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Oscars 2018: how progressive are Hollywood’s most prestigious awards?

In light of the recently revealed list of the 2018 Oscar Nominations, Features Editor Devin Thomas explores the extent to which we can say that we are truly making progress in the mainstream. Are this year’s ‘progressive’ picks merely empty gestures or is there really cause for hope in Hollywood?

We are currently in the midst of a very interesting time for popular media. In an era defined in part by the ever-growing call for diversity of representation in media, the recognition of a few very well-made and progressive films in this year’s awards nominations have made the 2018 announcements some of the least controversial in recent memory. I would argue, though, that this is not for good reason.

To what extent can we really say we perceive this as ‘progress’ for the right reasons? I wish I could say it was entirely, but there are some issues in this year’s Oscar nominations that deserve to be looked at in a little more depth.

It’s not an unpopular or seldom-voiced opinion that the Oscars are, generally speaking, offensively white and unbearably male. Even the beautiful Moonlight’s well-deserved win at last year’s ceremony was marred by the accidental announcement of the wrong film as winner – a film which, in stark contrast to its competitor, was critiqued fairly extensively for utilising black culture to tell an annoyingly white story.

Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of white-saviour-of-jazz figure Sebastian in La La Land is a great example of the kind of thing the Oscars are so expected to reward- maybe part of the reason the wrong film was announced in the first place. It’s perhaps unsurprising that this took place in a year following the 2015 ceremonies, during which #OscarsSoWhite was a popular hashtag.

A story about a struggling white jazz pianist trying to make it in L.A. is not groundbreaking or exciting. La La Land was not necessarily a bad film, but its recognition in the nominations in the first place, and its unfortunate mistaken victory, are emblematic of the out-of-touch and slightly masturbatory attitude of Hollywood’s elite.

There’s been some praise for the inclusion of films focusing on, made by and starring women this year. As depressing as it is that these films’ inclusion is praiseworthy at all, it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

Even here, though, representation does not necessarily equal equality.

The fact that a single female director and cinematographer have been awarded nominations is perhaps a move by the Academy meant to placate a public that is beginning to catch on to their exclusivity in a big way- and this is exactly what we need not to let happen.

Casey Affleck’s decision to drop out of presenting the best actress award was welcomed by many. However, he still dropped out of his own volition.

We can be thankful that an environment in which his alleged behaviour is not tolerated exists while acknowledging that, were it not for the outrage of the ceremony’s audience, he would likely have remained unchecked and kept his role in the awards.

This is the core issue with celebrating the Oscars for achieving the bare minimum: the progress may well stop here.

Those who care about women, people of colour and LGBTQ+ individuals, despite their increased sense of place in this year’s awards, should not feel they can lie down in comfort at this.

If real progress is to be made, we need to keep up the assault on the institutional ignoration of the efforts of some groups.

Let’s not forget, firstly, that the leading films in nominations include Dunkirk– a war movie with an all-male cast; The Shape Of Water– directed by the brilliant but inarguably still male Guillermo Del Toro; and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri– a film whose relationship to race has been heavily criticised and which, despite a strong lead performance that will quite likely win Best Lead Actress for Frances McDormand, is also directed by a white man.

Let’s not forget, also, the fact that- even if there were truly equal representation in the films nominated for Oscars, the Academy’s deciding voters are (according to a 2012 report) 94% white and 77% male.

It’s hard not to believe that any equality in representation is merely for the sake of quelling accusations of racism and misogyny when you consider the extent to which women and people of colour are disincluded at the Oscars even at the most fundamental level.

Much has been written about the ‘progressive’ aspects of this year’s awards, and it is with this in mind that I approached this subject with some trepidation: why should another white male voice bother to chime in on the issue?

However, the fact that I have so far seen only articles and opinions praising the perceivedly progressive and inclusive aspects of the nominations is what made me sure this is something worth my writing about.

We cannot be made apathetic by hollow gestures and minimal, token progressive concessions.

Where inequality exists, it is important to highlight it- and the hugely viewed and discussed Oscars are very significant in popular culture as microcosmal for our society’s attitude to celebrating the contributions of often marginalised groups.

Our responses to figures like Kevin Spacey and Casey Affleck are positive steps toward highlighting the issue of sexual assault, and it is through pop culture that these issues were so prominently raised.

Similarly, the recognition of Get Out at this year’s Oscars is important in acknowledging black creatives and their contributions to film – the fact that this film was recognised despite being a horror film, a genre which notoriously does not fare particularly well with the Academy, is an important one, and worth celebrating.

But vague recognition doesn’t move us any further toward true progress.

Something real we can do to move further in the right direction, though, is to draw attention in every way we can to the failure of our significant institutions to recognise those who are not straight, white and male.

It is extremely important to approach this year’s Oscars as a catalyst for discussion of social change, and I believe drawing attention to the awards’ failure to be truly progressive is very much worthwhile.

Image: Flickr- Disney | ABC Television Group

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