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