Okay, so the Oscars happened — or, as I've taken to calling them, Hollywood Gets One of Its Ribs Removed So It Can Suck Its Own Dick for Eight Hours: The Movie — and, as you've probably heard, they were very, very dull. Wet paint was bored. String cheese had to go lie down. If you opted to spend your evening watching an elderly relative fall asleep in a recliner, then you, my friend, are a thrillseeker. That said, the 2012 Oscars weren't without a few teeny moments of cultural significance, especially when you consider the Academy itself and, in turn, who's really running Hollywood.
According to a Los Angeles Times article that made the rounds last week:
A Los Angeles Times study found that academy voters are markedly less diverse than the moviegoing public, and even more monolithic than many in the film industry may suspect. Oscar voters are nearly 94% Caucasian and 77% male, the Times found. Blacks are about 2% of the academy, and Latinos are less than 2%. Oscar voters have a median age of 62, the study showed. People younger than 50 constitute just 14% of the membership.
Wait, wait, wait. You're telling me that old, out-of-touch white dudes exert a disproportionate influence over the American cultural and political climate? And the Academy Awards are basically just a weird, arbitrary Movie Star Masturbation Telethon? I mean, duh. I guess we all knew that. But once you have those specific figures in your head (94% white!!!!! That means the Academy is more white than most juice is JUICE), it's hard to look at any of last night's ceremony without feeling a little bit gross.
Case in point, this: Pretty much the only award that surprised anyone was Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) edging out favorite Viola Davis (The Help) for Best Actress. Now, taking into account what we know about the hefty majority of Academy voters — old! White! Male! — there are a couple of possible implications here. On the one hand, white people looooove patting themselves on the back for not being racist (it is the national sport of white people-sorry, baseball!), but, on the other hand, old people LOVE MERYL STREEP. But then, on the third hand (I am an alien), don't all people love Meryl Streep? And wasn't The Help kind of totally dumb? And anyway, is it pointless to look for meaning in what is an inherently meaningless marketing exercise mostly intended to sell gowns and movie tickets to simpletons? (Disclaimer: I am a simpleton who buys movie tickets and, if the occasion ever arose, I'd buy gowns too.)
If anything, it seems like giving the award to Streep wasn't a political choice or an artistic choice, it was a comfortable choice. From Billy Crystal's old soft-shoe razzle-dazzle opener to that timely Sammy Davis Jr. impression (plus blackface!!!), this year's Oscars were nothing if not a pre-chewed paean to old-timey comfort. Meryl Streep is familiar, Meryl Streep is safe, Meryl Streep is a prime minister (Meryl Streep, incidentally, has won more Best Actress Oscars than all black women on earth combined). Viola Davis is less comfortable. She's a woman of color and her nomination was for her performance as a domestic worker in the Deep South, a reminder of an unflattering (and recent) past — a past that the fancy movie stars made sure to acknowledge and applaud earlier on with Octavia Spencer's Best Supporting Actress win.
But maybe a more solid criticism to aim at the Academy is just its obsession with hollow gravitas. Whatever its racial politics, one thing the Streep win definitely says is, "We prefer this goofily self-important shitty movie to this slightly comic yet equally shitty other movie." Black women, for the most part, don't end up playing major roles in the kind of vast, self-serious fare that the Academy lurves — which comes back, again, to comfort. Maybe Hollywood doesn't create complex roles for black women because complexity implies ambivalence, and ambivalence implies uncertainty about not being racist, and we're definitely not racist, because we're not, because, see, we made this black lady a saintly maid!!! And admitting that you might be just a little bit racist would be a complete forfeit in the national sport of white people! Uncomfortable!
Or maybe Meryl Streep was just really, really good in The Iron Lady. I don't know. To be honest, I lost consciousness at the part when Nick Nolte started talking about his pet crow.