The Political Significance of the Oscar Awards

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6754829763_7eba44f8d1_mA student in my semiotics of popular culture class has asked me whether I thought that the largely white, male Academy failed to award an Oscar to Viola Davis because they couldn’t stand to see a sweep of the actress awards by black women. Such a question merits a seriously considered answer, and I think that this blog is a good place to provide one. First, while I do not pretend to be able to read the minds of the Academy voters, I am certainly aware of the growing controversy over their demographic make-up, and while I do not think it impossible that they were influenced in their voting by their own racial instincts, I think it more likely that they turned to Meryl Streep as they have always turned to Meryl Streep: that is, as a symbol of solid acting excellence in an industry largely devoted to action-packed, special-effects driven entertainment aimed mostly at adolescents. In other words, I’m with Neal Gabler of the Los Angeles Times, who recently argued that the candidates for best picture (including The Artist, which, of course, won) reflect a combination of self-loathing (for all of the low cultural stuff that Hollywood usually produces) and nostalgia (for movies that reflect high-art values or high moral purpose) among the Academy voters, who assuage their consciences by voting for the few high-art or high moral purpose movies that come along in a given year. But more importantly for me is the fact that, as is almost always the case in American culture, political controversy swirls around questions of race rather than class. What I find significant is that Billy Crystal quipping, “nothing takes the sting out of the world economic problems like watching millionaires present each other with golden statues” prompted laughter rather than recognition of the class inequalities of this annual ritual,. As the royal figures of entertainment prance up a red carpet in their formal evening attire and designer gowns into a private hall from which members of the public are excluded, no one appears to be disturbed. Crystal’s joke, which really does nail the point, is received the same way as was the quip by Rod Steiger’s character in Doctor Zhivago. That character breaks the tension at a lavish, upper-class banquet when a protest march of impoverished, chanting Russians passes by the windows by joking that maybe the people will sing in tune after the revolution. His fellow aristocrats erupt in laughter and applause in gratitude for this bursting of the bubble of conscience, and go back to their feast. Which is exactly what happened at the Oscars. Meanwhile, we can keep up with what is happening in the “real world” by reading how Susan Naomi Bernstein’s students’ computers are so decrepit that they break down while students are taking their mandated writing exams. Or the fact that increasing numbers of retirement-age Americans are going back to work or moving in with their adult children because they cannot afford to retire independently. Of course, this sort of thing doesn’t make front-page headlines, and won’t, no matter who wins an Oscar in whatever category. Photo: [Oscars Through the Ages, on Flickr]
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About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.