If you didn’t have a chance to watch the live broadcast of the Oscars yesterday because you were, say, at work during the hours of 9-5 and didn’t have time to check twitter on your phone under the desk every five minutes, then you may still be catching up on all the huge news. Such as hilarious mispronounced-name gags and mortified ladies wearing identical outfits. You know, world-changing stuff.
Excuse my cynical tone. Usually I keep a tuned ear to the ground during nominations and track the trajectories of the hopefuls list throughout the awards year with more than a little interest. The Oscars is one of the few entertainment ceremonies that retains a level of class and character to its proceedings; you can rely on a fairly competitive and interesting shortlist, and relatively accurate results, as well as the usual in-jokes and MC mockery to add some levity to the pantomime (and remind us that actors are just like us, only infinitely awesomer). Yesterday’s Oscars, though, were underwhelming, leaving a strange blended aura of indifference and half-hearted rage in its wake, and it seems I’m not the only one who felt this, with the lowest ratings recorded for the broadcast since 2009.
Don’t get me wrong; there were some great movies and artists up for recognition, and more independent, non-blockbustery quirkiness in the mix than the usual big-budget, star-studded dramas that seem to have been developed solely for awards season (for prime examples peruse 2014’s list). This would usually have made me very happy indeed, even though the heavily represented bio-pic genre seems to grow more ponderous each year. The Grand Budapest Hotel, Boyhood and Birdman were examples of original artistic brilliance. And I would have been equally happy for any of the nominated Best Actors to win, but there is a kitsch irony to Eddie Redmayne’s triumph against perennial favourites Benedict Cumberbatch and Bradley Cooper (the latter of whom would be forgiven for developing an ‘always a bridesmaid, never a bride’ complex).
But despite these fun details, I’m aware of a growing and increasingly resolute frustration with the whole glittering saga. The Oscars circus has always been an oxymoronic blend of the trivial and the significant: endless ‘best-dressed’ commentaries, hype and sparkly glamour alongside acknowledgement of some of the most talented artists of our age producing extraordinary works of artistic genius, meaningful tributes and often well-directed awareness of real issues, such as this year’s ALS and Alzheimer’s. This kind of self-illusive hypocrisy is what keeps the masses hooked: we, the global community, may take trivial pleasure in the vainer details, but underneath we’re really all about the serious issues, right? Well, lately this stamp of loosely justified self-righteousness seems to be wearing thin and cheap.
Let’s get down to it. The schoolyard frenzying over who can be the most self-righteous witch-hunter of discriminatory comments/actions/situations is getting annoying at best and downright offensive at worst. I’m not talking about Patricia Arquette’s speech, a genuine effort to raise awareness about a serious issue; I’m talking about the subsequent reaction to her comments and the general trend toward gleeful finger-pointing that the social-media furor indicates. It seems the new cool is to try and find the angle of discrimination-offence in almost anything, no matter how contrived and ridiculous, and blow it off-the-charts out of proportion, making a quasi-satirical mockery of the very issue people are quibbling about in the first place.
I’m not trivialising these issues. I’m explaining that by making discrimination-witch-hunting a media sport these issues are being trivialised. Without getting into a lengthy discussion on that happily misused and misdirected word ‘privilege’, let’s think about this for a moment. Last year people were rejoicing over the increased ‘diversity’ in the Oscar’s lineup, though no one seems willing to identify exactly what was diverse about it. Mainly because doing so would require acknowledgment of what diversity actually means, and whether people are willing to go into lengthy discussions about race, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, physical and mental health, unspecified hardships endured, and socio-economic background to determine exactly who those ‘non-diverse’ privilegeds are. I mean it’s great that Chiwetel Ejiofor was in the Best Actor list last year, but wait, he’s British. So which category of diversity does he fit into? Racial, ethnic, or national? Or simply the politically incorrect ‘skin-colour’ category? And does the fact his parents were highly-educated professionals (tragically his father died when he was 11) weigh into the conversation.
So now because of the loosely defined celebration of diversity in last year’s list, the same anonymous crowd can complain about the lack of diversity in this year’s list and feel justifiably safe behind the ambiguity of this statement. But wait, now, this is the second year in a row that a Mexican national has won the Best Director award, one of the ‘Top 6’ Oscars in terms of prestige and notoriety. Both Cuarón and Iñárritu have been working in Hollywood for more than a decade and Sean Penn’s offhand Green card comment when Iñárritu took the stage was met with the obligatory laughter. But shouldn’t someone be celebrating the triumph of immigrant nationals to win such remarkable acclaim in their adopted country? Hooray, diversity! Especially in an era when immigration and immigrant rights are such hot topics. Already I can sense some hackles rising about the idea of ‘privilege’ in immigration discussions. Does privilege or lack thereof count when you willingly choose to be an immigrant? Maybe it depends on what you were emigrating from. So how do we rate that level of privilege/diversity in a nice broad politically-correct stroke? Sigh.
It’s probably not even worth mentioning that Cuarón’s father was a nuclear physicist. Or that there hasn’t been a woman on the Best Director list for the last six years running. Where do those facts weigh into the diversity argument?
Enter Patricia Arquette making a directed and articulate statement about an issue that is personally meaningful to her (and to, say, more than half of the world’s population, ie, women) and this is quickly overshadowed by a backstage comment about “people of colour”. Those up in self-righteous arms about her ‘insensitivity’ accuse her of diminishing the fact that often racial minorities struggle from greater gender inequality than her ‘privileged’ white sisters. Hang on. Did she deny that was the case? Did she place ‘white’ women in a greater endangered category than women ‘of colour’? Let’s review the quote:
“And it’s time for all the women in America and all the men that love women, and all the gay people, and all the people of colour that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.”
No she didn’t, actually. Her statement was about women. Not just white women. Her statement was about all women facing inequality in whatever sphere of race or ethnicity or socio-economic status, or vocation they currently inhabit. Maybe she would have been safe had she verbalised:
“…and by people of colour I mean men of colour should fight for their women too. And I also mean people of other nationalities that also happen to be ‘white’, well they can fight for their women too. Oh and they can also fight for other women because any colour of person is entitled to fight for any colour of woman. And by ‘gay people’ I don’t mean that lesbians aren’t women, so lesbians can fight for women too, and not just gay women but straight women also. Oh, and transgender women, and intergender people can fight for women too, and also even people with disabilities or mental health problems can fight for women too, and even if they went to a community college and never got into an ivy-league college, then those women can also be fought for, and even those women who are happy not earning an income and being a housewife, they can also be fought for … um, let me see, who else? Have I covered every base?”
I’m just going to say it. I think it’s ridiculous that a woman can be accused of being racist because of something she didn’t say, or didn’t qualify in enough detail (God forbid I make the same mistake), in the heat of a post-adrenalin unscripted interview. And that this single comment then becomes more important than the entire speech she gave just moments before. As a woman, am I allowed to be offended by the lack of respect this shows to the primary issue raised, ie, women’s rights, or does this then, by default, make me racist too?
Before the blood begins to truly boil, should we perhaps take a step back and ask ourselves why we buy the Oscars as a serious forum for social discussion in the first place, when the entire thing is an extravagantly overblown circus of wealth and shiny dresses? How can we, with straight faces, attack one person’s ‘privileged’ platform when the entire frenetic charade of red carpet glorification simply serves to celebrate ‘privilege’ in all it’s gaudy excess? Surely I’m not the only one who can see this blatant disconnect.
Maybe we should do away with the ‘Actor’ and ‘Actress’ qualifiers altogether. Since women’s rights is no longer an important issue (!) then surely we don’t need to differentiate between male and female performers. We could just call it Best Person Who Acted and see how many women get nominated. Then, if worst comes to worst, we can complain about another lack in diversity. There. The universal problems of discrimination have been solved.
See the full list of nominees and winners here.