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The Bigotry of Praise and Recognition at The Oscars

So, it’s finally over. The 84th annual post-modern golden calf worship festival has come to a close. I’m not going to lie, there was a time in my own life that this yearly red carpet pilgrimage meant something. Then I turned 22 and realized the cup of knowledge I had been drinking from for so long also contained several traces of revelatory cynicism. For better or for worse (well, both) it has become hard to stomach blatant bigotry disguised as praise or recognition. And the Oscars is one of the greatest contemporary pop culture bastions of this particular sort of bigotry.

At last night’s Oscars, this bigotry of praise and recognition reared its head in two primary ways: The Help and Saving Face. The recognition of both films (and particularly Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer for the former) offer an unsettling glimpse into how the Academy views so-called ‘women of color’ and how subconscious (?) racialism is far, far from an irrelevant issue in how we pick and choose who to recognize for their talent and ability as well as for influence. I am not trying to demerit the work of those involved nor the movies in and of themselves. But nothing is ever in and of itself. While there are some instances to the contrary, there is a long-standing trend of representing and recognizing Black Americans at the Oscars within the framework of racist or racial power relations which place them at the weaker end of the relationship. For South Asians, in particular, there is a trend of recognizing and representing them also similarly, feeding into stereotypes and tropes of victimhood for women. The white (specifically male) gaze permeates through every category and every gown.

Context

First, let’s briefly contextualize the position of Black Americans in Oscar history. The very first Black American to win an Academy

Hattie McDaniel, as Mammy, in Gone with the Wind. McDaniel would be the first Black American to win an Oscar, in 1940.

Award was Hattie McDaniel for Best Supporting Actress, for the role of Mammy (a slave) in the iconic Gone With the Wind, in 1940. Fifty-one years later, Whoopi Goldberg would take home the award for her role in 1991′s Ghost. In 1963, Sidney Poitier became the first Black male to win Best Actor. The second Black male actor to win the award for Best Actor would be Denzel Washington, in 2002, for Training Day. Since Poitier’s first nomination in 1958, making him the first Black male to be nominated in the category, there have been a total of  18 nominations for Black males. Of these 18 nominations, four have won in the category–with three wins after 2002. For the category of Best Actress, there have been a total of nine Black female nominations. The only win, in this category, for a Black woman was in 2001 (a year before Washington’s big win) for Halle Berry’s work in Monster’s Ball. Berry’s nomination for the category was the first for a Black woman since 1993. It should also be noted that the most wins for Black American actors have been in the categories of Best Supporting Actor and Actress.

While there are some instances to the contrary, there is a long-standing trend of representing and recognizing Black Americans at the Oscars within the framework of racist or racial power relations which place them at the weaker end of the relationship.

Now I’m not trying to imply some sort of Affirmative Action-esque policy for the Oscars. Of course not. But it surprising the very few nominations received by Black Americans within the industry and the equally few wins. Most nominations and wins for Black Americans come in the 2000s and even then for Best Actress they have been sparse. For this category, all nominations within the past ten years have recognized the work of Black women in stories of racialized tropes. I focus on women and the category of Best Actress because the Academy (and by obvious extension Hollywood) doesn’t shy from gendering its bigoted praise and recognition. The category of Best Leading Actress (or Actor) is an important category as it signifies the authority of the actor to hold the film together. The recognition of an actor in either one of these categories, especially recognition in the form of a victory, is to recognize the glue and most integral part of the film.

Berry’s 2001 win was for portraying a Black woman who ultimately finds physical and emotional solace in a white man who helped assist in the execution of her husband, who was convicted of murder. The next nomination for a Black woman in the category would be for Gabourey Sidibe’s portrayal in 2009′s Precious. The film was an uncomfortable look at a plethora of issues all laced with ‘Blackness’–poverty, hierarchy of complexion, domestic and sexual abuse, AIDs and welfare. It would be Mo’Nique, however, who would win for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of a sexually and physically abusive and vengeful mother who sees her obese, molested and twice-impregnated-by-her-father daughter as a threat to her own womanhood. And now, in 2012, were Viola Davis (who is awesome) and Octavia Spencer’s nominations for their roles in The Help.

The Help

One of the most talked about films of the year, The Help, an adaptation of a novel by the same name by Kathryn Stockett, is film about an aspiring white female author (played by Emma Stone) who, in the midst of the civil rights movement which is rocking the social fabric of the United States, writes the perspectives and lives of Black maids who have devoted their lives to raising children of white families (played by Davis and Spencer). Stone’s character, the white woman with a good conscious, is the saving grace of these women’s peril and downtrodden representation, as depicted by all those around them and her. Stone’s character is their voice.

April, over at Feministing, provides an excellent critique of the film. She looks at how “commercialized mainstream media culture is only able to address racism and the United States’ racist past if it absolves white guilt/complicity, valorizes whiteness, mythologizes history, or ignores historical accuracy all together.” In other words, films in Hollywood that are based in the South or have blatant white-black relationship tropes are representative of how America’s ‘violently racist’ past is dealt with and understood by ‘the dominant culture.’ The ultimate conclusion of such films, April argues, is that “racism is an action of an individual person also hurt by life’s misfortunes” as opposed to an institutionalized and systemic form of physical, social and mental violence against a people based on their skin color. April concludes [emphasis mine]:

While I understand the desire to indulge these types of movies, we as consumers must be mindful of who is selling us these products and what their motives and intentions are. Like the straight male blogger who decided to create “Gay Girl in Damascus,” Kathryn Stockett, Disney, and others who’ve helped The Help get to where it is, enjoy taking on the struggle of Black/brown people without actually handing in their whiteness; without distancing themselves from the problem that is at the root of nonwhite folks’ oppression. These people often say, “I just wanted to shed light on the situation,” yet they do not even share the financial wealth and recognition resulted from their “altruistic” deeds. Instead, they valorize themselves where they become the heroes and not the people who have worked for progress and continue to live that experience every day of their lives.

The Help is a painful instance of not only whitewashing of history but also a painful reminder of the recognition afforded to these stories in which Blacks are put at the mercy of the ‘White’ protagonist. 2010′s win for Sandra Bullock’s portrayal of a white woman saving a black boy from, uh, himself in The Blind Side, comes immediately to mind as another uncomfortable reminder of this relationship.

White women can play schizophrenic ballerinas, sexy single moms turned questionable lawyers, illiterate Nazis and paraplegic boxers and win an Oscar. But a Black woman? Only when she is completely drenched in her ‘race.’ Only then is she not just recognized for her role and talent, but only then is she given a role worth considering. Can a Black woman only ever receive a role or receive recognition for her work if her ‘Blackness’ (or others’ ideas of ‘her Blackness’) is at the center of the film and that Blackness is the source of her vulnerability? How many romantic comedies featuring Black actresses (or Black actors, for that matter. Save Will Smith in Hitch) come to mind? Why does a predominantly Black cast immediately necessitate that the film then must be for a ‘Black audience’ only? Despite the stellar cast of the American remake of Death at a Funeral, it was still considered, by and large, a ‘Black comedy’ film.

Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball. Berry became the first Black American to win the award for Best Actress in a Leading Role in 2001.

The problem of representation and bigotry of praise for Black actors, particularly females, at the Oscars is emblematic of the greater problem of representation of Blacks (and other so-called “people of color”) in the film industry–not only numerically but also the roles they are assigned, which often (with, of course, exceptions primarily for males) use Blackness as the actor’s crux.

And perhaps the bigotry of representation, especially for Black women, isn’t surprising when “98% of the academy screenwriters are white and 97% of the cinematographers are men.” And perhaps the bigotry of praise and recognition isn’t surprising with an Academy that is 94% white, 77% male and has an average age of 62.

In addition to this, The LA Times “found that some of the academy’s 15 branches are almost exclusively white and male. Caucasians currently make up 90% or more of every academy branch except actors, whose roster is 88% white. The academy’s executive branch is 98% white, as is its writers branch. Men compose more than 90% of five branches, including cinematography and visual effects. Of the academy’s 43-member board of governors, six are women; public relations executive Cheryl Boone Isaacs is the sole person of color.”

Thus, of course, it follows naturally that Thatcher would beat out a Southern Black maid.

Saving Face

I’m going to be a bit [relatively] brief here because this issue is ultimately tangential to what I previously discussed. The reach of ‘white maleness’ of not only the Academy but also the film industry is beyond its own geographic headquarters. As a Pakistani woman it is hard for me to not comment on what is erroneously being referred to as “Pakistan’s first Oscar,” for the documentary Saving Face attributed to, albeit slightly misleadingly, Canadian-Pakistani Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. The topic of the film is both powerful and painful: it is the story of two women, victims of acid attacks which disfigured their faces, as they try to reconfigure their lives and receive help from a surgeon.

And some of you are probably about to hate me now.

Despite the importance of the bringing justice to the women (and men) who face these senseless attacks (beyond Pakistan), I couldn’t help but cringe at the fact that not only was such a documentary nominated but that it won and is “Pakistan’s first Oscar”. This is how Pakistan is recognized at what is considered the ‘most important’ film award ceremony? An Oprah special turned into a documentary? And is this what South Asian women are, once again, reduced to? The trope of the victimized South Asian female, at the Oscars, is not new; it has been dangerously bludgeoned for years. A quick look at past nominees from South Asia (specifically India) for various categories reveal themes of female victimization (Water), feel-good extreme poverty (Slumdog Millionaire, Salaam Bombay!) and nostalgia for the colonial past (Lagaan, Water). But even more than this — is this how Pakistani women, in particular, are seen? Victims of acid attacks by a ‘backwards’ society and can be saved with the help of a camera crew and a British Pakistani surgeon?

Even more cringe worthy is that Saving Face was not Obaid-Chinoy’s awareness-producing child. It was not her idea. Remember this guy? The white guy who graciously let “the Pakistani” speak? The film was initially the idea of director Daniel Junge, who was well into making the film before giving Obaid-Chinoy a ring (it’s an HBO documentary–how is it considered a win for Pakistan?). Needless to say, a Pakistani woman’s face on a film about Pakistani women does give it some more legitimacy than, well, a white male’s. Also, easier access. So, forgive me again for my cynicism, but it is hard to see the film as anything short of the infamous Gayatri Spivak thesis that is repeated ad nauseum by anyone who remotely shares the perspective I am sharing here. Acid attacks against women happen in Pakistan (as they happen within the general region and in several other countries) and they are not short of a heinous crime. But they are not as rampant as perhaps implicitly suggested by the documentary and not representative of the Pakistani female form and experience.

Or maybe, just maybe, they are just representative enough for a 94% white, 77% male with an average age of 62 Academy.

And I’m not even going to touch A Separations win as a so totally obvious statement by ‘Liberal Hollywood’ that they are against a war on Iran.

 

 

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Discussion

44 Responses to “The Bigotry of Praise and Recognition at The Oscars”

  1. Sana. Amazing post. Best of your yet perhaps. Really enjoyed it and thank you for being so candid and well versed about this subject highlighting the many problems behind the Academy Awards. Thanks again!

    Posted by Raisa | February 28, 2012, 3:12 am
  2. Well said Sana. I could not agree more with you.

    Posted by Akhtar | February 28, 2012, 3:39 am
  3. Sana, I don’t watch The Academy Awards, nor do the awards hold much merit when I make my film selections, but I do enjoy reading historical fiction among other genres. I wanted to point out that the author’s name of The Help is actually Kathryn Stockett, not Karen Stockett. I suspect you haven’t read it, and wanted to recommend the novel, since books are always better before Hollywood gets their fingers in there.

    Posted by Kate | February 28, 2012, 4:39 pm
    • Whoops! That was a typo as a result of stream conciousness! And yes I haven’t read it and I have no doubt it’s fantastic, but I’m more concerned w/ issues of representation, themes, racial tropes, engagement with the past (esp. if violent). I definitely will check out the book however! Books are always better than the film. Except Atonement. As good.

      Posted by sana | February 28, 2012, 9:48 pm
      • Bigotry of representation??? The academy calls itself "the world's preeminent movie-related organization" of "the most accomplished men and women working in cinema," and its membership includes some of the brightest lights in the film business — its their Academy and their Oscars!

        Guess what Sana? Hollywood is in the USA. http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/00000.htm

        from the 2010 census:

        White persons, percent, 2010 (a) 72.4%

        Black persons, percent, 2010 (a) 12.6%

        American Indian and Alaska Native persons, percent, 2010 (a) 0.9%

        Asian persons, percent, 2010 (a) 4.8%

        Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, percent definition and source info Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, percent, 2010 (a) 0.2%

        Persons reporting two or more races, percent definition and source info Persons reporting two or more races, percent, 2010 2.9%

        Persons of Hispanic or Latino origin, percent definition and source info Persons of Hispanic or Latino origin, percent, 2010 (b) 16.3%

        White persons not Hispanic, percent definition and source info White persons not Hispanic, percent, 2010 63.7%

        Posted by Haley | June 9, 2012, 12:33 am
  4. Great read Sana. I always think your posts couldn't possibly get better, but they somehow do.

    I turned on the telly and saw Ms. benevolent white women Angelina Jolie walk out, shook my head and just turned it off. Its just a bunch of aging adults showing off their clothing, acting out a script (the Oscars are scripted) and celebrating themselves. Mainly its a glorified geriatric fashion show.

    There is a history behind the Academy awards that probably explains why they can't escape their racist blindspots. I would say to you that its not the UN movie awards. Also what about Hispanics actors?

    I think the fact most of the movies that got acclaim were mediocre at best (Moneyball and the Descendants? Good flicks, but seriously?) and there were no blockbusters to distract our review of the Oscars is why we come to focus on flaws and racism.

    Jian Ghomeshi was talking about this on CBC Radio last night that these awards are out of touch with the the new generation, and most were pretty bored by them. Some of the commentators talked about how the categories differ and how though the categories remain nominally the same, but reguarly change in their genre criteria (i.e. a Woody Allen comedy, a Roman Polanski film, ) yearly. So why can't they change how they see race? I think its just a matter of time.

    P.S. Awrad > Awards

    Posted by Dawud Israel | February 28, 2012, 6:10 pm
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  7. So the Praise and Recognition at The Oscars is bigotry now? If recognizing the film "Saving Face" is tantamount to bigotry, what would completely ignoring be considered as? Are you saying it SHOULD have been ignored? You cringe because such a documentary was even nominated?So the Praise and Recognition at The Oscars is bigotry now? If recognizing the film "Saving Face" is tantamount to bigotry, what would completely ignoring be considered as? Are you saying it SHOULD have been ignored? You cringe because such a documentary was even nominated?

    “commercialized mainstream media culture is only able to address racism and the United States’ racist past if it absolves white guilt/complicity, valorizes whiteness, mythologizes history, or ignores historical accuracy all together"? So you never heard of a little film called "Roots"? http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0075572/

    You don't like it because "This is how Pakistan is recognized at what is considered the ‘most important’ film award ceremony" and you are a Pakistani woman. Never-mind the importance of the bringing justice to the women (and men) who face these senseless attacks, what really matters here is the IMAGE of Pakistan. Right? This what South Asian women are, once again, reduced to? The recognition of the accomplishments of Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy in bringing such an important issue to such a global audience? That's quite a reduction indeed. When was the last time they were reduced to this?

    Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy is the DIRECTOR. She has made 16 documentaries around the world and is a recipient of many awards. “Pakistan’s Taliban Generation” won an International Emmy last year.

    “Saving Face” is a project of Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy in collaboration with Daniel Junge. Daniel Junge contacted Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy while looking for a partner. The subject matter immediately appealed to Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. But the whole thing is illegitimate because Daniel Junge is white. The reach of ‘white maleness’ of not only the Academy but also the film industry… you are pretty bigoted against white males for some reason. In fact its downright racist.

    It is hard to see the film as anything short of the infamous Gayatri Spivak thesis? So you do not recognize the talents and work of Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy or Daniel Junge. You do not recognize Dr. Mohammad Jawad, a surgeon who traveled to Pakistan from the United Kingdom in order to help these women through reconstructive surgery.

    The documentary does not seek to be "representative of the Pakistani female form and experience." It covers one topic and one group of people (and does so very well). What the hell is the matter with you? Its called SAVING FACE, not The Life and Times of All Pakistani Women. And who cares that the Academy is supposedly 94% white, – unless you're some sort of racist.

    Posted by Haley | June 9, 2012, 12:06 am
  8. "And I’m not even going to touch A Separation‘s win as a so totally obvious statement by ‘Liberal Hollywood’ that they are against a war on Iran."

    Perhaps you should, you racist jerk. Let's be real here…I read through your whinny article, and at the end…An "Iranian" film wins. Which you berate, without explanation. Who's the bigot now? Hollywood, or you?

    Posted by Cyrus | July 7, 2012, 9:44 pm
  9. I wanted to point out that the author's name of The Help is actually Kathryn Stockett, not Karen Stockett. I suspect you haven't read it, and wanted to recommend the novel

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  13. The film was an uncomfortable look at a plethora of issues all laced with ‘Blackness’–poverty, hierarchy of complexion, domestic and sexual abuse, AIDs and welfare. It would be Mo’Nique, however, who would win for Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of a sexually and physically abusive and vengeful mother who sees her obese, molested and twice-impregnated-by-her-father daughter as a threat to her own womanhood. And now, in 2012, were Viola Davis (who is awesome) and Octavia Spencer’s nominations for their roles in The Help.タイヤ交換三重

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  20. The documentary does not seek to be "representative of the Pakistani female form and experience." It covers one topic and one group of people (and does so very well). What the hell is the matter with you? Its called SAVING FACE, not The Life and Times of All Pakistani Women. And who cares that the Academy is supposedly 94% white, – unless you're some sort of racist.

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  23. The subject matter immediately appealed to Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. But the whole thing is illegitimate because Daniel Junge is white. The reach of ‘white maleness’ of not only the Academy but also the film industry… you are pretty bigoted against white males for some reason. In fact its downright racist maysange

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  37. I turned on the telly and saw Ms. benevolent white women Angelina Jolie walk out, shook my head and just turned it off. Its just a bunch of aging adults showing off their clothing, acting out a script (the Oscars are scripted) and celebrating themselves. Mainly its a glorified geriatric fashion show.

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