For the second year in a row, the [Oscars] nominations failed to recognize any minority actors.” This quote from the New York Times is referring to the 2016 Oscars, which sparked celebrity boycotts and the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite to trend on social media. Many were outraged by the predominantly white nominating body and nominees, and believe that the Oscars need to significantly improve representation. In response, the Oscars organizers promised to make the ceremony itself “the most diverse ever,” with presenters of different ethnicities. This last-minute response did not provide any lasting solutions; in fact, the ceremony ended up involving stereotypical Asian jokes that were the opposite of inclusive.
When the Oscars nominations were announced in mid-January, people immediately spoke out against the overwhelming lack of diversity across the categories, using #OscarsSoWhite as their rallying cry. Soon, well-known people of color announced that they would be boycotting the ceremony. Among them were Spike Lee, Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, Tyrese Gibson, and Michael Moore. In an attempt to combat the rising controversy, the Oscars organizers made Chris Rock, an African American comedian and actor, the ceremony host. They also included more diverse presenters, which brought awareness to another aspect of the Oscars that lacked representation – the ceremony itself. However, this increased diversity was a superficial, temporary addition that did nothing to improve the nomination process or address the core concerns of #OscarsSoWhite.
Surprisingly, while the #OscarsSoWhite movement appeared to be garnering a large amount of support across the nation, only 23% of Americans polled said that they supported the boycott. In a different survey, 44% agreed that Hollywood has a problem with minorities, and 30% said that Hollywood’s output doesn’t accurately represent U.S. diversity. This means that either less than half of America believes there is discrimination in Hollywood or that the people who were interested enough in the Oscars to complete these surveys did not care about the campaign. According to Lupita Nyong’o, another reason behind these low numbers could be “unconscious prejudice.” People do not consciously note that movies are white-dominated or do not consider it an issue. This mindset exists in audiences, in Hollywood, and in the Oscars nominating body alike.
The Oscars nominating body consists mainly of older, white males, a fact that many, including Tom O’Neil, contribute to this year’s white-centric nominations. O’Neil, who is the founder of Goldderby.com, says that, “It’s due to the lack of diversity of [Oscar] voters themselves, 93 percent of whom are white, 77 percent male and with an average age of 63. This is not representative of the real world.”
In a statement made by Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (who is, interestingly enough, an African American woman), she promised to review this issue of Oscars diversity, saying, “This is a difficult but important conversation, and it’s time for big changes.”
However, not everyone agrees that the nominating panel is discriminatory or that changes or needed. An anonymous voter from the panel says, “I’m very offended by the idea that some people are calling us racists – race was the furthest thing from my mind when I cast my ballot, and in fact I nominated one person of color for an award.” Nominating a single person of color for a single award is neither terribly impressive nor indicative of an unprejudiced mindset. It is also a racist comment in itself, since it implies that the Oscars is a platform in which there only needs to be token people of color.
Another argument made against the #OscarsSoWhite protest is that while this is indeed the second year in a row with no minority actors nominated, in previous years, African American actors and actresses have won Oscars. They cite ‘Selma’ and ’12 Years a Slave’ as examples. This argument makes the Oscars nominations seem like a “race quota” type of thing. Just because the Oscars chose minority actors, movies, and other nominees before does not mean that they are now exempt from continuing to nominate minorities. This need to for inclusivity also does not mean that the nominating panel needs to concentrate on race and ignore quality, as others argue that the #OscarsSoWhite movement pushes for. Again, this is not about a “race quota,” but is about the movies themselves as well. The nominating panel typically chooses “period pieces featuring white British men,” and it does not make sense to continue to focus on one specific type of movie as the standard for “quality.”
From all of these arguments for and against the #OscarsSoWhite boycott emerges another question: how does Asian representation fit into the picture? Asians have not been nearly as vocal as other minorities in the Oscars controversy, and the lack of Asian celebrities participating in #OscarsSoWhite attests to the lack of Asians in the Hollywood industry. Throughout the years, the Oscars has nominated only three Asians for a lead actor/actress role since it first began in 1929. Only three have won for any actor/actress role, including supporting. The only woman of Asian descent to have been nominated for best actress was Merle Oberon in 1935; a half Indian and half white actress, Oberon pretended she was from Australia in order to hide her Indian ancestry. As social media personality Angry Asian Man points out on Twitter: “Fun Fact: More white actresses have won #Oscars for playing Asians than actual Asians actresses have won. Period. #OscarsSoWhite.” With regards to directing, only four Asians have been nominated for best director in Oscar history, and only one (Ang Lee) has won.
As seen from the above statistics, Asian representation at the Oscars does not accurately reflect the Asian population in the United States. Asian nominations are miniscule and disproportionate, a testimony to the lack of roles available to Asians in Hollywood. Chris Rock and Sacha Baron Cohen’s Asians jokes at the Oscars ceremony on February 28 did nothing to help raise awareness in this issue and instead propagated harmful stereotypes. Chris Rock brought three Asian children onto the stage at one point of the ceremony, introducing them as the accountants behind the awards, a reference to the stereotype that Asians are good at math. The children, who were dressed in suits and given mini-suitcases, stood awkwardly as the audience laughed. Rock continued by saying, “If anybody’s upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids!” This questionable joke referred to child labor in the smartphone industry in China. To make matters worse, Sacha Baron Cohen, one of the presenters of the night, later made yet another distasteful Asian joke. He said that he wanted to speak for people of every color, saying, “How come there’s no Oscar for them hard working yellow people with tiny dongs. You know, the Minions!”
Ultimately, the Oscars ceremony, despite being touted as “the most diverse ever,” fell short in terms of Asian representation, and representation in general. It seemed less like an acknowledgment or understanding of the diversity issue and more of a hasty attempt to appease the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. In an industry where even last-minute attempts to increase diversity result in distasteful portrayals of Asians, it seems doubtful that larger issues of nomination and casting will be addressed anytime soon.
Overall, the Oscars were rightfully controversial this year, and if they continue to lack relevance and inclusion, then unfortunately, the awards themselves will hold very little worth.
-By Michelle Quin ’19
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