For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved the Oscars. And not in the way you might tell a friend how much you love her skirt– I’ve loved the Oscars the way some people love spring or Christmas. The way you love whatever your Best Time of the Year is: your season of magic and possibility, of pageantry and ritual and wonder.
But the Oscars aren’t like spring or Christmas, because neither of those wonderful seasons are tightly controlled by a cadre of invitation-only elites, let alone a cadre of invitation-only elites who are almost entirely white, male, and over-50.
Maybe the fact that actual people control the Academy Awards is what made last night feel so much like a breakup. It’s not that Neil Patrick Harris didn’t try–it was the most charming telecast in years, from the Lego statuettes, to Lady Gaga’s surprisingly lovely Sound of Music tribute, to NPH bravely taking the stage in naught but his tighty-whities. But by the time Sean Penn diminished Iñárritu’s Best Picture win with a green card “joke,” I knew it would never be the same again. It hasn’t been for some time, if I’m honest with myself. And it’s not me. It’s them.
There were a few moments in the telecast that managed to pierce the Academy’s glossy bubble. I danced on my couch when lesbian icons Tegan and Sara took the Oscars stage to perform ‘Everything is Awesome,’ whooped along with Meryl and JLo as Patricia Arquette used her precious acceptance speech to praise mothers and demand equal pay for women, and cheered as Common and John Legend, while collecting the sole trophy afforded to Selma, connected the brave sacrifices of MLK’s day to those being made today by civil rights activists in Ferguson and beyond. But that those moments had to be wedged into the proceedings is exactly the problem.
Every year, I look to the Oscar nominations to tell me which films to catch up on, and then I cram in as many of them as I can in the five or six weeks leading up to the Big Day. But this year as the nominations rolled in on January 15, a light inside me went out. It wasn’t because of the Lego Movie snub, though that one hurt for sure. It was because of the endless parade of laurels for films that elevate white men’s stories above the rest of us. This was the whitest list of acting nominees since 1998, and 7 out of the 8 Best Picture nominees told the story of a white guy’s noble journey.
It’s not like I hadn’t lived through Oscar’s whims and biases before. (“We Saw Your Boobs” was only two years ago, after all.) But in recent years there’s been at least one thing each year to distract me — last year’s love for 12 Years a Slave, or Brave’s thrilling win the year before. That used to be part of the magic of the season — nurturing my childlike hope that the Academy would transcend its self-aggrandizement in one or two exhilarating categories.
So, I tried. I really did. But as I was watching Boyhood, I couldn’t stop thinking: why is this his story? This is a gorgeous, groundbreaking film. Why squander it on yet another tale of a white boy growing into a white man? Since then I’ve abandoned my Oscar-approved roadmap and seen Belle and Gone Girl, Selma and Obvious Child, each one a genre-redefining breakthrough in perspective, each one accomplished and wildly entertaining, each one denied their deserved seat at the awards table by my new ex-boyfriends, the Academy.
The Oscars matter, whether I like it or not. An Oscar nomination (and especially a win) reliably increases a film’s box office and an actor’s fee. But if you read the fine print, actresses don’t get the same boost, and black actresses are the least likely to benefit. (Just ask Mo’nique.) Female directors are so regularly shut out of their category that there’s not even enough data to study. (No exaggeration: Ava DuVernay is now the 9th female director to be denied a Best Director nod for a film that is nominated for Best Picture. Only 4 women have ever been nominated in the Director category.) So why should I keep investing my energy waiting for a boy’s club to honor films that don’t slavishly fellate their egos, when it doesn’t change anything even when they do?
This isn’t about quality per se. Birdman is a fascinating, innovative film made by talented people. But when nearly 90% of this year’s Best Picture nominees valorize a demographic that’s only 30% of the US population, we are stunting our ability to imagine our collective equality, our collective humanity.
Like any breakup, it’s both heartbreaking and liberating. Sure, I’ll miss feeling like I’m part of something big, but I’m also a little thrilled to ignore the Oscars and nominate my own list next January, so I can allocate my sliver of box office clout to the films and filmmakers expanding our minds about which stories are worth telling.
In introducing the foreign language Oscar, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Nicole Kidman recited some scripted chatter about how all of our gender and racial differences fall away once the lights go down in a movie theater. Would that it were so. In reality, all of us suffer from implicit bias, which can only be changed when we’re exposed to new narratives that contradict the damaging stereotypes lodged in our psyches. Until the Academy gets to work on theirs, I’ll be finding my magic seasons elsewhere.