Identity Politics and the Oscars


Friday 4 March 2016

Manufactured outrage wrapped in a veil of legitimacy. That’s probably the best way to describe identity politics. Knowing when outrage is for legitimate or illegitimate reasons can be difficult because discrimination does occur. Manufacturing discrimination and claiming outrage, however, is an easy way to be taken seriously. For example, when discrimination has been alleged it’s often indisputably accepted before the claim has had a chance to be checked. Twenty years ago it was at the other extreme, people claiming they were discriminated against had to jump through hoops just to be heard; now, someone merely has to utter a buzzword like ‘racist’ for the accused to acquiesce. It’s this worrying state of affairs which is exploited by those practicing identity politics to claim that they and/or their group deserve special treatment because of the discrimination they claim to face. Most recently, a few bitter people in the film industry played identity politics.

Questions linger about systemic racism within the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) nearly a week after the 88th Oscars. Since the nominations were announced back in mid-January, it has been questioned why for the second year running there were no black nominees in the acting categories. Equally the same question could have been asked about why there was a paucity of people of Asian, Native American, Pacific Islander, or Hispanic descent, but it wasn’t and, as such, the criticism was oddly framed.

The #OscarsSoWhite controversy was paradoxically discriminatory. The people behind the hashtag and the multimillionaires who boycotted the Academy Awards probably had good intentions, but their protest signals that it’s okay to select based on ethnicity so long as it is their chosen ethnicity. Is it too much to ask that everybody should be treated the same? No special dispensation or discrimination because of your skin colour, gender, sexuality, hair colour, whatever. To borrow a Dave Rubin phrase: everyone should be treated equally shitty.

A huge deal was made about AMPAS membership being mostly white, male, and over 50 years in age, which it is: 94 per cent of respondents to the 2012 Los Angeles Times survey were white; 77 per cent male; 86 per cent were 50 years old or above. The membership, therefore, is not representative of American society which is 72 per cent white, 49 per cent male, 32 per cent aged 50 or older. In response to this criticism, three points needs to be made:

First, the Academy has said that it will try to diversify its membership in future.

Second, being white does not automatically mean you’re a racist. Similarly, being a man does not mean you’re a misogynists and being over 50 does not mean you go out of your way to discriminate against the young. Correlation does not equal causation. Patterns exist, but they can be figments of our imagination. Not having a black nominee does not mean the Oscars are racist. This year the average age for nominees in the two female acting categories was 37.6, in the male it was 43.4 for Best and 50.6 for Supporting. If we wanted to we could draw something from these statistics: why are teenagers being discriminated against? Why are nonagenarians being overlooked? Can they not act as well as other age groups? Could the Oscars be discriminating against the adolescent and the elderly? Yes. Could the Oscars be discriminating against black people? Yes. Finding definitive proof, however, is another matter entirely, especially when the AMPAS membership list is secret. Claiming that unproven allegations are as good as confirmed is dishonest.

Which brings us to point three: judging the creative arts is incredibly subjective. It’s all very well that people think Will Smith, Michael B. Jordan, or Idris Elba should have been nominated – that’s their opinion and disagreeing over creativity is part of the fun of watching movies. Debating whether it was a good story or whether someone was truly believable in their role is enjoyable because it’s so subjective. Personally, I have a penchant for ‘good-bad movies’ because of their unintentional comedic value: Sharknado and Mega Piranha being just two examples. It doesn’t matter whether I or others like them or not, these films will never get nominated for Academy Awards. Never ever ever. Does not being nominated mean a film is bad? No. Does having an Oscar or not having an Oscar indicate whether someone is a good actor or not? No. Alan Rickman never won one. Sir Ian McKellen hasn’t won one, neither has Glenn Close, Johnny Depp or Brad Pitt.

Regardless, ignore subjectivity for a moment: should nominees be chosen on the strength of their performance? Or should they be chosen because of their ethnicity? Imagine that Will Smith had been nominated in the first place and, then, picture the outcry if, when asked, a member of AMPAS said “I chose Smith because he is black and I felt, in the interest of fairness, that I should select a black person.” The backlash would be immense! It’s the same argument as was made at the University of Missouri in late 2015. Students protested because, among other grievances, they felt there were not enough black staff members. Once again, imagine the furore if, anywhere in the western world, it leaked out that an academic had been hired because of his or her ethnicity and not because they were the most qualified.

Sargon of Akkad, a.k.a. Carl Benjamin, made a great point to Dave Rubin on the latter’s show, The Rubin Report, in February 2016. Discussing extreme feminism, Rubin pointed out the overreaction to and criticism of the video game series, Grand Theft Auto:

Rubin:   I played Grand Theft Auto and, yeah, you could steal a car and punch a hooker and people would say: ‘well, that’s against women.’ But you could also punch a man. Or should they only have it that you only punch men? I mean even the logic behind it doesn’t really stand to critique.

Sargon: And there’s no winning either. So, this is the point: it’s all what’s called a ‘kafkatrap.’ It’s either you are this thing or you’re this thing and you don’t even realise it. You know? And there’s no falsifiability to any of their hypothesis. But, the main problem, if you think about it, like with Grand Theft Auto, so: what are the options? Not include women in the game? No way. They’d freak out if you couldn’t put women in the game.

Rubin:   Right.

Sargon: Or you can have the women not being able to be treated like men? Again, they’d be freaking out. ‘That’s not equal at all.’ So, what are you going to have? You’re going to have women so they just can’t be damaged. They will not allow you to treat women like men. You can’t beat up women but you can beat up men. And so you’re in this position where you’ve got no win. There’s no good answer. And that’s how they want it. They want you dancing to their tune.

What links these protesters? What do the extreme feminists against GTA, the #OscarsSoWhite crowd, the students at Mizzou, the people at Bowdoin College who hate tequila and sombreros have in common? They want to be the gatekeepers. They all yearn for preferential treatment. They want to beat down others with whom they disagree. They crave special consideration and they want to be made to feel important due to their membership of or advocacy for what they consider to be a marginalised, powerless, underprivileged, oppressed group.

Saudi women forced to wear cloth bags in desert heat, and Iranian homosexuals who know that if they’re ‘outed’ they’ll have to flee or face execution, are two examples of actually marginalised, powerless, underprivileged and oppressed groups. These people are so viciously discriminated against that they need all the help they can get. Actors and actresses living in Malibu, and directors with grand townhouses in Manhattan, however, are most certainly not marginalised, powerless, underprivileged and oppressed; nor are extreme feminists living in the West. Try telling a woman in rural Pakistan who has no other choice but to return to her husband, the same husband who threw battery acid on her for not bearing him a son, how GTA is stigmatising women. The people who claim special privilege are nothing more than power hungry narcissists acting like fascists, crying that they are being oppressed when a mirror is held up to their own vile bigotry.

At its roots, claiming special privilege stamps everybody else down. It is naturally discriminatory. We should all be treated equally shitty in the first place. It doesn’t matter which group you claim membership of; you do not deserve special privilege for just being X or advocating on behalf of X. Everyone has the right to speak, to march, to protest, to express themselves, but we’re not obliged to listen and we don’t have to accept something as dogma because someone else says it is. We ask for evidence and if we’re presented with a convincing argument we could even join the protest. But if what’s subjected to review is unconvincing then we reserve the right to exercise our own freedom of expression.

Let us ensure that we possess a meritocratic system which treats everybody equally shitty, nobody should be systemically disadvantaged. The person most suited to the job gets the job, rather than the most X. If they consider their identity to be X and they get the job, then great, well done them. They deserved it.

The Oscars are not perfect. Perhaps the Academy’s members considered Smith’s, Jordan’s and Elba’s acting inferior to the nominees, perhaps they didn’t. Maybe there really is systemic racism in the Academy, maybe there isn’t. At the moment the proof is unsatisfactory.

The remaining question is what will be the outcome of the #OscarsSoWhite protest? At the ceremony itself Chris Rock was an exceptional host, some people deserved the awards they won, and some people didn’t. (What’s new?) Next year, however, when the nominees are announced in January 2017 and several black actors and actresses have been nominated, we will all ask ourselves whether they have been chosen on merit or because of their ethnicity.