There’s been a lot of hullaballoo in Hollywood and in the media recently about this year’s Oscar Nominations in the Acting Categories. For the second year in a row, all 20 nominees in the acting categories are white. Social media has responded to this reality with hashtags like #OscarSoWhite or #OscarSoDumb. (For reader responses to the controversy, visit this NY Times Article). As a person of color or minority, I can’t pretend that I don’t have an opinion on this that goes beyond the whole “artistic meritocracy” argument so often propounded by industry insiders and viewers alike. The divide between these camps seems to fall along the lines of “there is no racism, art is subjective and only the best get selected,” to more extreme views of “of course there’s inherent institutional racism!” The truth, as always, seems to fall somewhere in between.
First, let’s agree on some things. Being nominated for an Oscar is prestigious and means a lot to actors, actresses, and viewers alike. Being nominated often results in a bump up the “to be viewed” movie list and many people go out of their way to see all Oscar-nominated films. Even though some critics and others claim that the Oscars are becoming more culturally irrelevant, and is hardly an indicator of popular taste, let’s agree that being nominated is still seen, as important and honorable, in some circles.
Second, let’s analogize to publishing and how there is also a lack of diversity within publishing, at an industry level, and in the books that are published every year. Lee & Low just released their baseline diversity survey, and while not every major publisher participated, it is a huge step in the right direction in terms of giving a snapshot of where the publishing industry is, in terms of diversity. Click here to see the survey.
Awards matter. When a writer queries me or tell me that she has been nominated for the Puschart Prize multiple times, my ears perk up. Does this mean I will sign that writer right away? Not necessarily; I look at a whole host of factors before offering representation. However, awards are a good barometer of some level of talent or story-telling ability. As such, they are important.
Now let’s look deeper. Who gives out these awards? Who are the members of the Academy and the so-called tastemakers? Are they diverse? Because guess what, both film and publishing is art, and our responses to art are largely subjective. Where we come from, who we are, these personal histories color our perception and ideas of what is considered “artistically worthy.” So it follows that diversity within the industries, among tastemakers, critics, and members of the Academy, no less, matters! If we care about diversity and representing stories from underrepresented and marginalized communities, and that doesn’t just mean racially–it can also mean representing socio-economically diverse individuals, LGBQT representation, and representation of those with disabilities, etc.–then we should care about who is calling the shots and yes, if these people appreciate diversity on some level.
Change is happening and the time for diversity is now. We can’t and shouldn’t wait for the status quo, to have things remain the way they are if we care about the future of story-telling. Viewers hunger for diversity, for representation that looks and feels like them. TV seems to be a bit ahead of the curve, in that respect, greenlighting series with leads that are not Caucasian, for instance. Even The Oscars has taken the historic step of taking of committing to doubling the number of women and diverse members of The Academy by 2020. Which is a huge step in the right direction.
My hope, with all of this, is to continue the conversation and make change happen. Let’s all be ambassadors of diversity, telling diverse stories with interesting characters that may not look or feel familiar. Let’s push our comfort zone and grow artistically. Life is all about growth, so why should things stay the same? Personally, when I read a story, I want to learn something new while also feeling familiar–I think that is what is so amazing and unique about books–you can expand your comfort zone, learn new things, expand your mind–all from the comfort of your home or wherever you may be traveling.
I’d like to quote the last paragraph of the diversity survey to close:
Publishing is not alone when it comes to having a lack of diversity problem. All media, including film, television, and theater, are having similar conversations about diversity. It is plain to see that our society as a whole has a problem. We believe we are at a crucial time right now. We all have to decide if the country in which we live is better off if we conduct our lives separately or together. The diversity problem is not the responsibility of diverse people to solve. It is a problem for everyone to solve.