The Academy Awards Diversity Gap

I’ll be the first to admit that regardless of all its hype and elitism, I love the glitz and glam of the Oscars. I am completely enamored with the red carpet coverage, the cheeky hosting, and the emotional acceptance speeches. But it isn’t hard to see that the people accepting those awards have been, well, monochromatic. I’m talking white and for the majority, male.

Just in time for the Awards this Sunday, Lee & Low Books, an independent children’s book publisher specializing in diversity, released this infographic about the lack of diversity in Academy Award winners since the inception of the Awards 85 years ago. Whether it’s what you’d expect or not, the results are devastating. Only one woman of color has ever won an award for Best Actress, and that was Halle Berry in 2002. Only seven men of color have ever won for Best Actor, the last one being Forest Whitaker eight years ago, and only one woman has ever won for Best Director, Kathryn Bigelow. The Academy voters as well are overwhelmingly white males.

Some people may say, “but look, this year three minority actors are nominated, one being a woman, and they have good chances of winning!” As much as I admire these actors and their performances, there’s still one thing that bothers me about the roles for which they are nominated. Each of their roles specifically called for an actor or actress of their race, meaning there was no way a white person could have been cast for those roles anyway. In an interview for Lee & Low, actor/writer/director Jason Chan explained that when it comes to casting, “The default is always Caucasian unless something else is specifically asked for.” What I would like to see is a person of a minority background getting recognition (and I mean the kind of mainstream recognition that the Oscars provides, because let’s face it, unless you’re a film buff, that’s what you’re paying attention to) for a role that could be ethnically ambivalent. We need to show that not only white actors and actresses are capable of taking challenging leading roles and of being role models to the millions of people who watch and admire them.

I know that the Academy is not the be-all, end-all of the film world. Thankfully, independent filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball, Secret Life of Bees) states in the same interview with Lee & Low that the independent world is many steps ahead of major studios in including diversity in their productions, both in front and behind the cameras.

Once we see more diversity on the production side, maybe we’ll see the same on screen. The recent census shows that for the first time, the majority of babies born (50.6%) in the United States are minorities. When will the media start reflecting this change as well?

-Julie Takla ’16

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Rom-coms, Valentine’s Day, and How We’re Spending a Lot Without Buying Anything

Last week people all over the country celebrated the most romantic and undoubtedly commercialized holiday we know of: Valentine’s Day. From jewelry to Hallmark cards to dinner dates, consumers spend around $17.6 billion on this one day of the year. Of course, also on the profiting side is the film industry. Whereas movies pertaining to other holidays only come once a year, such as Christmas movies, Valentine’s Day movies can be seen all year round. They’re called rom-coms.

The romantic comedy has always been a successful hybrid movie genre, and it’s not hard to see why. With their simple storylines, (highly predictable) twists, (sometimes overdone) comic relief, and (too-good-to-be-true) happy endings, they portray a world we can only dream to live in. Yet how are these exaggerated realities affecting the way we live our lives? Some people believe that romantic comedies have ruined their relationships because they teach audiences to expect too much from their romantic partner. Watching two actors play out the most romantic–and fictional–days of their lives can remind us viewers how grateful we are for the people around us, or give us a reason to adopt another cat. Whether we love Valentine’s day or love to hate it, movies, especially romantic comedies, play a big role in shaping our perceptions of the holiday. Or do they?

According to a 2013 study at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, watching romantic movies does not actually give people unrealistic expectations for their relationships.The study identified four romantic ideals found in rom-coms: love at first sight, one and only soul mate, love conquers all, and idealization of partner. However, only the last had a significant correlation to the frequency of intake of romantic comedy films. Most people do not believe they’re going to find “the one” and their lives will be complete just because a movie says so. And most people do not expect to find a perfect partner who will lie in the middle of the road with them The Notebook style, unless they actively watch romantic comedies for dating and relationship advice. Studies show that people who watch romantic movies in order to learn from them are more likely to idealize their partner and believe in other romantic ideals.

It makes sense: those who go into a movie looking for some kind of message or answer will find what they are looking for. It all depends on intent and the ability to project yourself onto the main character.

Which brings me to another question: whose lives are being portrayed on screen? The film and television trope of the white male lead pursuing the white female lead (or vice versa) is so common that we often don’t stop to think about who’s missing. Where are the racial minorities, the interracial couples, and the same-sex couples? If romantic comedies are portraying the image of the ideal lifestyle and relationship, what does that mean for the viewers who do not fit the white upper-middle class heteronormative profile of the lead characters?

Maybe it’s because we are not all seeing ourselves onscreen that we are not all falling for these ideas of what love and romance are supposed to be. And yet, we’re still spending so much money when we know that what we’re buying is fake: we won’t get perfect endings or perfect partners, and no amount of chocolate or roses is going to get you that perfectly timed promotion or change a person’s entire personality. So why continue this practice? If I were to take a guess, I’d say it’s because for one day, it’s fun to feel like you’re living in a movie. For just one day, cheesy rom-com rules apply: it’s acceptable to recite 19th century love poems, or even write your own. Giant heart bouquets of red roses aren’t too over the top. The extra money for more elegant dinner isn’t too much to spare for one night.

Romantic comedies will continue to allow people a few hours of respite into a perfect world and show us what we want to see. So maybe we’re not as deluded as we previously thought, and we don’t really need romantic movies to tell us how to handle our relationships, but that didn’t stop me from watching The Wedding Singer with my roommates last Friday night.

 

–Julie Takla ’16