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A Night at the Oscars: Systems of Representation, and Their Failure for the Rest of Us

By Justin Kilian, NCCJ Intern

The Oscars – A pinnacle in America’s Hollywood culture. It’s a fine night! The best of the best, our living definitions of success and beauty are sculpted perfectly for the evening, hair just right, swathed in coveted designer couture, socially and cosmetically putting their best face forward. We love it. More than half the country tunes in for the Oscars every year in hopes of their favorite actor going home with the gold, usually over hors d’oeuvres and cocktail parties.

There’s a lot behind the satin curtain of Hollywood wonder that we don’t see. Millions are spent with the hopes of the media mirror reflecting, gold glinting at producers, now hopeful benefactors. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale’s Best Actor nominated performance this year) himself says “It takes millions to make millions.”

Such is the lifestyle of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

In the very city where the Dolby Theatre (formerly Kodak) resides, those deemed particularly unacceptable by our institutions reside in the Greater LA area, homeless. About 58,000, to be exact.

58,000 people starving while millions are spent assembling for titles. Seems a bit like the class system in the "Hunger Games", doesn’t it?

I say it to all of my kids in our youth groups – “Why write about a fictional dystopia when you can write about the one we’re in?” This is not to say that we are the epitome of Orwellian oppression – On the contrary, we are unaware of the situation. It is not so blatantly totalitarian to warrant such haste categorization. There appears to be no problem, because no problem is mentioned, albeit acknowledged.

But there is. Those of us affected know there is. In the case of last weeks Academy Awards, it’s wired to us for miles, the resonance of each syllable from the coveted mouths reaching soaked up by magnets in a microphone, quivering, but a steadfast shock-absorber, converted into electronic frequencies, trafficked to satellite dishes darting out similar radio frequencies, received and retranslated into electricity, crackling through white noise to form coherent sound… tubed right into our living room.

For some of us, the media pipeline does not deliver entertainment. It is a reminder of the general value we are attributed when we step outside of our doors and into the public eye.

I am a firm believer in the power of media. How can one not be when one examines it’s total influence on our daily lives? If utilized in the proper way, it could serve as a powerful agent in breaking down the institutions of injustice and power that we live in. Instead, it is a valuable insurer of such a dynamic.

The Academy is one such facet of this influence, recognizing the prestigious accomplishments of individuals within the art of media making. As with much of modern day media, those individuals fall into a very specific sector of the population based on what characteristics they possess.

In this sense, the Oscars is the paramount of representation in modern media. It is no mystery that Oscar winners are very likely to be white (if we are indeed counting on the predictability of past trends). Indeed, black excellence has only seen four winners for Best Actor, one winner for Best Actress, four for Best Supporting Actor, and six for Best Supporting Actress, the latest edition being this year's Lupita Nyong'o. Asian actors have only won three awards, Latino artists six, and zero actor nominations for Indigenous Americans and Pacific Islanders. 

A win in any of these categories is a historical landmark, perhaps not in the traditional sense, but for those aspiring artists of color and those impressionable youth watching, a cultural eustress. Whoopie Goldberg began acting when she saw Nichelle Nichols in her role on Star Trek. Nyong'o herself was inspired to begin her career upon seeing Oprah's performance in The Color Purple. There is no denying the extreme power that positive media representation of all types has on the target marginalized groups.

If the power of seeing our people is so great, why aren't  we seeing more  of it?

If the Academy is a reflection of the pervasive system we live in, in which only certain groups of people who fit groups of social criteria (or appear to), then it is doing  it's societal duty by favoring ruling class groups and snubbing equally deserving marginalized groups. When we do see certain groups depicted, their accomplishments are whittled down to the base stereotype of their group. A skilled Latina actress does not  become her role with finesse, she channels her "fiery emotion" to the camera. 

This is still applicable, in light of recent events. Jared Leto's win for portraying a transgender woman precedes itself - It is an act of violence upon the trans* community. It equates transgender status as a role to be played. Leto's Rayon is not really a woman, she is a man playing dress up. The man in a dress trope is not new, and the Academy's recognition in effect rivets that attitude into the ground for all of it's viewers. Mind you, trans* people were not mentioned at all throughout the entire evening, even during Leto's acceptance speech. This would not seem significant upon first glance, but taken into the context of the later evening, is insulting. Nyong'o, a member of a marginalized group, gave a kind word to all of those who endured the horrors of the American Slave trade, and all of those currently in bondage today.

Just something to think about.


About the National Conference for Community and Justice

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Tue, 7 December 2021