After this year’s Oscars, my social media feed was flooded with bite-sized inspirational moments and teary-eyed acceptance speeches. In particular, Ke Huy Quan’s win for Best Supporting Actor made waves in my digital landscape –– he was the first Vietnamese-born individual to win an Oscar, hadn’t been employed for decades and lost his health insurance after filming for this year’s best picture Academy Award winner, “Everything Everywhere All At Once.”
Don’t get me wrong: Quan’s win was inspirational and warranted. However, I took offense to how quickly people were able to forget Quan’s struggles in the Hollywood industry simply because he had a golden statue to his name. I felt the same way about Brendan Fraser, who had won Best Actor for his brilliant performance in “The Whale.” Fraser had a similar career path to Quan, leaving Hollywood in 2003 after being sexually assaulted by the ex-president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and then, after his hardship, going on to win an Oscar.
Quan and Fraser’s stories should be an indictment of the Hollywood industry, yet the Oscars have managed to appease audiences through their symbolic selections and the myth of inclusion. I say myth because inclusion, in Hollywood, only means including marginalized people in an industry that has persisting issues of exploitation and violence. This idea is in contrast to real inclusion, which, to me, is improving working conditions for everyone working in entertainment, from the underpaid and overworked VFX artists at Marvel to actors like Quan, who have lived paycheck to paycheck.
My criticisms do not imply that Quan and Fraser’s victories are unimportant. A huge reason why Quan was unable to find work was because of the lack of roles for Asian people, and it could very well be the case that his win will open doors for more representation in the future. I even wrote in my last article about how important the win for “Parasite” was at the 2020 Oscars. Instead, what I have an issue with is the idea that the Oscars care about anything but their bottom line and, even worse, that they represent the stewards of progress and social inclusion.
Take the 2020 Oscars as an example. In the nominee announcement, Issa Rae famously quipped, “congratulations to those men” after announcing the best director category. The very next year, Chloe Zhao, a woman, won the best director Academy Award for her work in “Nomadland.” Is it a mere coincidence that after this backlash, they gave the award to a woman in 2021?
Could it be that the Oscars are listening because they care about permanently lessening gender disparities? Or are they listening because they finally received mass criticism and acted swiftly to maintain their ratings and meet their profit goals? I believe the latter to be much more plausible. Additionally, this year’s Oscars failed to nominate any women for the best director category, furthering my point that their actions are performative and temporary.
If you need another example of how arbitrary the Oscars’ nomination process is, take a look at this year’s best actress campaign for Andrea Riseborough. Riseborough starred in “To Leslie,” a film that lacked nominations from the Screen Actors Guild, the Golden Globes and other award shows that act as benchmarks for Oscars’ predictions. Despite her lack of prior nominations and the minimal success of her film (it grossed roughly $27,000 before the campaign), Riseborough used her industry connections to impel the Oscars to snub two potential nominees, Danielle Deadwyler and Viola Davis. Deadwyler and Davis, for their respective roles in “Till” and “The Woman King,” would have made history by becoming the 15th and 16th Black actresses to be nominated for the category as a whole.
After an internal investigation from the academy, they concluded that Riseborough’s nomination shouldn’t be rescinded. This sparked much discourse, especially from people who expected the Oscars to be more mindful of representation following the #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite controversies. The ability of Riseborough and her industry connections to essentially manufacture a nomination reinforces the corruption and elitism which audiences criticized the academy for merely two years prior. I don’t blame Riseborough, but I instead blame the academy’s apathy towards these campaigns and the ability for something like this to occur in the first place.
Furthermore, the dominant logic of representation, at least in these awards cycles, consistently bets on children at home pointing to their television and exclaiming to their parents that they will one day be a winner, gripping their fingers around a tiny golden man and taking in applause from a room of people who take themselves too seriously. These awards make people chase an ideal that shouldn’t exist, especially as it pertains to something as subjective as art.
For poor children, especially poor children of color, dreams mostly remain dreams until their reality crashes upon them. Most people who have dreams of working in Hollywood will end up struggling like Quan and Fraser or even worse, unrecognized for their years of hard work because they weren’t part of a project the academy deems worthy enough to be rewarded –– which is exactly why we can’t replace industry reform with symbolic victories.
I love films. I love the idea of film as a medium of social change, depicting all parts of humanity sincerely and accurately. However, I think that when we put such a cultural emphasis on these awards and sentimental stories, we forget that Hollywood is an industry with its own problems of exploitation and violence. And then we forget that the academy and other entertainment institutions have a deep responsibility to fix these issues. So, if you have any take away from the Oscars this year, it should be the understanding that change comes from the bottom up, and Hollywood is much, much bigger than what is represented in these expensive venues.
Peter Dien CM ’25 is from West Covina, California. He enjoys listening to midwest emo, watching stand-up and playing Go with his roommate.