Let's Talk about the Oscars

By Taylor Galla ‘18
Opinion Poll Columnist

Director Spike Lee is among those boycotting the Oscars. Photo courtesy of Variety.

Director Spike Lee is among those boycotting the Oscars. Photo courtesy of Variety.

When I was younger, the Oscars was a glamorous evening of my favorite actresses donning elegant gowns and handsome actors with shiny shoes gathered in one large movie theater to talk about everything they’d done that year. It was a beautiful evening, and I watched it in awe. However, now, after growing up with my holistic and interdisciplinary education, many flaws and problematic facets of this event were revealed. As I learned about the history of prejudice, discrimination and oppression — and became aware of it in my everyday life and the lives of my peers — I started to see it all around me. Being a white woman from an upper-class family, these facets of society do not affect me in the same way that they do many of my peers, and my awareness and advocacy is the best I can do. So this week, I decided to focus my column on the Academy Award nominations this year, which include exclusively white actors and actresses in the most prestigious 4 categories — just like last year. This is a pattern that many have noticed in previous years-- as the Oscars has often been charged with being disproportionately white in general, but this year was especially bad. So, I set out to find out what the Scripps student body thinks about this.

I asked the question “What are your thoughts on the lack of diversity in Academy Award nominations this year?” and got a total of 12 responses. The most popular response, which constituted half of the total responses, was “I think that the academy in itself is not the problem but is just revealing a much larger problem in Hollywood.” “I think that award shows are useless and obsolete anyway, and don’t represent the preferences of the general American public” and “I’m angry and disappointed in the academy” each received two responses. “I’m a bit upset but I’ll still watch” received one response, as did “Other.”

An extremely notable comment is “I’m honestly not sure what we expect from an organization that’s overwhelmingly white, male, and over sixty. If we want to be in a place where we can reasonably expect nominations to be both fair and diverse, the structure of the Academy has to change... which means either their standards to become a voting member have to change or Hollywood itself has to change. The latter would probably be more significant, but it would also be significantly more difficult.” Also, “I think the Academy is nothing more than a self-congratulatory clique of old white men. I’m not sure why we have ever cared about what they think, but since the entire world seems to — yeah. They’re racists, sexists, and onanists, and their track record shows that.”

This group of responses did not surprise me in the slightest, as it reflects the general opinion of those who pay attention to issues of this sort — everyone is pretty fed up with this blatant display of bias and discrimination. (http://www.buzzfeed.com/tamerragriffin/no-actors-of-color-were-nominated-for-an-academy-award-this#.pcNrOqGZrv)  Most people have been aware that the Academy is a predominantly white and male institution for a while now, however not having any black actors nominated for any of the major acting awards is just too much — it makes too big of a statement and points out the flaws in this supposed “reflection” that is not how America’s population exists today. The U.S. is an incredibly diverse place, and, along with all of its racism and discriminatory practices that still exist today in more subtle but arguably just as harmful ways as those throughout history, there are states- like California- in which the majority population consists of people of color. This heterogeneity is something to be treasured and is also something that is not going to change— in fact, much research shows that it’s just going to further itself with time. That is why the Academy Awards, like many many other institutions given stature and praise in the U.S. for the work that it does, needs to adapt along with this racial climate.

However, as much as the Academy needs to change, I also do not think we can blame this entirely on them and their mostly white male voting base. Sure, any organization that lacks diversity is not going to make decisions with an intersectionally progressive perspective. But I think we also need to examine the larger Hollywood climate, and the discrepancies between the number of white people involved in blockbuster films on and off the screen and people of color who hold an equal position. Let’s focus on actors and actresses, because that is who most of America sees every day in the content they view and thus who holds the most power over those viewers. Most Hollywood films, or at least most of the popular ones, have predominantly white faces on the screen, indicating a cultural bias towards wanting to see those people over anyone else. This is due to their extreme prominence throughout Hollywood history and thus a fabricated message of superiority established through visual codes. People have been taught that white people, as opposed to people of color, belong in Hollywood and on the movie screen. This is the story the white heteropatriarchy has been socializing the public to prefer; it’s become familiar and therefore comforting to some. Whether this is just another manifestation of the larger public’s inherent racism, a result of social division between races and therefore a lack of interest in another group’s culture and preferences or any other number of complex reasons I could go into-—it’s the reality of the situation. The only way to remedy a problem is to first accept that it’s there, and I believe the public has done that.

As outlined above, the problem is way bigger than just a group of white men voting on what movies they want to critically acclaim. In my opinion, the conversation we all need to be having is about the inherent prejudice on the screen in general, in the larger Hollywood plethora of viewing experiences, and not with the select group of films battling it out for this year’s gold man statue because these do not reflect the movies that people went to see this year. Perhaps they do for some, but personally there have been many years in a row now when myself and most of the people around me haven’t seen most of the movies nominated in the top categories for the Oscars. They are well made, beautiful films that say a lot (both intentionally and not), but they are not the reason that the general public goes to the movies— so it’s this content that we need to be discussing.

The visual is one of the most powerful forces in the U.S. and in the world today, and through its structured biases it has dictated many messages to people of all races and identities about who should or should not be seen. Overthrowing the patterns that persist within this force, as well as the imprints it has left on the American public, is a daunting and seemingly near-impossible task. The noise after this round of nominations, however, is a step in the right direction— and is a conversation that we would not be able to be having without the movements of the last few years. It’s notable, it’s historical and it’s something.