Controversy has been ignited, taking the shape of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite in social media, concerning how for the last two years the Oscar nominees have been all white. The reasoning behind the controversy involves the demographics in America, which include approximately 15% each of African American and Hispanic presence, and a smaller Asian population, but these communities–which, presumably should make up about a third of the nominess if the Oscars accurately represented America–are noticeably absent from the list of nominees.
A part of me hates the controversy, in part because actors are already egocentric enough and perhaps they get too much credit and too much is already expected of them as role models. They’re just people, and we should celebrate our everyday non-famous heroes at least just as much as we engage in celebrity cult. I’m also aware that good actors must be deemed good actors, and that if they all happen to be white this year, then they are white. But after two years in a row, and no Hispanic or Black nominees … well, we have to admit there’s just something shady about that.
The absence of non-white actors in many series and movies has not gone unnoticed. I may not watch much TV or many movies, but when I do, it’s very obvious that there is a lack of Hispanic actors and a strong preference for British accents in certain roles … even ones that somehow posit that in a galaxy far away and in other planets, British–not American–is spoken, particularly by certain dignified characters. People of color, if they do show up, are almost invariably extras, and the leading roles are overwhelmingly white, with frequent casting of foreign actors for these roles. People in movies and TV rarely if ever reflect what my own Chicago neighborhood looks like, and Hollywood would rather go out of its way to hire Australians or even white South Africans, or British actors from the other side of the ocean, than people that look like our neighborhoods, as if desperate to build and reaffirm an imagined Pan-Anglo identity even if they have to cross to the other side of the world to find their ideal.
There’s probably nothing inherently wrong with this Pan-Anglo fantasy that Hollywood seeks to have us imagine–understandable if and when the films are made between two countries–but it is worth noting and does say something about Hollywood’s values, aesthetics, and a certain elitism, self-segregation, and denial of the true composition of our demographics. Hollywood is in California, which is hugely diverse, and has for many years said that it is not the America that we see on our streets. It is something other, transnational, that imagines itself more European and whiter than America.
Clearly there are very talented actors in our own continent who are either starving or at least in need of and deserving of work. The over-representation of Australians in leading roles in American television and film might be justified if there was a migration of them as massive as our Hispanic and Black population.
So the challenge for Hollywood is to reshuffle its tired prototypes and reinvent and diversify what a dignified person looks and sounds like, what heroes look and sound like, and to allow itself to accept that maybe the key characters can sometimes be unexpectedly non-white or non-Anglo.
Leave it to a hashtag in 2016 to make the majority of us make these curious observations.