As a Jewish child, there was not much for me to look forward to every winter besides other people’s Christmas decorations and the Oscars. More than any awards show, sporting event, or other televised spectacle, the Oscars completely captured my attention. There was something special about the aesthetic of the Oscars: the gowns, the beautiful people, red velvet and gold. The show gave me a feeling of nostalgia for a golden era of film that I couldn’t even identify. The Oscars radiated a feeling of history and importance that gave my younger self a sense that by merely watching and predicting the results of the show, I was participating in something great.
Clearly I’m not the only one to feel that intangible aura of the Oscars, since it is—and always has been—the most-watched awards show on television. The first Academy Awards was held at the Roosevelt Hotel in the center of Hollywood in 1929, as the American film industry was emerging as a notable business in the United States and as seeing movies in theaters was becoming an American pastime. The Oscars were created with the intention of recognizing remarkable work in the American film industry, with highly coveted awards voted on by members of an exclusive group of talented, highly vetted industry professionals. The show was not intended to be visually broadcasted—TV had only recently been invented.
Keeping this history in mind, I’ve been trying to comprehend why the Oscars have gained the cultural impact they now have, though many would argue that impact is fading. To answer that question, I started asking around. The word I heard time and time again was “nostalgia,” that same feeling that kept eight-year-old me glued to the couch for hours as my parents debated the quality of movies I was not allowed to see.
It seems to me that the Oscars are yet another example of the commodification of nostalgia, capitalizing on the viewer’s desire to not only remember the past, but to see it. It’s hard to speak broadly of American culture, but the Oscars conjures a nostalgia for a specific kind of Hollywood where movie stars were the royalty Americans never had. It was an era of untouched glamour and wealth that was unquestionably white and male dominated. That contrived air of perfection drew me—and the rest of the world—to the Oscars year after year.
However, in the past few years, since my introduction to Twitter, I’ve started to question whether I should watch the Oscars at all. In 2015, the tweet, “#OscarsSoWhite, they asked to touch my hair,” went viral, sparking a public debate over the lack of women and people of color represented among the nominees. This argument is valid; there are definitely not enough women and people of color nominated, and there are also not enough women and POC represented in the Oscars voting body. As of 2019, the Academy reported that 31 percent of their members were women, up from 25 percent in 2015, and 16 percent were people of color, up from 8 percent. Clearly, those numbers are not representative of the demographics of the United States, and therefore, the Academy is still way too white and way too male. Nonetheless, the push to boycott the Oscars is misguided, as the Academy is incapable of changing drastically overnight or from year to year. That’s not how institutions work. Instead, we must also push to diversify and transform the film industry itself to make substantive, lasting change.
To understand why the Academy Awards haven’t become that much less white or male in the past five years since this controversy arose, we need to understand how the Academy itself functions. Once accepted into the Academy, you’re a member for life. The nominees and ultimately the winners are voted on democratically, with each member ranking their top choices for the general categories and for the categories that coincide with their personal expertise. The Academy doesn’t meet or collectively decide on nominees; it’s about as anonymous and democratic a process as you could get.
So, take one of this year’s controversies: Not a single female director was nominated for Best Director. The people voting for the category are mostly men and often white. While I’m not saying that men can and will only vote for men, it makes sense that male directors would favor and vote for directors who they identify with. Directors like Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Sam Mendes, all of whom were nominated this year, are often expected to get the nomination because of their body of work and fanbase within the Academy. Many people have been questioning why Greta Gerwig wasn’t nominated this year for “Little Women.” While having more female directors nominated would somewhat improve the Oscars’ problem of representation, giving Greta Gerwig the award this year for this particular movie, especially when the direction of that movie was not as impressive or inventive as the other films nominated for the Best Director category this year, would not be productive. As a huge fan of “Lady Bird” and Greta Gerwig, I don’t think she deserved the nomination this year. Greta Gerwig shouldn’t be tokenized. However, I think it’s important to acknowledge how Bong Joon-ho was nominated for “Parasite,” my favorite movie of this Oscars season. While nominating one person of an underrepresented group is not enough, the fact that a Korean director who made a Korean movie was nominated for five categories outside of International Feature Film is significant. The Academy is not healed of lack of diversity, but it’s improving, albeit slowly.
Thus, the more significant problem lies not in the Academy or who’s voting for the nominees, but in the pool from which they’re choosing. Women and POC are not hired often enough for directing or other positions in major productions or movies released for the purpose of winning awards. According to a report written by the Media, Diversity, and Social Change Initiatives at USC, “of the 1,365 directors, writers, and producers of the 100 top‐grossing films of 2015, 81% were men and 19% were women.” From 2007 to 2015, only 5.5 percent of directors were black and 2.8 percent were Asian. The Academy clearly has a problem with under-representation, but the fact that not enough women and POC are nominated for the Oscars doesn’t create that problem, but rather exemplifies that it already exists outside of the context of the Oscars themselves.
In an article for Vanity Fair from March of 2018, April Reign, the activist who created the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, explains how “the Oscar nominations of Morrison, Rees, Gerwig, and Peele, and of such films as ‘Get Out,’ ‘Coco,’ and even the Chilean foreign-language nominee, ‘A Fantastic Woman’—about a trans woman, played by a trans woman—prove that awards recognition will follow when such opportunities are afforded.” The Academy is changing, but diversifying the Academy Awards isn’t a process that can occur immediately after one viral tweet.
While it seems that we as the viewers are far removed from the actual voting body of the Oscars, we’re not completely powerless in speeding up the process of diversifying the box office and subsequently the Academy Awards. By taking on a “vote with your dollar” mentality, we can bolster the reputations of filmmakers from underrepresented groups. Learning about the creators of the movies you see, supporting filmmakers of color, and tweeting/posting/talking about those filmmakers is a small but significant way to contribute to the diversifying of the film industry. Public support of female filmmakers and filmmakers of color helps reinforce their applications if they choose to apply to the Academy. As always, your patronage matters.
Thus, I will be going back again to experience the glamour of Old Hollywood not only because of the pleasing aesthetic of the Oscars, but because the awards democratically reward talented people. The Academy Awards have shown they’re willing to change, but to do so, the industry has to change first.
Sophie Penn is a member of the class of 2023. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.