Every year the group most responsible for the Academy Awards remains conspicuously absent. The almost 6,000 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences don't glide down the red carpet explaining their ballots. They don't hold aloft the gold trophies or appear on morning talk shows the next day.
Their identities are undisclosed, but in 2012 a Los Angeles Times study found the Academy voters to be nearly 94% Caucasian and 77% male, with 86% of members older than 50. Like most American institutions, the Academy is dominated by old white men. The tastes of this antiquated group aren't particularly interesting, but their relationship to those tastes are. This year marked record diversity within the major Oscar categories. Yet while the Oscar results are ascribed to a zeitgeist, they're produced by an elite cadre. When the Oscar attendees clap for Lupita Nyong'o or 12 Years a Slave, they're celebrating their participation in that win. It's a moment that mars a wholly thrilling victory with the film industry's misguided self-satisfaction.
The Academy voters' acknowledgment of a range of human stories is not a burgeoning cosmopolitanism but a self-congratulatory allowance — one that mimes a proximity to Otherness in order to mitigate it. Every Oscar win for a woman, a person of color, or a movie slightly left of center seems to hallmark a social progression when in fact it's a negotiation: a negotiation with the cultural visibility of poverty, disability, sexuality, race, any facet that codes as unique within the Academy's homogenous space, on the terms of the Academy.
The Oscars are reputed for favoring stories whose acclaim can gesture at the Academy's generosity. This only highlights the distance between the Academy and the vision of itself it projects every year from the Dolby Theatre.
In 2005, straight cis actor Felicity Huffman was nominated for an Academy Award (and won a Golden Globe) for her role as a male-to-female trans woman in the film Transamerica. This year, the Academy awarded another straight cis actor, Jared Leto, for portraying a trans woman. He didn't use the word "trans" in his speech, but after thanking the Academy, Leto said, "Those of you who have ever felt injustice because of who you are and who you love, I stand here in front of the world with you and for you." [Ed.: Emphasis added.] His pride at speaking for those well able to speak for themselves managed to be an improvement on his Golden Globes acceptance speech, which included, "I did not ever use any prosthetics in this film. That tiny little Brazilian bubble butt was all mine."
If the actors, writers, directors, and producers behind these stories are only guilty of the typically earnest mistakes made by people who don't know what they don't know, the impulse to reward them is less quaint.
In 2006, during his Best Supporting Actor acceptance speech for Syriana, George Clooney admitted Hollywood was "out of touch" and added that he was proud of that fact: "It's probably a good thing. Um, we're the ones who talk about AIDS when it was just being whispered. And we talked about civil rights when it wasn't really popular. And we … we are the ones … this Academy, this group of people gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theaters. I'm proud to be a part of this Academy."
McDaniel won for playing a literal mammy. The two most recent black women to win Oscars have been awarded for playing a slave and a maid (Nyong'o and Octavia Spencer, respectively). Their performances well deserved, the accolades indisputable victories, but every time these victories are allowed to cast the Academy in their glow, Hollywood risks growing more complacent with itself.
Despite retaining their status as the zenith of prestige and promise of future earnings for their winners, the Oscars are suspect for the club of members responsible. It is their process of consumption and reward that remains a machine reassuring itself of its own magnanimity. Slave narratives, AIDS patients, the mentally ill, the otherwise marginalized all become fodder not for the expansion of our empathy toward such figures but for the emotional labor that comforts the stagnant Academy, continuing to hinder the meaningful participation of Others. Upon accepting her Oscar, Nyong'o said, "It doesn't escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else's." A deeply moving observation, but it remains to be seen whether the Academy heard anything more than a validation of their occasionally gracious taste.