Monday, January 09, 2017

Why Awards Shows Should Be Political

As someone who watches and talks about awards shows a lot, people in my life generally like to get my thoughts on ceremonies the days after they happen, and what I thought of the major headlines this morning.  Obviously, the big question I've gotten from a lot of people (perhaps a topic for another day) is "I've never heard of any of these shows or movies," and more frequently "what did you think of La La Land?" which is a question I'll be answering here on the blog probably this weekend, but I have seen it.  And then there were questions about Jimmy Fallon, my thoughts on him as a host, and I had to disappoint a number of people by pointing out that I think Jimmy Fallon is kind of awful.  I get where his appeal comes from, and some of his interviews can be very fun (it's great to see Ariana Grande doing musical impressions and I'm not immune to the charms of Melissa McCarthy lying about a stapler encased in jello), but by-and-large I think he's pretty toothless, and his actions during the 2016 election were unforgivable in my opinion (NBC's in general were unforgivable, quite frankly).

And that leads me to the question, or rather complaint, I most get after awards shows, which is "why do they have to be political?"  It's a question that you see bandied around Twitter like a brilliant thought piece that you've just had, even though it happens literally every awards show, every single one.  People like Tomi Lahren (the universe knows we didn't need another Ann Coulter, right?) and Meghan McCain (who, as the daughter of a millionaire senator, has about as much in common with the "common man" as a Great Dane has with a teacup pig) spouted out, particularly about Meryl Streep's eloquent, marvelous speech against bullying, in favor of diversity, and celebrating the arts and journalism, both of which felt appropriate since this is an event put on by the Hollywood Foreign Press association.

So, for future reference to anyone who asks-I love it when awards shows get political.  Love it.  And it's not just because I'm inherently interested in politics, but also because I think it's the perfect time to talk about it because art itself is political.  What is lost in the "can't actors just act and can't singers just sing" argument is that most of the signature pieces of art throughout the centuries have had profoundly political connotations.  Movies and TV shows like Citizen Kane, To Kill a Mockingbird, Rocky, and Star Trek all are considered classics, but that's in part because they had richly political messages that resonated with the audiences at the time.  Politics in art has been alive for centuries.  Look at Picasso's Guernica or Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.  I mean, Dante even put popes in hell in The Divine Comedy, and that was 700 years ago.

This is not a trend that has disappeared over time, and certainly is present in films and television of 2016.  Jackie shows the devastating lost potential due to gun violence, while Moonlight shows the struggles of inner-city youth, particularly amongst those that are gay-identified.  Hacksaw Ridge and Arrival portray various aspects of pacifism and what can be achieved through it, while series like Atlanta frequently show the ways that modern-day racism permeates our society.  Last year's Best Picture winner, which couldn't be more timely at this point, is about journalism standing up to a corrupt regime that is able to continue its unthinkable sins due to the veneration of their institution (it's Spotlight, for those who think that sounds like the plot of Michael Moore's next documentary).  As a result, it makes sense that speeches can and should be political.  Artists who create work like this, the writers and actors and directors, are able to give us moving portrayals of modern society and its troubles, are well-prepared to submit their political speeches to the world.

And quite frankly, few people in society can better represent groups that aren't oftentimes represented on a national stage and seeing their identity better than entertainers.  The first positive thing I ever heard about gay people growing up was not from a president or a politician-it was from Tom Hanks, proclaiming through tears "that the streets of heaven are too crowded with angels" about gay men who died tragically during the first decades of the AIDS crisis.  It was, quite frankly the first time I'd heard of AIDS as being something other than a punishment for sinners.  I suspect that many young women of color have looked at the speeches of women like Halle Berry, Gina Rodriguez, and last night's speeches from Viola Davis and Tracee Ellis Ross with wonder, knowing that there are women that look like them who can achieve dreams-it's deeply meaningful that in one of the defining moments in all of these women's careers they chose to focus on these women of color who they know are looking at them, perhaps realizing what a role model they will serve to be in a way that they may not have had growing up.  Celebrities have a platform that is meaningful and they know it, and quite frankly their willingness to speak out is going to be important in the next few years-with complete Republican control of the bully pulpit and Congress, celebrities will be one of the few groups that can speak out during a Trump administration without worry about it harming their careers or their standing.

To those who state that Ms. Streep's words don't matter, and they won't resonate in the places that Trump won, to them I simply state that you are wrong.  I grew up in a county that Trump won-one of those bright red spots on the map that conservatives are so quick to point out.  I looked to the Oscars and the Golden Globes and the artists that were celebrated there with a sense of escape and wonder-that there is a world that I too, a young gay man living in a place that hated me for it, might be able to find refuge in and eventually get to be the person I wanted to become.  Awards shows give light to conversation-they are one of the few ways that we as a society get to talk about issues that might not have been forced upon us before because movie stars have a way of making any conversation more essential.  So any nominee looking at Meryl Streep with more awe after tonight, start brushing up your speeches and get ready to share visions of inclusiveness, respect, and social justice.  I'm all ears.

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