Oscars 88 is looming comrades! The 88th annual Academy Awards come to ABC on February 28th and, well… there’s been some frank and open discussions about What It All Means. For better or worse, here’s my 2 cents worth. As always, I will note that all opinions expressed herein are my own and not the views of anyone else here at Echobase.
Say what you will about hashtag crusades, they get people talking.
A lot of ink has been spilled in the media over the effects and efficacy of internet activism; the good, the bad and all points in between. Eyes have gone bloodshot and many fingers have developed blisters as sides are weighed in on via keyboards and smart phone screens. Reasons are given and dismissed as to why the one argument was solid and the others flimsy; condescension and respectful disagreements live next door to slur-filled bile and the occasional insightful remark.
Two recent hashtag crusades are particularly polarizing for those of us in the so-called “geek community”: #where’sRey? focuses on the lack of toys featuring one of the breakout female characters of the new “Star Wars” movies in particular and gender imbalance in the toy market in general, while #OscarsSoWhite addresses the fact that the last two Oscars have nominated an exclusively white slate of actors in both Lead and Supporting categories. Each controversy touches on a subject that has bedeviled and challenged America since this country’s creation some 233 years ago. Specifically, the subject of Equality. One might nominally be about gender bias in toys and the other about lack of diversity in our media, but really it comes back to the same problem: the perception that we are still a long way from the “self-evident” truth of us all being “…created equal.”
In many ways, the rise of hashtag activism has done a good job of getting uncomfortable subjects out in the open where everyone can see them. Whether you support a certain view or dismiss it as garbage, ultimately these are subjects that affect all of us and need to be addressed, right? The problem is that these crusades, limited to intense soundbites and headlines; compressed and molded for maximum impact in minimal words, don’t encourage you to actually think about these subjects. I imagine that if Hashtag Activism had a slogan it would be: “I Don’t Want You To Think, I Just Want You To Listen”
I find myself thinking about #where’sRey? & #OscarsSoWhite a lot. I’ve been a movie fan as long as I can remember, and a fan of “Star Wars” almost as long as that. Plus, I’m theoretically supposed to write about my various Geek Obsessions here on this website, so… it sort of comes with the territory. And I found myself pondering things about these controversies that I really hadn’t heard anyone else mentioning. At least, not explicitly.
With the Oscars situation, I have to admit to a certain sense of “so what?” at first blush. I haven’t taken the Oscars seriously as a mark of quality since “Shakespeare In Love” won 7 awards in 1998. To me, the Oscars are as much about “talent” and “quality” as a Subway is about fine dining. (Which isn’t to say that the Oscars don’t occasionally award some very talented people or recognize genuine high quality work, but… you take my meaning.) It’s a pageant. It conveys little of actual substance. Mostly it’s a fun way to spend time with friends and mock insanely expensive outfits.
But the fact remains: this is an annual event, broadcast live all over the planet, with tremendous cultural cachet. The Academy itself describes the Oscar ceremony as “…the highest honor in filmmaking”. It’s not unreasonable then to expect a certain degree of consideration and care with what it chooses to select as being worthy of that honor. And on this point, the Academy has done a pretty lousy job of at least pretending that it isn’t hopelessly out of touch with the culture at large.
Why is that? Is it flat-out racism on the part of the Academy Members – those shadowy, unknowable 6,000 or so “industry professionals” who vote for the nominees and eventual recipients of the “highest honor in filmmaking”? It’s easy to make that case. no question. By all accounts the Academy skews older, white and male: the perfect trifecta for stock racist villainy. But honestly, I think it’s something worse.
I think they just don’t care.
I wager that if you sat down with any of those older, white males that make up the majority of the Academy’s membership, not a single one of them would consider himself to have a prejudicial bone in his body. They are probably by and large intelligent, sensitive people, who would argue (and possibly believe) they are simply nominating and awarding what they thought was “the best” and/or “worthiest” out of what they saw that year.
And that is exactly The Problem, if you will.
Of course an older white man isn’t going to see the worthiness in “Straight Outta Compton”. Of course he isn’t going to see Michael B. Jordan when Sylvester Stallone is on screen. And of course he isn’t going to be comfortable with a movie like “Tangerine”. He might not even consider it to be a “real movie” when (or if) he learns that it was shot on an iPhone. (He may consider “Beasts Of No Nation” a TV movie since it debuted on Netflix at the same time it was released to theaters.)
And here’s where I hear some people say “Wait! What about “12 Years A Slave”? What about Lupita Nyong’o? What about Denzel Washington? They all won! How did these ignorant old white dudes manage that?”
Yeah. About that.
So, here’s the thing: the Academy has been giving these awards out since 1929. That’s 87 years of Oscar nominees and winners. Over those 87 years in the four “Main Categories” – which is to say Best Actor/Actress in Lead & Supporting Roles, Best Picture and Best Director – an African American man or woman has won 16 times.
16 wins. TOTAL. (By the way? No African American man has ever won Best Director. No African American Woman has ever won, either, but then, in the 87 years the Academy has been handing out little gold statues only one woman has ever won for directing. One. As in, the number that comes directly after Zero. As in, Kathryn Bigelow for “Zero Dark Thirty” in 2010.) If you add in people from Latin and Asian backgrounds, that total becomes 30.
30 wins by people of color in the 4 “big” categories in 87 years. That seems… a bit low to me. If you want to argue that the system might not be just a teeeeensy bit flawed, I’d have to argue that yes; even a broken clock can still tell you the correct time twice a day.
So let’s say it isn’t about actual, intentional racism, but we can agree there’s a flaw. What is the problem?
I suggest two possible scenarios:
One: there simply haven’t been that many people of color making top-notch, award-worthy films or giving performances deserving of the “highest honor” in movies. And this can be explained by years of segregation (which was bad!) and well, now there’s more than there used to be (because we outlawed racism!), but really, uh, it’s just a question of volume. It’ll correct itself over time! (I call this the “pleasantly stupid” option)
Two: the overwhelmingly older, white male members of the Academy, who get very offended if you suggest that they are in any way racist, and, as I noted above, are probably mostly decent, sensitive people, simply do not see a lack of diversity in their selections as a problem. After all, they aren’t racist, so, how can they be making these selections out of any kind of bias? It’s about “the best” after all, right? That’s why they gave “Forrest Gump” Best Picture over “Pulp Fiction”. Because it was “the best picture” of 1994, right? And that’s why they gave “Driving Miss Daisy” Best Picture over “Do The Right Thing”. Oh, except… wait. “Do The Right Thing” wasn’t even fucking nominated.
This is where the insidious nature of “Privilege” really gets problematic, comrades: no, it’s not racist that they didn’t nominate a single person of color this year or last. It’s worse. They simply didn’t even think about it. It’s the Privilege of Ignorance. That’s what scares me. Because it means, in essence, that a bunch of smart, well-meaning people simply didn’t look past their own experience and consider that Michael B Jordan should have been at least nominated alongside Matt Damon or Eddie Redmayne.
(Nothing against either of those guys, mind you. I loved “The Martian”)
The questions raised by #where’sRey? are even trickier. And this is where I’m probably going to really step on a few toes, so, forgive me, comrades. I mean well.
I don’t particularly feel like there’s a whole lot to debate in this issue. Female characters have been marginalized or outright ignored in the action toy market for a long time. The overall lack of Rey-themed merchandise is simply the most recent but, thanks to the overwhelming success of “Star Wars Episode VII”, most visible example of the belief that “Girls Don’t Buy Action Figures & Boys Will Not Buy Action Figures Of Girls”.
There’s no way to argue that attitude doesn’t exist in the toy industry. There’s no grey area here; it’s just the way they think.
(And for the record, there ARE Rey figures out there. But again, let’s go to the numbers. Thanks to the lovely folks over at JediBusiness.com, we can see that there were 69 “Force Awakens” action figures released since September 2015, with the majority being in the “classic Kenner figure” 3/34” size. Of those 69 figures, 2 were Captain Phasma and 3 were Rey. 5 “female” figurines. Out of 69.)
So my question is, why? That’s what I kept wondering as #where’sRey? lit up comments sections and twitter feeds. This is a fucking goldmine, and they’re missing out. Even ignoring the “unnamed industry source” who confirmed that the lack of Rey and Black Widow figures wasn’t an accident, the weak tea excuse that it was all “part of the plan” to not give spoilers away seemed, to me, disingenuous. Somehow, “I really like making money, but I’m going to preserve the artistic integrity of the movie and not alert people that Rey’s a Jedi” just sounded like bullshit. Call me cynical.
So. Really? Was it really just dunder-headed ol’ Sexism?
Well… I guess. Sort of. But honestly? In addition to that?
I think it’s fear.
Specifically? I think it’s a fear that if boys play with “girl’s toys” there is a belief that it will cause boys grow up to be “sissies”. I think that marketers really and truly believe that they can’t or indeed shouldn’t put girls into action figure lines because parents won’t buy them for fear of sissifying” their sons. The same may hold true for girls and “boy’s toys”, (the utterly patronizing Lego “girl’s line” being a case in point) but I honestly think that girl’s are, frankly, less of a consideration. Again, call me cynical, but it seems there’s a lot more fear around the “de-masculinization” of boys than there is around the “tomboying” of girls.
And here’s where the problematic nature of sexism gets really insidious, comrades: I somehow doubt that this theory of mine would even be consciously considered by many of the people involved in making these decisions. But it’s telling that the toy line for “Episode VII” has roughly the same ratio of female figures to male as “A New Hope” did back in 1977, even while the movie itself made a decided effort to put many more women (and people of color, by the way) on screen.
In a way, I blame Dr. Fredric Wertham. His book “Seduction Of The Innocent”, first published in 1954, made the case for the idea that comics were turning kids into juvenile delinquents. What’s worse, comics were turning kids into homosexual delinquents. (He was particularly obsessed with Batman & Robin, whom he described as “…psychologically homosexual”.)
To say that his evidence was shaky is to be kind; more accurately, Wertham outright fabricated much of the research he details in “Seduction…”. Yet his influence still lingers, Banquo-like, over the comics industry today. And that industry is now so enmeshed in pop culture that it seems like sad logic that those imaginary fears he obsessed over continue to haunt it today.
I do try to see things in a positive light, however. I realize that many people feel that both #where’sRey? and #OscarsSoWhite are frivolous distractions at best and something more sinister at worse. They’re neither. I actually think they’ve helped refocus attention on the bizarre, ongoing evolution of America – “that strange dance” as Wynton Marsalis once called it. He was talking race relations, but I think that dance has opened up. Everybody’s in there now, trying to find the beat. Searching for the “self-evident”. Hoping to get a little more equal.
Get past the hashtag. Listen and think. It’s surprisingly rich out there.
And enjoy the Oscars. You’ll probably hear me screaming at the TV.