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What We're Really Talking About When We're Talking About Diversity At Awards Shows

By Riley Silverman | Think Pieces | January 29, 2016 |

By Riley Silverman | Think Pieces | January 29, 2016 |

So it shouldn’t be a huge shock to anyone that there’s a storm of controversy brewing around this year’s Oscars. It’s not unlike the storm of controversy brewing around the Oscars last year, and pretty much every Oscars but more so now that all of us have really started to get a nuanced understanding of how hashtags work. The very basic, and very glaring, issue is the almost complete lack of diversity among the nominees. This is made most painfully obvious via the immediate awareness of skin tones in the lineup, leading of course to #OscarsSoWhite as such an effective and pretty hard to deny hashtag.

But then people did start to try to deny it. We see commentary from actors like Charlotte Rampling, Julie Delpy, and even Michael Caine, say it ain’t so Michael… and a guest column for the Hollywood Reporter written by Deer Hunter actress Rutayna Alda in which she takes offense the idea that an actor could ever be racist. Delpy’s issue was that she felt Hollywood treats women even worse than it does ethnic minorities, seemingly unaware that some people of color are also women. Tyrese Gibson weighed in on the topic as well, commenting on how Hollywood favors LGBT people over people of color, seemingly unaware that some people of color are also queer.

Tyrese stated:

“If Ellen DeGeneres or Andy Cohen of Watch What Happens Live was hosting the Oscars and the word got out that if you happen to be gay or homosexual you got blackballed and no nomination because of your sexual preference, they would have stepped down a long time ago,” he said. “And it would have been fire heat controversy all over the place until the system changed.”

The detail that he may have considered researching before making this statement, is that actually no openly gay person has ever won an Oscar, and only two have even been nominated. A few have come out later in their careers, but essentially, the exact scenario that Tyrese imagines above exists. Because while the entertainment industry is stereotypically the place where liberals go to shove our queer values down America’s throats, the truth is that from a business standpoint, Hollywood is not the progressive oasis that it is considered to be. It’s much more like that part in (Oscar nominated) Mad Max: Fury Road when Immortan Joe turns on the Citadel’s water, only to shut it off quickly and remind those on the ground that they mustn’t get too addicted to its nourishment.

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The numbers aren’t good. The amount of non-white people nominated even over just the last 25 years is still only 12.4 percent. Those numbers get even more dismal when you look at only non-black minorities, or women of color. The list of women of color who have won an Oscar for Best Actress in a Lead Role is as follows:

1.) Halle Berry.

It almost makes one wonder if women would even be among the acting nominees if the categories weren’t segregated to ensure that we have to be. But we don’t need to hypothesize about other marginalizations when there’s already such a clear gap right in front of us with the system we have (Directors, anyone?). But this is where the disconnect starts to happen. I think there is a deep miscommunication between the varying factions in this debate. Which brings me back to the glaring flaw in people like Rutanya Alda’s commentary on actors and racism: People aware of racial bias in the voting for the Academy Awards don’t actually believe that the Academy is some shadowy cabal meeting in secret chambers plotting how to keep black people out of the nominations for the Greater Good (The GREATER GOOD)

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But this is an outdated and actually harmful reduction of the nature of bias, racial or otherwise. Yes, overt racists do exist, and if I ever want to forget that I just need to tweet something slightly controversial and they’ll be sure to let me know what my last name means about me. The genius though of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag is that it actually points out what is happening on a mass scale. When you have narrowed the field of people in the room where it happens to reflect mostly one specific group you’re going to consistently get choices from that group that far and away reflect that group. If the Academy was 94 percent geeks the Best Picture nominees would be all Marvel, Star Wars, and that one indie sci-fi movie that you ended up watching online months later. If it were all IKEA employees, they’d be films about vaguely Ziggy-looking dudes trying really hard to put together furniture.

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The system is so fundamentally flawed and we have known it for years. Every time we see an actor do some ridiculous stunt for a movie, be it pretending to be disabled, or gay, or eating meat when he’s a vegetarian, we call it ‘Oscar bait.’ We’re literally so aware that actors have learned how to game the system that we have a name for it, and yet we act shocked when the system is exposed for its flaws.

The solution should be simple, get different voices in the voting pool and you’ll see a change in the results of those votes. Anyone who has scrolled past an article about gerrymandering in the last election cycle should at least understand that people are talking about that concept. But where it stops being simple is where we run into the Julie Delpy or Tyrese Gibson problem. Members of individual minority groups see the progress other groups have, or the arguments about that group, and naturally consider the “Okay, but what about us” mentality.

There is this flawed, ingrained mentality when it comes to social justice and civil rights in American society that imagines equality as some sort of queued process. “Women get the vote, Jim Crow laws get repealed, gay people get to get married, slowdown trans people it’s not your turn yet.” And this concept seems to be acceptable rhetoric in conversations about diversity, but with all due respect, is total bullshit. This is a construct that works for the Matrix. This is a human hierarchy which prioritizes the oppression of one group over another, and again and again in a cycle, a wheel, and, well, you know what Daenerys Targaryen says about wheels:

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If we are going to get true diversity, not as a buzzword, but as an established reality of the changing and growing voice of our society, as a reflection of those who have already been among us whose voices have been underserved for far too long, we need to stop looking at these situations as divided problems, and we need to look at them with an intersectional point of view. I think it’s important that we have this conversation, and I want to have it now. I don’t want to have it now for just race and then need to have it again five years down the road for sexuality. I don’t want to have to have it again later for gender, and then again for race when we realize we forgot to even mention say Latinos, or Asians, or Native Americans. The era when we treated this stuff like a waiting game is over and we need to, collectively, come to understand that. All of us who feel like our voices are being shouted down need to combine them together into one large voice.

The more different voices we can get on the Academy, the better. The Oscars have struggled for years with bad ratings and declining interest and one of the reasons for this is that the choices have seemed more and more out of touch with what audiences have connected with over the years. Imagine though, how much harder the studios making “popcorn” movies might work to make sure they’re actually good rather than just marketable if they had even the possibility of getting Oscar prestige on top of it. A Lord of the Rings type win once a decade or so might not be such a rarity.

Likewise, diverse voices have long struggled to get our work greenlit or funded in the face of an uncertain market. Despite the lagging enthusiasm, Oscar wins still drive an element of commerce. The more voices drive the selection of what is “Oscar bait,” the more that currently “risky” prospects will seem like gambles worth taking on. Maybe we’ll stop getting so many “brave” performances of straight boys playing queer and able-bodied people playing handicap if executives stopped seeing gold statues hidden under their scripts.

Barring an apocalypse, the internet is not going away, and this unprecedented access to unlimited platforms is only going to grow. The cracks in the dam have formed, and we need to recognize that this is the reality of where are now, and stop trying to craft this new world by old rules.

Riley Silverman is a comedian and writer and might possibly be just a little into style and fashion and Doctor Who. You can follow her on Twitter.

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