Contributor note: Unattributed quotes were shared with me anonymously as research for this piece.
Around this time every year we are inundated with being told what the “best” of the last year was across performing art genres: best actor, best film, best cinematography, best album, best production, best choreography, best white director co-opting the stories of BIQTPOC….you get the idea. And here we are, at another award season another outcry over #OscarsSoWhite. Yet another wash of disappointment and exasperation at the blatant and acute racism that permeates award shows from the Grammys to the Izzies and everything in between.
Every year we see that the system is broken. Only men were nominated for the 2020 Oscar for Best Director. Only white choreographers were nominated for the 2020 Isadora Duncan Dance Awards (Izzies) in Outstanding Achievement in Choreography and in Outstanding Achievement in Restaging/Revival/Reconstruction. This is not unique to 2020. This is how it has always been. We have consistently seen that white adequacy will be awarded for achievement in “regular” or “default” categories but that minority exceptionalism will only be recognized through “special achievement.” Most people I asked said that they didn’t believe that award shows are serving the communities they are meant to represent.
On a large scale, the 2020 Oscars nominations saw major categories dismissing the work of women and people of color in a huge way. Academy member Stephen King, who defended the (very male, very white) nominations, tweeted: “For me, the diversity issue — as it applies to individual actors and directors, anyway — did not come up. That said…,” followed with “…I would never consider diversity in matters of art. Only quality. It seems to me that to do otherwise would be wrong.” This sidelining and skirting around white supremacy is at the heart of the massive problem with the awards industry. Compared to a committee of 20 or so individuals that serve on the Izzie’s, the Academy with a voting body of around 1,000 people seems huge, but on the scale of the film industry I have to wonder: weren’t there probably around 1,000 people on one set of one episode of the last season of Game of Thrones?
We are in a time of contradictory desires — one to lose ourselves in the magic of glitz and glam and one to create equity in the performing arts. Diversity is a buzzword everywhere right now, and award shows from the Oscars to the Izzies are being everything from lightly encouraged to aggressively boycotted in attempts to realize diversity in both nominations and wins. But it has been disheartening to see how little that talk has been turned into action. One person I spoke to suggested that these shows “make incremental changes for Artists of Color but not necessarily changes that are sweeping equitable practices.” They went on to say, “tokenism is still widely practiced from the makeup of the panelists to the nominees, and despite the illusion of diversity, these power structures remain asymmetrical.”
To me, awards like the Oscars, Golden Globes, Emmys, and even the Bessies and the Izzies reinforce an illegitimate scarcity mindset, and a harmful sense of competition — that there are not enough resources, enough donors, enough actors/dancers/performers for us to keep doing the work we love to do. No one is making films or albums or performance works because we believe that it is an easy and guaranteed path toward wealth in a capitalist society. We love what we do, and even if we have a million reasons for doing this artistic work, somewhere in there is a care for the work that is being made. This belief in scarcity, that there isn’t enough for everything, is harmful and damaging to our community.
Further, the awards fail to fully recognize the disparity in resources when comparing nominees. One person I spoke to asked, “Is it fair to assess whether a ballet with a 3 million dollar budget is ‘better’ than a community-based ethnic dance with unpaid dancers?” I don’t think it is. Another added that this is particularly poignant because, “committee members have no responsibility to attend performances equitably.” Yet another shared that they believe award culture “continues to perpetuate classism and racism,” and that they feel, “the whitest and the wealthiest people give awards to their other white, wealthy friends.”
If we know the system doesn’t work, why do we buy into the awards system? Why, when we could have democratized, internet-enabled ways to suss out the “good” from the “better,” do we still seek affirmation from problematic institutions? Why do we believe that volunteer panels or Academy members or Guilds possess a truth unavailable to the mere mortals in the audience when we could turn to cold hard results: audience scores, box office returns, google searches, critics’ views?
For many, award season represents validation of their work, recognition of their service to their community, a title to put on grant applications. For some, “awards validate aesthetics.” According to research by Jennifer Guttman, PsyD, studies suggest that public approval fulfills a basic human need. “We crave validation because as social beings we feel comfort in a ‘group think’ mentality,” she says. “It’s reassuring to believe that other people think the way we do because it gives us a feeling that we’re ‘right’ about our choices and behaviors.” Something happens more deeply, too, when you watch an awards show. She goes on to say, “The Oscars are exciting and entertaining because they reinforce our belief that people thrive on external reinforcement.” Similarly, one person I spoke with shared, “the thread of continuity that I see between largely publicized events of the Oscars/Golden Globes and smaller communities of the Izzies/Bessies is one that aims to bring communities of artists together and reaffirm our importance as artists to the world.”
Perhaps there is a bit of nostalgia that keeps us coming back, too. We remember Patricia Arquette demanding that we close the gender pay gap. We remember Viola Davis quoting Harriet Tubman and reminding us that “the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.” We remember hearing about Hattie McDaniel, the first African American woman to be nominated and win Best Supporting Actress in 1940. We remember Sacheen Littlefeather taking the stage on behalf of Marlon Brando in 1973, and we remember Halle Berry being the first (and to this date, only) African-American to win Best Actress. We remember Frances McDormand impassionately demanding “inclusion riders” for the industry. We remember Leo DiCaprio imploring all of us to act on climate change. And, we remember Meryl Streep calling out the bully in the White House reminding us that, “Disrespect invites disrespect, violence incites violence. And when the powerful use their position to bully others, we all lose,” in a speech that still brings me to tears.
But more than that we remember the moments that we spend with our communities. Maybe you’ve gathered with friends to watch these shows and eat tiny hors-d’œuvres. Maybe you’ve danced at the Bessies after party with friends that you only get to see once a year. Maybe you’ve gotten to hug a friend after they won their first Emmy. Or maybe, like me, you remember your mom pulling out sparkly dress-up clothes and bottles of sparkling apple juice and setting up TV dinner trays in the living room so that you and your sisters could watch the Oscars and cheer when actors you dreamed of meeting won. And maybe that nostalgia is what keeps many of us coming back.
So where can we go from here? I don’t believe I have the power to change national and international awards organizations, but I do believe in the power of our community to demand change to the current structure of community-based awards. One person I spoke with suggested that, “we need to trouble the singular aesthetic standard (White Euro-Western aesthetics), and I don’t think the Izzies, as currently configured does that. It doesn’t matter how diverse the committee is if the decision-making structure is inadequate.” If we do want to honor what we view as achievement, we need to evolve, respond, and shift to “advocate for the field.” We need our “arts communities to dedicate themselves to diversity and antiracism.” That work is not easy, but it is necessary.
Maybe we watch and attend award shows to see people dressed up and vicariously experience their anticipation and excitement of feeling validated, something box office numbers and survey scores can’t provide. Maybe we have to stop watching the whole charade and figure out how to redirect our understanding of success and validation. Maybe we don’t have to do anything at all. Award shows are becoming less and less relevant every year, with viewership dropping dramatically with each passing award season. Or maybe though intentional antiracism work we will begin to bend that moral arc of which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke towards representation.