The Bigotry of Praise and Recognition at The Oscars

Originally for KABOBfest.

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.


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

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.

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 Karen 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.

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 an obvious statement by ‘Liberal Hollywood’ that they are against a war on Iran.

4 thoughts on “The Bigotry of Praise and Recognition at The Oscars

  1. My, my Sana you are on a kick with this!

    You answered your own lament when you aptly described the Academy’s overwhelmingly old, white male demographic!

    To think for an instant that Hollywood reflects anything other than America’s own racial, homophobic, free society, land of opportunity stereotypical view of itself is to miss the forest for the trees. Hollywood is much like a mirror. No ways to depict blacks other than what you describe reflects only America’s effete response to its problem of race and xenophobia. Sure, blacks have more opportunities than when they were enslaved and lynched, but those opportunities are of a degree not a true essence of equality. Seeing the rest of the world in conscience-salving, do-gooder ways is par for the course for a society that cannot distinguish between a distraction and something of inestimable value.

    What else did you expect of a society that has lived so long, and continues to do so, on the backs of poor, opportunity-limited, foreign workers. Capitalism delivers the goods cheaply as it moves around the globe and those are the goods, shall I say, demanded by the American, and Canadian as well, populace. Neither will I exclude other countries whose capitalism skewers their altruism, idealism and commutarianism over the warming fires of relatively unchecked self-indulgence. We want what we want at a price whose origins in cheap labor and working conditions are hidden from view. Haven’t seen many people dumping their iPhones or iPads following the Foxconn expose have you? And you will not. Sensitivity to those removed from American sight is relatively non-existent.

    Americans vote with their dollars for the fairy tales spun by Hollywood. Touch too closely to anything requiring conscious examination of life with its daily choices and you run the risk of becoming invisible. No, the Oscars are just another of the “bread and circuses, that have been with us since the Romans.

    America leads a charmed life compared with the rest of the world. Yes, we have our poor but, as Michael Harrington intoned in The Other America nearly 50 years ago, they are the best dressed poor the world has ever seen. And we continue down the road to keep the fires of dissent as muted and as ineffectual as we can. If nothing else, distraction is a wonderful analgesic!

    Viewing documentaries such as Saving Face are painful because they remind each of us of our own part in the way we, America, run roughshod over the rest of the world because not matter what we do it is never truly altruistic, but designed to ultimately bring us a measure of control and direction. Events as portrayed in such documentaries leave us feeling self-rightous and able to point at how others. less civilized, live. Why aren’t they more like us is not an unheard of remark to suce stories. But they keep us within our cocoon of beliefs in the inherent goodness of the “American Way of Life.”

    My lament is that we do not have enough young people engaged, and maybe it’s a time of life issue, in the messy politics of crafting a world reflecting their idealistic views of a world in which they will spend the majority of their lives. I’m an old JFKer. Not because of what or who he was, but because of what he called each of us to do. Sure, he was ultimately shown to be a man whose feet were of clay, but his call is as true now as it was when we didn’t know all about him.

    We will never have the “Springs” experienced around the world because our society treads on a tightrope of needs versus fulfilled wants that delivers just enough to dampen the hopelessness that propels others to risk it all because there is nothing left about which to pretend.

    Hollywood lives an existence unto itself. Technology now offers, on the other hand, those who want to bring a more accurate picture to the masses lots of opportunities to do so. But it will be in the visual arts where your generation’s stories must be told. Fewer and fewer will be drawn to the literary exposes (accent missing). Your facility with visual media combined with music that stirs the essence of all will be the telling generational accomplishment of your age. And while it might begin in an ego-drenched exhilaration it must evolve into a crusade to make the world truly hospitable to all its inhabitants. Failing that, all you may have created is a new distractive arena competing with lots of others.

    Sorry for my wandering. Your piece simply called forth a response that I just let fly. Keep up your writing! Be as safe as you can! Bring to others what they would not otherwise be able to secure for themselves!

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