Writing Wrongs: And the Oscar Goes to… Systemic Discrimination!


By Bella Levaggi

smash the patriarchy
Graphic by: Cassie Jeong

It’s pretty easy to not think about any of the politics behind something like the Academy Awards. The elegant outfits, cutthroat competition, and opening monologue are great distractions for someone like me, who naively believes in the spirit of honest competition and the notion that the most deserving nominee will walk away with a nice golden statue of a man named Oscar. I can’t quite pinpoint when my naivety shattered, though all signs point to when Kathryn Bigelow failed to score a Best Director nod for “Zero Dark Thirty” or when the post-awards press pictures of the 2013 Best and Supporting acting awards displayed a smiling quartet of two pretty white men (Daniel Day-Lewis and Christopher Waltz) and two pretty white women (Jennifer Lawrence and Anne Hathaway). Either way, further research has only confirmed my creeping suspicions regarding the extent to which the film awards system runs on an agenda of white male privilege.

Last year, the Los Angeles Times heavily researched the demographics of the Academy of Motion Pictures in an attempt to put hard numbers to the widely held belief that it was full of rich, old white men. What did they find? For starters, Academy voters are, in fact, overwhelmingly white—about 94 percent so. That leaves two percent for African American voters, a little less than two percent for Hispanic voters, and roughly the same figure for members who dare to come from Asian or “Other” backgrounds. Other fun facts from the study offer a 77/23 disparity in gender (any guesses as to which gets the short end of the stick?) and a youthful age range where a whole 14 percent were born after 1963. What do these numbers mean? For starters, we should be thankful that someone broke acting awards into gender subdivisions (although this still ignores those outside the gender binary). Without them, women not named Meryl Streep might never get acting nods.

While these numbers help explain the extreme lack of support for female directors in Hollywood (just four have ever earned Best Director nominations and it took until 2009 for the first and only one, Kathryn Bigelow, to win for “The Hurt Locker”), there are even more pressing, less talked about repercussions when it comes to race.

When I sifted through old Academy archives, I wasn’t surprised that only 66 African Americans have ever been nominated for the total 1,630 acting nominations, and didn’t bat an eye to see the figure plummet to three for directing. I’m not in the minds of the Academy, so as far as I know, the winners each year do accurately represent the best contributions of the year. But I also know that (1) this is often an excuse to justify stagnant diversity rates; and (2) the only reason this excuse can exist is because women and people of color are routinely shut out of the acting and directing jobs they deserve. If these people, with their invaluable and irreplaceable insight, can’t get their movies made, then there’s no way they’ll get an award.

A 2012 LA Times article quotes former Academy president Frank Pierson as firmly believing that “[The Academy] represents the professional filmmakers, and if that doesn’t reflect the general population, so be it.” Pierson wonderfully validates the idea that Hollywood is not truly welcoming of diversity. In an industry that can do almost anything it puts its mind to, the lack of varied demographics really does show that producers and executives and filmmakers just aren’t trying very hard to actively pursue change.

When Lionsgate greenlit production for the adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s Young Adult novel “The Hunger Games,” the casting call for Katniss Everdeen expressly sought a white actress. This surprised me, as Collins described Katniss as having dark hair and olive skin— descriptors that usually point towards a nonwhite or, at the very least, mixed-race person. You can fight me on the point of Katniss’s ethnicity, but the fact that producers were unwilling to even consider actresses of color for the part of a character from a futuristic, likely racially heterogeneous society is an incredible indicator of a white preference that prevents women of color from even auditioning for roles that aren’t explicitly nonwhite.

Too often, characters of color are allowed to exist only because the story demands it; either it’s about slavery or southern discrimination or some other race-specific story. Of the 20 African American men ever nominated for Lead Actor, 16 of them were for roles that had to be played by an African American man. And still these actors don’t always receive due critical acclaim during awards season, even if print and online publications clearly lauded their performances. Additionally, no Hispanic or Asian woman has ever won a lead acting award.

It would seem that if you’re interested in seeing better representation in your media, and seeing that representation better rewarded, then Hollywood and the Academy Awards will only infuriate you.

Until we close gender and race gaps behind and in front of the camera and get an Academy that reflects both professional filmmakers and the general population, my only advice to keep from angrily flipping tables during awards season is to start watching more television. That seems to be where more of the hip creative folk behind shows like “Elementary” and “Sleepy Hollow” who are fed up with Hollywood’s reverence for vanilla ice cream have found a place to peddle their more flavorful alternatives. ♦