The Oscars and inequality that stubbornly persists

As the dust settles on last month’s Oscars ceremony, Sara De Benedictis of City University London and the London School of Economics, and Dr Anne Graefer of the Birmingham Centre for Media and Cultural Studies, analyse the event’s political undertones, as well as some of the social, racial and gender inequalities that persist in Hollywood.

Richard Dyer famously argued that “stars have a major control over the representation of people in society. Stars have a privileged position in the definition of social roles and types, and this must have real consequences in terms of how people believe they can and should behave”. The social power of celebrities together with their glamour and exclusivity has potential to draw attention to political and social issues. Celebrity award ceremonies are ideal platforms whereby contemporary issues play out.

Whilst there are some historical moments of the Oscars ‘doing politics’, this year’s event promised to be the most political Oscars in history given the election of Donald Trump. As Julie Lobalzo Wright has pointed out, Trump directly shaped the night:

President Trump’s executive order banning travel into the United States for citizens from seven countries … affected the ceremony as it applied to some of the nominees. Khaled Khateeb, cinematographer of Best Documentary (Short Subject) winner, The White Helmets, was blocked from entering the United States. And Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian director of Best Foreign Language winner The Salesman, boycotted the ceremony. Only 72 hours before the show began, the six directors nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category released a joint statement about the “climate of fanaticism and nationalism” engulfing the contemporary world.

The United Talent Agency also cancelled their awards party to protest Trump as Jodie Foster declared it’s “our time to resist”. The Oscars themselves were awash with a sea of blue ribbons as numerous attendees’ visualised their political allegiance with the Democratic Party. News media websites commented on the scathing opening monologue about Trump by the evening’s host, Jimmy Kimmel, and that many winners took the opportunity to condemn the President through acceptance speeches.

Despite Hollywood’s long and notorious ‘diversity issues’, the Oscars were also – for the first time – not so white as six black actors were nominated for awards. In recent years, the whiteness of the Oscars has been a central critique to the awards. The 2015 and 2016 Oscars were charged with racial exclusion due to the 20 nominated actors all being white in both years. This prompted #oscarssowhite and people voicing objections via social media, as well as some celebrities boycotting the 2016 event.

This year promised change and saw some high-profile nominations and wins for people of colour. Viola Davis won Best Supporting Actress, making history as the only black actor to win the ‘triple crown’ of an Oscar, Emmy and Tony. The award for Best Supporting Actor saw Mahershala Ali become the first Muslim Oscar winner. The prestigious Best Picture award went to Moonlight, a film about gay, black masculinity.

But Hollywood is still a far cry from diverse: other marginalised groups such as Asian and Latino actors continue to be overlooked. Dev Patel was the only Asian actor to be nominated this year. And in the wake of the historical Oscar wins mentioned above, much media attention has centred on the ‘mix up’ when La La Land was wrongly awarded the Best Picture prior to Moonlight, and questioning over which film was the ‘worthy’ winner. Recognition of filmic excellence became about a ‘slip up’ and doubt as ‘others’ threatened whiteness. This highlights, according to Sara Ahmed, how “the politics of mobility, of who gets to move with ease across the lines that divide spaces, can be re-described as the politics of who gets to be at home, who gets to inhabit spaces, as spaces that are inhabitable for some bodies and not others”. These considerations show that racial inequality still remains.

Another consideration is how such visibility at the Oscars is translated into everyday life, as seen through online ridicule of calls to challenge the white supremacy of the ceremony. One Facebook comment read: “People are not being nominated for their performances anymore. There are some kind of quotas to pacify the social justice warriors that has to be provided. There will come a time when there will be only 1 white nominee for the Oscars and the headlines will still be ‘Oscars are still too white, when will this end?’ What a joke.” Such comments illustrate that – symptomatic of neoliberal times – meritocracy is used to leave structures of inequality, here white supremacy, unchallenged. But it also demonstrates the current backlash against social justice in times of devastating inequality, not only in Trump’s America but also in Europe, as across the political spectrum many rally against “political correctness gone mad”.

The Oscars’ also turned a blind eye to issues such as sexual harassment. Women working in the film industry are subject to various forms of gender inequality and discrimination both inside and outside of the celebrity spotlight, where sexual harassment and assault of women by famous Hollywood men is systematic. Yet, the Oscars have awarded such men, such as Roman Polanski in 2002.

This year, Hollywood’s dubious gender issues saw the Best Actor honour awarded to Casey Affleck, despite public uproar surrounding his nomination due to allegations of sexual harassment. Brie Larson was tasked with giving the award to Affleck, making for a seemingly difficult moment for Larson, who won last year’s Best Actress award for playing an imprisoned rape survivor in Room and hugged sexual assault survivors in Oscars 2016. Her refusal to applaud Affleck was seen as protest by news and social media. Long-held patriarchal norms dictate that Affleck’s reputation was untarnished – and in fact rewarded. And any outright political protest around Affleck or Hollywood’s misogyny was silenced.

It is paradoxical that since Trump was elected, celebrity ceremonies are becoming an increasingly mediated site of political activity, but that such sites are complicit in furthering and silencing structural inequalities. The Oscars are an important place where resistance to Trump can and should take place, but this must not be at the cost of turning away from structural inequalities at the heart of the Hollywood system.

News Focus articles are the views of the author and not necessarily those of the Campaign for Social Science.