, they’d say. All of the nominees are incredibly talented, they’d say. An acquaintance from high school went so far as to declare she would unfriend anyone who said a negative thing about the event (yup, that included me).
Here’s the thing: they’re not wrong. There’s not a person who wasn’t nominated who didn’t deserve to be. There were real accomplishments worthy of celebration. But you know who else has been working hard towards their dream and has tremendous talent? The thousands of minorities who routinely make up a fraction of the production, casting, and award selections every year.
No one is saying Birdman wasn’t a good movie (well, maybe they are… but not many). What we’re saying when we criticize the event is that the Academy (97% White and 77% Male and 100% old and crotchety) and its kin are squarely out of touch with reality, and that industry members and the public at large deserve better from what is often lauded as the end-all-be-all for achievement in film. And when a whole bunch of privileged white folks get cranky that we’re not just letting them watch the show in peace, it says that their comfort is more important than working towards broader justice.
It also says (to me at least) that we’re doing something right. Sorry Oscar – not sorry.