We have spent some time during the semester reading and reflecting on how whiteness and white supremacy manifests itself in education, law, and media. It only seemed appropriate to submit a blog post on whiteness at the Academy Awards this week, as well as ways in which actors attempted to disrupt white dominance. These awards shows reflect a larger system in Hollywood (which mirrors larger societal values) which serves to elevate and maintain white dominated actors, producers, directors, film crews, and staff at the expense of black and brown labor, stories, voices and creativity. This year I witnessed a unique opportunity to apply a critical eye to this awards show.
My reflection is not a new perspective and has been well-covered from various folks throughout the last few years, as well as generations previously demonstrating to raise awareness regarding the disparity of representation. The last few awards seasons we saw the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite emerge in response to only white actors chosen for nominations in the top prestigious categories, amid larger conversations regarding the lack of representation in Hollywood. According to an article published by Bloomberg (2016), of those who have won Best Actor and Best Actress, all but eight people of color have ever won the award by the 2016 awards season. With this context in mind, I situated myself on the couch and justified watching the Awards for the purpose of “research for my blog post”. The next sections highlight some connections I noticed between the speeches on screen and the themes which have emerged in our class.
The function of liberalism and the ideals this framework espouses can have both benefits and drawbacks. Crenshaw (1988) reminds readers that liberalism has the “transformative potential” of combating the oppression and exclusion while at the same time acknowledges it also can function to mystify the realities faced by people of color. In this case, I decided to focus on how liberalism casted its mystical spell over the white Academy. This was apparent to me when Warren Beatty shared a few words before awarding Moonlight for Best Picture, which resonated with the white audience by stating, “It could be said that our goal in politics is the same as our goal in art, which is to get to the truth. So that’s like in the movies that we honor tonight, that not only entertain us and move us, they show the increasing diversity in our community and a respect for diversity and freedom all over the world” (Vogue, 2017). Beatty’s words connect the perceived “truth” to simply the existence of diversity and respect for diversity. On the surface this is nice to hear, however when viewed through the lens of liberalism this statement does little to connect the truth to the marginalization of people of color in the Academy. It is also odd to hear that these films show the increasing diversity in the academy, as if to say stories of black and brown folks have not existed previously in film or otherwise.
Crenshaw (1988) reminds us that the fallacy of colorblindness is that it is not possible to achieve in a society where differential treatment has been granted to people based on race historically which continues to maintain white supremacy in present-day realities. Jimmy Kimmel demonstrated colorblind sentiments during his opening monologue, by making this request of viewers: “if every one of you took a minute to reach out to one person you disagree with, someone you like, and have a positive, considerate conversation- not as liberals or conservatives, as Americans- if we could all do that, we can make America great again” (New York Times, 2017). The key word in this statement is Americans. There is an assumption about this word that it is a uniting sentiment that all people share, that being an American is a common identifier. Yet how colorblindness works in this instance is to reassure that if we only talk to one another as Americans we can restore the comfort white people once shared by being able to avoid acknowledging racism exists by making America great -and colorblind- again. Colorblind conversations as “Americans” offers little to unite the nation.
While there were moments when whiteness was maintained, there were a few moments which I deemed hopeful for the disruption of white supremacy in the Academy. One of my favorite speeches given this weekend was by director Asghar Farhadi of the film The Salesman which won the award for Best Foreign Language Film. His award and acceptance speech was presented by Iranian astronaut Anousheh Ansari on behalf of Farhadi, who shared the following words about his absence: “My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and those of the other six nations who have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the U.S.” (Vogue, 2017). To me this offered a great example of disrupting whiteness in the academy. Harris (1993) defines whiteness as property as the investment in white dominance over all others in the arena of private and public rights which structure social relations and positions of power. Whiteness as property also functions as a means of use and enjoyment as well as the absolute right to exclude (Harris, 1993). While Farhadi was granted permission in this case to be a part of the white academy space, he utilized the functions of his absence to highlight how whiteness serves as an absolute means to decide who is valued and who is not in the U.S. His absence served to put a pause on the predominantly white awards show and allow the audience to reflect on the ways in which citizenship, migration, and movement is a luxury allotted to those in power with the purpose of restricting such rights for those who are not.
I consider the nominations for the films Hidden Figures as well as the awards for Moonlight as recognition to the power which counterstories can have on pop culture. Delgado (1989) describes the telling of stories by outgroup members, or those who are on the margins of mainstream, as a means of resistance, healing, and liberation. Counterstories offer a “counter-reality” for those of the ingroup members or white dominated social groups as a means of moving ingroup members out of complacency and as a means of challenging the status quo (Delgado, 1989). It is important as consumers of media to keep in mind that dominant group members create stories of their own as well, which function and exist to remind members of their superiority in relation to outgroups (Delgado, 1989).
Hidden Figures and Moonlight both offer counterstories in the academy. Hidden Figures offers the essential narrative of the role of black women in the NASA program and how white supremacy has largely forgotten their accomplishments and exploited their labor. Moonlight highlights the trials and challenges of queer black love as a narrative primarily absent and marginalized in popular film. By nominating those who were a part of the production of these narratives serve two functions- to acknowledge and validate the experiences of the viewers who share a common narrative, while also as Delgado (1989) describes making room for adjustments in the white dominated stock stories people share which each other.
A thought on Intersectionality
As Crenshaw (1989) reminds us, let us not forget how oppression and marginality takes many forms, and to consider the Academy Awards from an intersectional perspective. Are there other voices and perspectives missing from the Oscars this year? In a study by Smith et. al (2017), the research team found that of the speaking characters in the 25 best picture nominations from 2014-2016, only 11.8% were 60 years or older. There were only four women of color in this age category, and there was not a single character 60 or older portrayed in these films who was identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender in any of these nominated films (Smith et. al, 2017). This report generated some questions for me that I had not considered while viewing movies before. How does pop culture depict older adults in film? Within that question, how do films glorify the stories of white heterosexual young adults while remaining empty of senior characters of color? Why are these stories deemed not as valuable, considering the movie-going population of individuals 60 and older accounts for roughly 15% of ticket sales in the US (Smith et. al, 2017)? How do assumptions about race, gender, and age function to silence the experiences of characters in film, as well as serve to reflect larger normative values? As viewers, we must be critical of the multiple ways in which marginality in film is exercised in order to dismantle oppression.
Overall, it was exciting to witness the recognition of valuable casts, crews, artists, and industry leaders of color on Sunday evening. While the investment of whiteness in the Academy remains strong, there were some important interruptions and disruptions to the status quo. There is much work to be done to reflect the many experiences of movie-goers, and I look forward to never watching an Awards show without my critical lenses on, offering the opportunity to reflect and apply the concepts we continue to explore in class.
Bloomberg, (2016 January 27). “Adding up the white oscar winners”. Retrieved 28 February 2017 from https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2016-oscar-winners/
Crenshaw, K. W. (1988) Race, reform, and retrenchment: Transformation and legitimation in antidiscrimination law. Harvard Law Review, 101 (7), 1331-1387.
Crenshaw, K. W. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory, and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, Volume 1989(8). Retrieved 28 February 2017 from http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1052&context=uclf
Harris, C. I. (1993). Whiteness as Property. Harvard Law Review, 106(8), pp. 1707-1791.
New York Times (26 February 2017). “Jimmy Kimmel’s ocars opening monologue”. Retrieved 28 February 2017 from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/26/movies/oscars-jimmy-kimmel-monologue.html?_r=0
Smith et. al (2017). Over sixty and underestimated: a look at aging on the “silver” screen in best picture nominated films. Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiative. Retrieved 28 February 2017 from http://annenberg.usc.edu/pages/~/media/MDSCI/Over%20Sixty%20Underestimated%20Report%2021417%20Final.ashx
Vogue, (26 February 2017). “The most political moments and speeches at the ocsars 2017”. Retrieved 28 February 2017 from http://www.vogue.com/article/oscars-2017-political-speeches
image made available from Pixabay.