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Why We Should Still Listen to Award Speeches, Even if ‘They’re Just Celebrities’

2018 dawns amid a volatile political atmosphere in which the American spirit is fought over and manipulated. Competing sects wrestle for cultural hegemony, their conflicts of values and vision unfold on our TV screens. The Golden Globes (and Oscars) have become a platform, contending with a multitude of important social endeavors, all competing to raise awareness, and each essential to examining American culture, its progress, and its future. After news of Harvey’s Weinstein’s (and now many others’) gross abuse of power dominated headlines, the principal movement on display this year was Time’s Up.

Many men and women have come forward under this umbrella with their own stories of seemingly untouchable Hollywood figures who have behaved, to understate it, badly. While many believe that this is a recent deviation from what is regarded as good form, using award ceremonies as political or social mediums is not a new thing. From Richard Gere condemning China’s then-leader Deng Xiaoping’s actions in Tibet in 1993 to Michael Moore proclaiming George W. Bush to be a “fictitious president” in 2003, actors, producers, and directors have stated their personal beliefs on the national front. It did not begin with Leonardo DiCaprio’s long-awaited win and call for climate change awareness, nor did it begin when Winona Ryder gave us a calendar’s worth of memorable faces as she reacted to (or attempted to hear) David Harbour’s impassioned speech at the SAG awards.

Year after year these ceremonies become the platform for any cause under the sun from social to political to economic or environmental injustices. Yet, these stages are demonstrations themselves, defined by the very few who are privileged enough to walk them.

My television consumption, like many others’ for the past decade, has been filled with Netflix binges or filling my shelves with boxed set after boxed set of my favorite shows. To this day, there is hardly a Gilmore Girls episode that I cannot recite verbatim. Yet, as years passed, something subtle in its heartwarming make-up began to irk me. Stars Hollow persists as a predominantly white institution, and the characters with whom Lorelai and Rory most associate are also white, with few exceptions. One exception that sticks out is Lane Kim, Rory’s quirky, Korean musician bestie. Lane and her mother, known only as Mrs. Kim, are hilarious foils to Lorelai and Rory’s relationship. Lane rebels against her mother’s ultra-conservative and stereotypically Asian ideals with gusto. She joins a rock band, dates non-Koreans, and double-dresses – a literal representation of the double consciousness at play in her life.

Edward Said, a founder of the academic study of postcolonialism, calls this “Orientalism,” or rather the manner in which Western culture interprets and reacts to experience with Eastern cultures, focusing on the perception that those of Asian descent are unwilling or unable to assimilate with Western culture. We see this in over-the-top accents, adherence to strange or amusing virtues despite being exposed to Western practices which are portrayed as the norm. Mrs. Kim is the epitome of this stereotype, used for comic relief and little else. This “othering” of non-white ethnicities and cultures is ingrained in the Hollywood fabric. Even when we simultaneously celebrate diversity there are moments where it’s eviscerated – all in good fun. When Mahershala Ali became the first Muslim to win an Oscar last year, host Jimmy Kimmel showed great interest in his non-Anglo name, making multiple jokes about it; he even enlisted the audience’s help in chanting it at one point.

In a New York Times article, Indian-American actor and comedian Aziz Ansari stated, “even though I’ve sold out Madison Square Garden as a standup comedian and have appeared in several films and a TV series, when my phone rings, the roles I’m offered are often defined by ethnicity and often require accents.”

Yet, when the Oscars deliberately attempt to be more inclusive, a portion of America inevitably asks why – why is this important. If you’re good, you’re good, and you get a nomination – your ethnicity or religion notwithstanding. It’s hard to acknowledge that that is not necessarily the truth.

We live in a time where the American population is made up of many cultures, creeds, and races – 38% of which do not identify as white. This number is steadily climbing and by 2060 is anticipated to breach 50%, a majority of minorities. Yet, minorities are only represented in lead-acting roles on film 16.7% of the time, with Broadcast TV coming in at a dismal 6.5%. 

Typically the justification is the desire to reach broader audiences which inadvertently leads to white-washing a cast unless consciously intended otherwise. Shows like NBC’s newcomer, This Is Us, bring that assumption into question. A show that strives for truth and doesn’t hide from examining racial or economic differences has captivated viewers in a somewhat revolutionary way in the past year and a half. Sterling K. Brown, who plays Randall Pearson on the show, became the first black man to win a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Television Drama. During his speech, he offered the following personal insight into life as a minority actor:

Throughout the majority of my career, I have benefited from colorblind casting — which means, you know what, ‘Hey, let’s throw a brother in this role, right?’…But Dan Fogelman, you wrote a role for a black man. That could only be played by a black man. And so what I appreciate so much about this thing is that I am being seen for who I am and being appreciated for who I am. And that makes it that much more difficult to dismiss me, or dismiss anybody who looks like me. So thank you, Dan.

Yet, I watch that and wonder how it has possibly taken so long for a black man to win this prestigious award. It’s 2018 and this is the first time? I’m baffled by a glass ceiling that I never really knew existed.

Many dismiss men and women like Sterling K. Brown or Aziz Ansari, saying they should stick to what they do best: being an actor, an artist, a musician, etc. But these moments in entertainment history have given rise to an awareness that is desperately needed, just not visually represented. The more light is shed on these deep-rooted issues such as the horrifying sexual abuse allegations or white-washing of the metaphorical everyman, the further Hollywood can progress. Being as Hollywood is meant to create an artistic representation of all of us, that’s more important than any of us may realize.

According to a recent YouGov survey from February of this year, 46% of black respondents felt that black roles are inauthentic in their written portrayals. However, many times those roles aren’t there in the first place. Writer Walter Dean Myers expresses the emotional and developmental need to see our own reflections in the media we consume:

As I discovered who I was, a black teenager in a white-dominated world, I saw that these characters, these lives, were not mine. I didn’t want to become the ‘black’ representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.

This lack of recognition is the root of why it matters when the 2018 Oscars made a deliberate effort to improve their own diversity, resulting in a number of firsts for the institution. Jordan Peele became the first black screenwriter to win for his film Get Out, which itself is a socially relevant examination of racism in America. Combine this with February’s release of The Black Panther, and it is clear that Hollywood is ready and willing for change.

In an article for Good Housekeeping Nicole Blades states: “It’s important and empowering for children of color to see themselves in these characters writ large and projected on Hollywood screens instead of pushed to the margins of the main story.”

It is time to acknowledge that this issue has nothing to do with political correctness and everything to do with the power of recognition, the power of seeing oneself reflected in the art around you and validating your presence and worth in your own society.

Kelley Altizer

Kelley works in management for Amazon and enjoys writing about film, literature, and technology, researching their effects on our daily lives. In her spare time, she loves composing and recording music with her husband, and writing creative fiction.

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