Thoughts on Oscar Nominations: A Call for New Stories

The 2015 Oscar nominations came out yesterday, and they were a veritable toothpaste commercial in their whiteness (4 out of 5 Twitter users agree: Hollywood is racist!). Everyone nominated in both the lead and supporting categories for both men and women (a total of 20 nominees) is white, and all the director nominees are white (and male). Most notably is the exclusion of Ava DuVernay, the director of the civil rights-era historical drama Selma, from the director category, and the lack of acting nominations for that film (though it did receive Best Picture and Best Song nominations: it’s notable that the recognition was given to two artistic products, rather than the real people that produced them).
The glaring whiteness of the nominations sparked anger, backlash (#OscarsSoWhite coming close to #RupertsFault as my new favourite hashtag), and an overwhelming sense of disappointment. No one expects a Hollywood awards ceremony to be at the vanguard of positive social change, but in a year when there have been notable instances of representation and inclusion in television and movies, as well as great examples of stories in those media tackling race, gender and other social issues in complex ways (Selma, Dear White People, Transparent), I think there was at least some expectation that this ceremony – which not only provides symbolic recognition but also has a tangible effect on box-office returns – would reflect the evolution of that artistic landscape. Instead, we got the whitest Oscar nominee pool in 17 years. Go figure.
In thinking about why this happened, I’ve gone back again and again to a comment made by NPR’s Linda Holmes about the lack of diversity not only in the people involved in the creation of the current nominees, but also in the stories that are being recognized. She writes how many of the (all male) central characters in this year’s Best Picture nominees ‘have similar sort of “complicated genius” profiles, whether they’re real or fictional.’ There’s a very specific type of narrative that’s being praised, one that centres on the emotional journey of an individual, and one that highlights the particular ways that an individual can overcome or succumb to obstacles around him (or her, but very predominantly him). This trend isn’t new, or at least not without precedent; it’s the fancier cousin to one that has been discussed a lot in the context of television when Mad Men, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, Dexter (etc etc etc) seemed to fill our screens with stories of tortured, talented (because if we’re going to hate them, we better envy them too), morally ambiguous white men.
Other barriers to representation aside, I think it is the fascination with these sorts of stories that makes it so difficult for other voices – particularly those of people of colour – to be recognized. These are stories that remind us again and again that there is something exceptional the power that an individual possesses, and something valuable, profound even in the unique struggles of an individual against the world around them. These are powerful stories, and they are also comforting stories: they tell us that we, as individuals ourselves, can be special, have it in our power to achieve and succeed and shape our world. What is less comforting is the notion that perhaps we can’t do it alone, that change happens through the joint power of communities and coalitions of people. What is also less comforting is the reality that we live in a world in which some individuals, by virtue of who they are, are faced with obstacles that others never have to think of. Stories centring on the white anti-heroes of prestige TV or Holmes’ ‘complicated geniuses’ don’t need to face either of those concerns, especially when the identities of their central characters allow them to avoid many of those barriers that they would have to face if they were a different race or gender.
It’s in going back again and again to these specific types of heroes and these specific types of stories that we ignore all the other incredibly compelling narratives that are happening around us. We ignore the stories of women of colour who are complex, layered, conflicted characters, whose race and gender impact but do not define their perspectives and actions. We ignore the stories of social movements that bring communities together, that draw on the power of many rather than the unique gifts of one person. If the stories we celebrate, the stories we reward and recognize, continue to be stories about powerful individuals testing the limits of their privilege, it’s no wonder that the outcome is an awards show that is depressingly monochromatic. If we want to make room for more voices, if we want actual diversity, we’re going to have to change what stories we’re willing to tell, and what stories we’re willing to see.
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