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The Absurdity of Awards Shows

Last night, 18.6 million people watched the Golden Globes, whether to root for their favorite shows and movies or simply ogle at the drunk celebrities. Critics largely panned the show, which admittedly was a tepid, rushed affair that teased us with talented presenters who, with the exception of Steve Carell, Amy Poehler, and Maya Rudolph, didn’t seem to care that they were onstage. Loving tributes to Jeff Bridges and Carol Burnett and the charming hosts couldn’t save a poorly produced show that also handed out awards to underdogs while snubbing fan favorites Black Panther and A Star is Born. And with that, the awards season began its bloated march to the Oscars, the ultimate awards show, where careers are bolstered while mediocrity is celebrated.

In case you didn’t hear, the controversial Green Book kinda swept the awards, while controversial films Vice and Bohemian Rhapsody nabbed Christian Bale and Rami Malek awards. Now, this is to be expected, that controversial films become awards darlings. Sometimes, it makes sense; that controversy may stem from the coverage of uncomfortable topics or interesting (often real-life) people, and that type of gravitas does tend to encourage thoughtful, if not compelling, filmmaking. Other times, the controversy seems to be the film’s main selling point and people seem to relish that, which might explain Crash’s 2006 upset of Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture.

As film and television continue to be the frontier of social change ideation, controversy arising from a tension between the traditional and the progressive is to be expected. To no one’s surprise, conservatives flooded NBC’s Facebook page with complaints about the “disrespect” and “shameless politicking” expressed by presenters and honorees, even before the ceremony began. Yet for a show that’s somewhat infamous for its Hollywood-political soapboxing, last night’s show was relatively light (although Bale did compare Dick Cheney to Satan).

The conservatives aren’t wrong. The awards circuit has become a platform for celebrities to, ahem, express their values. As many artistic people are progressives, odds are that those who turn to politics when given a huge platform are going to express progressive views. Although it’s not the producer’s intention, it’s expected now and is almost as big a draw as the ostensible purpose of the shows, to recognize achievement in art.

Considering the subversive nature of art and the progressive tendencies of Hollywoodites, it might come as a surprise to some that awards shows are actually quite traditional, with traditional attitudes and biases. Read: old, white, male power in the Hollywood institution. No matter what movies are nominated, the same people appear on the Jumbotron: largely white, older men receiving awards, while minority-led movies receive token nominations or draw faux praise from the White Guilt crowd, and female-led movies have to be period dramas, biopics, or Really Damn Upsetting to get their lead a nom. Even Hollywood’s most liberal leading men don’t want to release the stranglehold they have on the movies, let alone the awards. This disparity in the awards circuit is indicative of deeper problems in Hollywood.

In other words, when Glenn Close suggested that the film for which she won Best Actress, The Wife, might not have taken 14 years to make were it not called that, when Regina King pledged to make her productions 50 percent women, when Sandra Oh mentioned the nominated film First Man, then quipped “‘First man’ is also how studios look for directors,” they are sending a message not to us, dear viewers, but to their industry-mates. They’re revealing that Hollywood is hardly a social justice paradise in which everyone is equal and sings kumbaya together, but rather an aging institution held back by its own turgid self-importance in which awards ceremonies stroke the male egos at the heads of studios.

The awards ceremonies are an important tool of self-aggrandizement. Receiving an award, especially an Oscar, permanently vaults the recipient into a Hollywood elite category of “Oscar winner.” The population of this category is largely white and male. The awards reward stories that assume the posture of a “serious” film. It’s laughable to even think about Isla Fisher or Donald Glover winning an Oscar, and as we know, science fiction and comic book movies are relegated to the Special Effects category. The Academy’s decision to introduce the Popular Film category is frankly insulting and serves only to further divide the stories beloved by America’s diverse population from those told by its elite.

Soapbox or not, the awards shows are absurd. They’re absurdly self-involved and tone-deaf, and they only pretend to make space for those who don’t match that old Hollywood image. King, Close, and Oh might fully mean what they say, but that doesn’t mean that anyone beyond the helpless public was listening.

Rachel Wayne writes about film and pop culture on Medium and for other publications. She received a Master’s in Visual Anthropology and Media Studies from the University of Florida.

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Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list: http://eepurl.com/gD53QP

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