Oscar representation

By Jacinta Mazzarolo

The dust (or should I say gold-plated confetti) has finally settled around the biggest and most prestigious awards ceremony of the year.

Every year, the Oscars circus brings much buzz and focus on Hollywood. Throughout the entire awards season, nominees, winners, speeches, and of course dresses, receive much media coverage and water cooler chat. However, this attention is not always positive. The question of diversity amongst the winners and nominees—and even the voters—in recent years has continuously been brought up. Hollywood is such a vital commodity in telling stories in our society. The tales not only reflect, but also often inspire the world, the way it works and most importantly, our attitudes. Limited representation in the film industry leads to an inaccurate and unfair portrayal of humanity and has repressive, cruel effects as every individual’s perspective is valid and important.

While 2014 heralded one of the more diverse Academy Awards we have ever seen, the lack of diversity in the ceremony this year was, as always, concerning. One acceptance speech in particular is still resonating with people days later. Lupita Nyong’o, born in Mexico to Kenyan parents where she was later raised, won the coveted Best Supporting Actress role. After ritually listing off the usual people winners thank when holding an award, a clearly shaken Nyong’o said, ‘When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid’. The statement was met with rapturous applause around the room while millions agreed at home. The notion that no matter who you are or what you look like, you deserve and can achieve greatness, hit a nerve with industry people and viewers alike.

Previously, Lupita made an impassioned speech at the ESSENCE’s Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon where she made references to her skin colour, her experiences and the importance of representation in the media. ‘I received a letter from a girl and I’d like to share just a small part of it with you: “Dear Lupita,” it reads. “I think you’re really lucky to be this black but yet this successful in Hollywood overnight. I was just about to buy Dencia’s Whitenicious cream to lighten my skin when you appeared on the world map and saved me.” My heart bled a little when I read those words. I could never have guessed that my first job out of school would be so powerful in and of itself and that it would propel me to be such an image of hope in the same way that the women of The Colour Purple were to me. I remember a time when I too felt unbeautiful. I put on the TV and only saw pale skin, I got teased and taunted about my night- shaded skin. And when I was a teenager my self- hate grew worse, as you can imagine happens with adolescence. My mother reminded me often that she thought that I was beautiful but that was no conservation; she’s my mother, of course she’s supposed to think I am beautiful.’

It is obvious from these powerful words how detrimental misrepresentation is to minority groups, their attitudes and self-worth. In 85 years of the Oscars, Lupita Nyong’o is the sixth woman of colour to win Best Supporting Actress. Of those roles, two have been maids, one an abusive mother and another a slave. Furthermore, in 2002 Halle Berry was—and still is—the only woman of colour to win the Best Actress award. Over in the men’s categories, the diversity statistics are no better. Of Best Supporting Actor winners, 95% have been white, and 92% of Best Actor winners have also been white. Similarly, Best Director has been awarded to a white male 83 times out of 86. In fact, out of 425 people nominated in this category, there have only been 18 that have not been white and male. Taiwanese Ang Lee, Mexican Alfonso Cuarón and female Kathryn Bigelow are the three non white males who have been awarded in the past nine years. However, the diversity in winners should not really be a surprise considering Academy voters are only 23% female and 6% people of colour.

Despite having categories dedicated to female acting performances, representation and sexism is still very apparent at the Oscars. Writers, directors and producers are all predominantly male. This year, in the same ceremony Lupita Nyong’o won Best Supporting Actress in the Best Film, Cate Blanchett addressed the issue of women in Hollywood and their value. As she accepted her Best Actress Award, Blanchett said,

‘I am so very proud that Blue Jasmine stayed in the cinemas as long as it did…[thank you] to the audiences who went to see it and perhaps those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the centre are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them and in fact they earn money. The world is round, people!’

While this sexism has come a long way and audiences are far more receptive to female driven films than ever before, there is still a lot of work to be done to close the diversity gap. Sweden is at the forefront of this movement as the country has introduced a new rating system to promote gender equality on their screens. The gender bias rating is based off of the Bechdel Test. To pass the test, a film must have at least two named female characters and a conversation between the two that does not revolve around a male. Of the films nominated in 2014 for Best Picture, just half fit the criteria. American Hustle, Philomena, Dallas Buyers Club and Nebraska all passed, whereas Gravity, Captain Phillips, The Wolf of Wall Street and Her failed. There are many contradictory reports on the winner, 12 Years A Slave. While the system definitely has its limitations, it has been discussed and used in varying capacities since 1985 when Alison Bechdel conceived the idea in a comic.

Film is an incredibly powerful medium and should never be underestimated in terms of its influence in our society. This is why diversity and extensive representation of all humanity on our screens is so important. The Academy Awards this year was a step in the right direction. With Jared Leto winning Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Rayon, a transgender woman in Dallas Buyers Club, and Ellen DeGeneres hosting for a second time, the LGBTIQ community was even more prominent than usual. However, the facts speak for themselves. The misrepresentation at the Oscars is a prime reflection of how our media is plagued with inequality. In order to adequately and honourably tell the prolific stories of our world that inspire generations, the gap needs to be closed. After all, seeing is believing.

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