On the Oscars, Ignorant Liberalism, and White People Making Jokes About Being White

Neal Patrick Harris Oscars

Leading up to yesterday’s Oscars, much of the criticism directed toward the awards ceremony centered around the fact that the nominees this year were overwhelmingly white (every single one of the acting nominations was filled by a white actor) and predominantly male, and we were once again reminded that the academy itself is 93% white and 76% male. And lest anyone think that it was mere coincidence that African-Americans were shut out of most nominations, or that Selma‘s director was snubbed and left out of her nominating category, The Hollywood Reporter had an illuminating interview with an anonymous academy voter who revealed that—at least in the mind of one member of the academy—a film like Selma never had a chance because 12 Years a Slave won last year. And so, I guess if there’s one thing we learned leading up to the ceremony, it was to never say Hollywood isn’t a true reflection of America! 

But, of course, a big question on people’s minds last night had to be how—if at all—the show would address the fact that actors like David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo were missing from the nominee list. Would anything be said? And who would say it? Well! That question was answered right off the bat when Neil Patrick Harris—maybe the most mediocre Oscars host we’ve ever seen; way, way worse than a James Franco-Anne Hathaway shit show—opened up the evening’s entertainment by welcoming the “best and the whitest” (pan to Benedict Cumberbatch because damn he’s white?) to the evening’s festivities. Like many (all?) of Harris’s jokes last night, this one fell flat. As well it should! Because here’s the thing, when privileged white people make jokes seemingly at their own expense, as if “haha, we are white but also get how awful white hegemony is” they are doing two reprehensible things at once: One) They are appropriating people of color’s ability to make the same jokes by doing them from a much bigger platform; and Two) By engaging in an important conversation in an irreverent way, they are implicitly undermining the validity of complaints of white, male dominance. So, yeah. This was a terrible joke. (For more on why white people should maybe totally stop joking about how privileged white people are, please read Jazmine Hughes’s excellent “How Many White People Does It Take to Ruin a Good Joke?“)

But it wasn’t just Neil Patrick Harris getting in on the fun! No, Sean Penn also made sure to make a joke about green cards when Mexican director/writer/producer Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarittu won for Best Picture for Birdman. Ha, ha? No, but really, how is it funny to make a joke at the expense of the millions of Mexican immigrants who are historically marginalized in the US at large, yes, but also in Hollywood specifically? Iñarittu not only handled the joke with grace, he also had a beautiful speech prepared in which he made a point to celebrate Mexicans in this country, and those in Mexico:

The ones who live in Mexico, I pray that we can find and build the government that we deserve. The ones that live in this country, who are just part of the latest generation of immigrants in this county, I just pray they can be treated with the same dignity and respect as the ones who came before and built this incredible immigrant nation.

And then there was Patricia Arquette. Winner of the Best Supporting Actress award for her work in Boyhood, Arquette’s acceptance speech, in which she asked for equal rights for women was moving and powerful enough to get Meryl Streep up on her feet and cheering. And yet. When Arquette went backstage to be interviewed, she managed to betray a vision of equality so myopic as to be laughable if it wasn’t so misguided and blatantly insensitive and frankly wrong. Arquette elaborated on her call for equal rights for women by saying:

It’s time for women. Equal means equal. The truth is the older women get, the less money they make. The highest percentage of children living in poverty are in female-headed households. It’s inexcusable that we go around the world and we talk about equal rights for women in other countries and we don’t. One of those superior court justices said two years ago in a law speech at a university that we don’t have equal rights for women in America and we don’t because when they wrote Constitution, they didn’t intend it for women. So the truth is even though we sort of feel like we have equal rights in America right under the surface there are huge issues at play that really do affect women. It’s time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for to fight for us now.

Ok. So! Here’s the thing: Arquette seems to believe that there are lots of people in this country who feel like we definitely already have equal rights, but that those people are wrong, because women don’t have income equality. Which, sure. That’s true. There is no overall equality when women are treated as inferiors to men. However, I can pretty much guarantee that of all the people who already know that there aren’t equal rights in America, many of them are the very same “gay people and… people of color” whom Arquette calls on for support. It is absurd that Arquette would know enough and be bold enough to use her platform as an Academy Award winner to shout out for equal rights for women, but not know that the women who suffer due to inequality far more than any others in this country are women of color and trans women. And simply because women face discrimination does not mean that other people don’t: It’s not an all-or-nothing situation. But, uh, if it is? Then there are plenty of people who I’d feel more comfortable supporting in the fight for full equality than a wealthy white woman who can’t understand that some of those women who need equality are also people of color or gay or both. Intersectionality, you guys—it’s a real thing!

Ultimately, of course, this is just the Oscars, and if anyone is looking for true wisdom on injustice in America, then they are advised to seek out a program that does not also feature John Travolta being about as creepy as any one man can be. (It’s the face touching, yeah, but also that thick chain in place of a tie.) Well, actually, scratch that! Because it is possible for luminaries to use the Academy Awards stage to say enlightened powerful words about things that matter. Just listen to Common and John Legend’ acceptance speech if you want to feel ok about the world again. But what is clear is that the kind of faux-liberalism that allows privileged white people to make green card jokes, or quips about white hegemony, or say ignorant things about “people of color” finally standing up for women, does a disservice to all the people in this country and this world who are really struggling, and who look to see representations of themselves in powerful places. This type of faux-liberalism lacks self-awareness to an overwhelming degree, and should not be applauded any longer.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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6 COMMENTS

  1. Truth. As an aside, Graham Moore’s acceptance speech should be given to every child to read on the first day of high school and every year thereafter.

  2. Every single weekday you appropriate people of color’s ability to make these points by doing so from a much bigger platform.

  3. I think the writer misses several points. Has the writer considered that the jokes were targeting people just like her, who attempt to hijack any subjective entertainment category by crying injustice when a certain quota isn’t met? The reason the jokes failed is because they were limited by the subject matter raised by individuals like the writer: If no jokes were made, people like this writer would probably report that the issue was being ignored. There’s no winning.

    How far do you go with these quotas? Should Hispanic Americans be entitled to a certain number of nominations? Should an African American like Denzel Washington be limited in the number of times he can win in a given time period? I think this issue would be better served by describing which actors or directors should have been nominated that were not, and why. That is the race-neutral approach, rather than the opaque, undefinable, Fox News-like approach that “The Oscars doesn’t love Black People.”

    Kenan Thompson of SNL made a refreshing comment when asked why there was a dearth of African American female cast members on the show. He reported that none of them made the cut…they simply weren’t funny enough. That’s not to say that Ellen Cleghorne wasn’t a great cast member, or that Wanda Sykes isn’t hilarious. By the same token, the day SNL became politically correct, it started being painfully unfunny.

  4. Are you aware Patricia Arquette has a sibling who is transgender? I admit she could have chosen her words more gracefully in the press room but I took what she said to mean that all people should support equal rights and pay for women now, that all are in the struggle. Instead of measuring suffering, black versus white, straight or trams or gay, a single parent, especially a woman – whoever they are – has a harder time taking care of their family, especially if her pay is not equal to that of a man.

  5. I always hope for something politically controversial at the Oscar’s or any award ceremony for that matter. Generally I find them to be snooze festivals. An elite little nepotism club that pats itself on the back. But I have to say I was surprised and disappointed with Sean Penn, who has done good work in places like Haiti. Now he’s gone and tarnished his own legacy with a serious dumb ass joke. That being said, I do hope we’re not hinting at an Oscar quota system here. Because has I see it there weren’t a whole lot of Asian’s represented here either. They are a large and growing ethnic group in America. Some how it always returns to Black vs White when the color palate is actually much wider and broader than that. Ultimately all this latest Oscar show has accomplished for me is to stay the F**k away from it next year. Hollywood is a club, a clique, a bastion of pseudo Liberalism. I think Russell Brand hit the nail on the head when asked by Cenk Yugar of the Young Turks about how “Liberal” is Hollywood is. I’ll paraphrase: “It’s not at all it’s part of the machine” It’s a giant corporation, and most corporations are run by a little club of (wait for it) Rich White Men. Don’t expect this Zebra to change it’s stripes any time soon, better to boycott it next year and do something productive with your time!

  6. This privileged white author’s complaints wreak of ignorance and hypocrisy that only white privilege can bring.

    How she can make the following point without choking back on the bile of irony is beyond me:

    “When privileged white people make jokes seemingly at their own expense, as if “haha, we are white but also get how awful white hegemony is” they are doing two reprehensible things at once: One) They are appropriating people of color’s ability to make the same jokes by doing them from a much bigger platform”

    As a white author its deplorable to write an article for a widely read article complaining about race jokes. “OH NOES! Im white but also get how awful race jokes about blacks can be” – writes the author. Don’t you realize that its reprehensible for a privileged white girl from Brooklyn to write self righteous indignation of race based comedy delivered by white people, because you are appropriating people of color’s ability to make the same indignation, by doing so from a much bigger platform? How the hell do you sleep at night?

    At least comedy is be a place with no rules, because rules in comedy would make no sense. I mean imagine how messed up it would be if only black comedians could only make race based jokes about their own race? And all other comedians would be forced to sit in silence as permissible topics of humor would be appropriated based on race. You wouldn’t wanna say anything misappropriate, and topics of comedy have to be appropriately segregated to coordinate with ones skin color and racial make up. Otherwise, its racist.

    There is a differece bigger difference in intent when attempting to create a serious discussion and attempting to create explore boundaries of humor. When a white author author appropriates herself to make a serious article discussing race issues and completely disregards the fact that the public’s bandwidth and attention could have come from a much more appropriate and deserving source, then there is nothing funny about that. Thats just sad.

    This author’s faux-liberalism completely lacks self-awareness to an overwhelming degree. I believe an apology is in order to all the black authors who write on race from lesser visible platforms than this.

    also Clucky Scolderson made the same exact point first but i already started typing this so oh well) Additionally, as a white commenter, I apologize to any black commenter who feels like I had misappropriated their thoughts on the issue from a bigger platform and also for being meta.

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