What the Oscar Nominations Mean for Representation

Every year, there's a moment where the public holds its breath as the Oscar nominations come out. Every year, there's speculation for weeks—if not months—as to which movies will get picked. And every year, it seems, when that breath is let out, it's as a sigh of disappointment at the narrow experiences the nominees portray. Five years ago this disappointment and outrage resulted in the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. This year, after aggressive attempts on the Academy's part to avoid that moniker over the past four years, the only reason it doesn't technically apply is that Cynthia Erivo was nominated for her performance in Harriet. On top of that, not a single woman was nominated for Best Director, despite the massive success of Little Women, Booksmart, The Farewell, and Hustlers, all of which were directed by women. Every year, people will have opinions on who was snubbed, but this year it's apparent that the Oscars are overwhelmingly straight, white, and male. 

What these nominations say is not that these stories aren't worthwhile or interesting—critics and moviegoers alike prove that they are. Instead, they prove once again that the Academy doesn't care to explore or honor stories that showcase a variety of lived experiences. They'd rather honor movies that stroke Hollywood's ego or sympathize with stand-up comics without being completely successful in their storytelling. The problem here isn't that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood or Joker are bad movies—plenty of people liked them and neither is the disaster of, say, Cats—but that they're not innovative. They're both stories that Hollywood loves to tell and that appeal to the Academy's majority: a majority that in December 2016 was 89% white and 73% male. Meanwhile, the "diverse" stories that are being honored fulfill very specific narratives prescribed by the majority. Lupita Nyong'o, who won for her performance in 12 Years a Slave in 2014, was snubbed of a nomination for an equally if not more impressive performance in Jordan Peele's Us. Meanwhile, the only black person to be nominated was for a slave narrative. She was playing Harriet Tubman, yes, but the fact still stands that the one person of color who earned a nomination this year was for playing a slave. Little Women, the singular film to be nominated for Best Picture that tells a uniquely female story, is an overwhelmingly white story. It's not just that female directors were snubbed, or that it's another year where #OscarsSoWhite can apply. It's that the Academy has continually shown that their support of non-white, female, and queer stories is pure performance. When backlash emerges, they make claims that they're working to diversify their membership or introducing initiatives, but within a couple of years, the same complaints are being made with the same empty promises to counteract them. The Academy has never and will never actually care about representation, and yet people keep looking to them for validation for their stories. Keep telling those stories. Keep speaking your truth. Just don't look to the Academy for validation. 

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