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Recognition, Representation, and Reward

The lack of diversity in Hollywood is certainly not a new problem. Since the dawn of cinema, Hollywood has been dominated by a majority of white actors, directors, writers, and essentially every other major position in the making of movies. In recent years, however, there has been a more vocal and widespread movement to call attention to the apparent problem Hollywood has with minorities. Perhaps the most well-known example of this critique of Hollywood has been the social media hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. This hashtag trended following the 87th (2015) and 88th (2016) Academy Award nominations and winners. Both ceremonies had no minority actors nominated in the categories of Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress. These categories comprise a total of 20 nominees each year, all of them white. In light of this year’s nominations, it appears steps have been taken to remedy this issue. Discussing the implications and importance of such steps, various groups at Boston College weighed in on the issue.

“I feel like this year there was a conscious effort to be more inclusive in the nomination process in terms of race. Beautiful, moving art should be respected regardless of the artist—and I believe Hollywood is moving forward in trying to figure this out,” Julianna Khoury, Co-President of the Arab Students Association at BC and MCAS ’17, said in an email.

Despite marked progress made toward diversity in this year’s nominations for the 89th (2017) Academy Awards, there is clearly still work to be done. Sydney Boyd, freshman representative of the Black Student Forum and MCAS ’20, says that she believes progress has been made with regard to films that are not solely about race. But it takes more than just one ceremony to change a longstanding policy.

“It’s hard to say that progress has been made within a year, because true progress in the industry comes with time, not just nominating the few in the industry to keep us quiet,” Boyd said.

There were seven black actors nominated for Academy Awards this year. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis both won Golden Globes and Mahershala Ali is heavily favored for an Academy Award. But people of other race and ethnicities experienced little to no representation in most of the categories. A show with such notoriety and esteem like the Oscars could make a definite impact with the recognition of Asian, Hispanic, and Native American actors. These actors bring a variety of experiences to their performances and contribute to the depth of the industry as a whole.

Defenders of Hollywood’s actions with regard to diversity usually claim that these awards and recognition don’t mean anything. For example, Alan Rickman was never nominated for an Academy Award in his entire career, yet no one claims that he isn’t a great actor. In a perfect world, actors, directors, writers, and everyone else would be successful because of their talent alone.

In a perfect world, there wouldn’t be racism or prejudice. But the fact is, people of color  have to work extra hard for the same opportunities. So, these awards do mean something. Movies that win awards make more money and people who win awards get more jobs in movies. Thus, recognition from the awards is paramount. And it’s not just about trying to get respect from  peers. Last year, 34.3 million people watched the Academy Awards live. Seeing the nominees, regardless of whether or not they win, allows the general public to form opinions about actors and actress of color.

Awards aside, movies and television are among the most widely consumed forms of media in the world. It’s not surprising, then, that a lot of incorrect ideas about minorities come from the way they are represented on screen. For example, Asian actors are usually cast as either comic-relief nerds or martial arts experts.

“I think there definitely is a skewed representation,”  Clara Lee, President of the Asian Caucus and LSOE ’17, said. “The stereotypical representation of Asians has been in Hollywood for a while.”

These stereotypes can be even more harmful when these groups of people are always portrayed as the villains in movies and television. Hollywood has the tendency to change the bad guys based on current events. In the Cold War, Russians were the antagonists. With the War on Terror, Hollywood has decided to cast any Middle Eastern person as the “bad guy.”

“Arab people are chosen for roles that fit the typical ‘Arab’ stereotype, one that is insensitive and void of cultural relativism,” Khoury said. “I can name quite a few films that present Arabs as violent radical terrorists or unintelligent immigrants who are blind to the reality around them.”

The way people are represented in media can have a detrimental effect on the very group they are misrepresenting. When every person of a certain appearance acts the same way in media, members of that group can feel boxed in. Minorities do not appear in mainstream movies and television as often as white people. This lack of visibility can discourage minorities who might otherwise go into the industry.

“Arts aren’t as fondly looked upon in the Asian culture,” Lee said. “If there’s a recurring theme with what kind of actors play a certain role, people will think that’s true for an entire group when that’s not the case.”

The Academy Awards do not just have issue with diversity in terms of race and ethnicity. Women have been notoriously under-represented in every category that isn’t for women specifically. The last time a female director was nominated for Best Director was in 2009. Kathryn Bigelow was nominated for The Hurt Locker. Notably, this is the only time in the history of the Academy Awards that a woman has won an Oscar in the category of Best Director. This lack of representation is a product of the enormous discrepancy between men and women in the industry. Women have a hard time making it into the business because there are no women in the business. The cycle perpetuates itself.

“Generally, less than 25 percent of non-acting nominees in a given year are women, and this year it was more like 20 percent,” Lisa Cuklanz, chair of the communication department and former director of the women’s studies program, said “The numbers don’t seem to be getting better over the past several years.”

When women are represented, it often serves to reinforce existing stereotypes. Women are typically portrayed in select and narrow roles. In most action movies, for example, any female role only serves as a romantic interest for the main character. The woman in the movie is portrayed as a damsel in distress rather than a competent person. Audiences generate opinions and predispositions from what they see in media.

“If women are only ever portrayed as having a limited set of occupations, as fulfilling stereotypes regularly applied to women,” said Erin Doolin, a graduate assistant at the BC Women’s Center, in an email, “then people of all genders will internalize these messages and bring them into their day to day lives.”

This issue is paramount because these groups experience discrimination on a daily basis. Every organization agrees that by allowing for more diversity in media, discrimination outside of media can be lessened. People who wouldn’t normally interact with minorities become used to the idea. They see them on television and in movies, as well as being honored by the industry. This helps to minimize the “other” status that so many minority groups experience. There are things that can be done by audience members on an individual basis.

As viewers I believe the best thing we can do is address our own preconceived notions. We need to ask ourselves why it is important to note someone’s ethnicity, and how that colors our perception of them,” said Sadiq Ervin, Event Coordinator for the Black Student Forum and MCAS ’19, in an email. “Once viewers find themselves addressing these questions, we’ll be taking a step in the right direction.”

Featured Image By Associated Press

February 2, 2017

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