Wait, What?

It’s surprising when stodgy institutions award progressive artists, and surprises, even good ones, are alarming — so we immediately burden the winners with the weight of symbolism.

Soraya Roberts | Longreads | February 2020 |  9 minutes (2,335 words)

I used to think I was the only one who dealt with this particular existential crisis. It’s the one where every choice you make coincides with the torture of knowing that you didn’t choose something else. And that something else, by virtue of not being chosen, has infinite potential for being the right choice. It’s a fallacy, of course. Because usually there is no right or wrong decision, just a decision. And when that decision is made, it’s not as final as all that. It’s one option in a series of options your life is made up of, some of which have bigger consequences, most of which have smaller ones. But that fallacy is what we bring to any prize or award or, you know, any competition that culminates in a reward of some kind. It makes sense, because it’s binary — you get it or you don’t — but the consequences usually aren’t. It certainly feels like your life will fundamentally change if you win, but more often than not that’s not the case. The choice is made, everyone goes ballistic, and pretty soon after everything goes back to how it was.

A South Korean movie with subtitles was not supposed to win four Oscars, an 18-year-old girl who makes music in her brother’s bedroom wasn’t supposed to take home five Grammys, and a foul-mouthed British woman shouldn’t have bagged three Emmys. There’s a cognitive dissonance to all of this, because, by now, we expect our institutions — Hollywood or otherwise — to make the wrong choices, which we expect because these institutions are populated by people who don’t actually reflect the world, only its most privileged citizens. And what’s a greater distillation of an out-of-touch industry’s allegiances and exclusions than the awards it bestows? The Emmys are The Big Bang Theory, the Grammys are “Shape of You,” the Oscars are Green Book. Filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, the one who took home those four statuettes for Parasite, could have been speaking about any number of ceremonies when he infamously said last year of the Oscars, “They’re very local.” Which I took to mean that the Academy tends to reward not only Americans, but work that expresses the white capitalist values that form American society (and Hollywood within it). When Parasite won, the dissonance didn’t just suddenly resolve itself, because we knew underneath that win that Hollywood itself hadn’t actually changed. So we burdened what should have been a moment of unadulterated joy with analysis — about the work, about the winner, about the voters, about the audience, about cinema. In Parasite terms, we covered it in peach fuzz.

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It’s weird when deserving people win. It’s like a mindfuck. That’s what I thought (and tweeted) after Bong Joon-ho won the final Oscar of the year. What else do you say? It’s like being in the middle of a verbal sparring match with someone and they suddenly spit out something reasonable. You’re struck dumb. The Oscars almost never get it right, and when they get it wrong, it’s wrong (remember Crash?). This year, seeing the stage full of artists who are usually shut out of the ceremony — non-Americans, people of color, people with actual talent — accepting “Hollywood’s biggest honor” infected us all with such a severe case of cognitive dissonance I could hear our brains collectively short-circuit. And because of the way cognitive dissonance works, because it means we do everything we can to reconfigure the situation to align with what we believe to be true — in this case, that the Academy is “local” — Parasite’s Best Picture win was encumbered by mental acrobatics. It was as though no one wanted to get too intoxicated because they had experienced the sobering return to the status quo so many times before. The award became a spoil of war over identity politics, doubly here, because not only is Bong South Korean, but Parasite is also in Korean. That meant no one could just enjoy its triumphs outside the context of its ethnic dynamics.

It was barely more than a month ago that Issa Rae deadpanned, “Congratulations to those men,” while announcing the all-male Oscar nominees for Best Director. In the all-white-but-one category, the best we could hope for was a win by the Asian genius, who, as luck would have it, had also made the best film (enough about The Irishman). And when Bong’s film was announced after a suitably dramatic pause by Jane Fonda, it all went so smoothly, it was like it was meant to be. This wasn’t the Moonlight fiasco, that embarrassing stutter in 2017 where the ceremony juddered with a, yeah, no, the better one, the black one, that’s the one that won, sorry, where’s the trophy? But that historic faux pas is still so fresh that its shadow is still cast across the Academy’s stage. It’s a not-so-distant reminder that stories like those continue to be interlopers, and one that partially but inevitably eclipses wins like Bong’s, which, all things being fair, should not have to answer for it. But he does. Per Adam Nayman at The Ringer, “a skeptic might wonder about the enthusiasm of any filmmaker — even such an obviously wry, self-styled subversive — desiring membership to a club that’s not always open or accommodating.” It’s true, but it is also true that this is a wonder that does not tend to greet the likes of Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino. Because nothing they do, nothing they or their films represent, really clashes with this particular gentlemen’s club. They are white men presenting films focused on white men to a group of white men. There is no dissonance there to correct.

Unless you’re Joaquin Phoenix, who briefly shouldered the dissonance plaguing his marginalized peers. Prior to his Oscar win, the Joker star was extolled on social media for his self-flagellating speech at the diversity-blind BAFTAS. “I think that we send a very clear message to people of color that you’re not welcome here,” he said, reportedly to some uncomfortable silence. “This is not a self-righteous condemnation because I’m ashamed to say that I’m part of the problem.” While Phoenix initially walked off the BAFTAS stage leaving his trophy behind, picking up the Oscar so soon after that implied a tacit acceptance of Hollywood’s problematic politics, if not Britain’s. Engaging in the awards ceremony, being bowled over by a win of any kind,  implies that on some level you respect the institution, you believe in it. The only way around this, really, is full-out rejection.

Several actors have avoided any hint of hypocrisy by extricating themselves from awards proceedings entirely. Marlon Brando infamously sent an Indigenous woman to reject his Oscar on the grounds of the film industry’s mistreatment of the Indigenous community, while George C. Scott preceded him by refusing to participate in 1970 in what he called a “two-hour meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons.” (That he did engage later somewhat undercutting his stance.) This has bled outside the Academy, to other industries where awards act as the ultimate expression of their ideals: Julie Andrews snubbed the Tonys for snubbing the rest of her team, for one, while knighthood after knighthood has been passed over over the years to protest the enduring monarchy. After declining the Nobel Prize for Literature, Jean-Paul Sartre outlined how an award is inextricable from its awarding body and the awarding body’s history. “The writer who accepts an honor of this kind involves as well as himself the association or institution which has honored him,” he wrote. “The writer must therefore refuse to let himself be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances, as in the present case.”

Increasingly aware that awards doled out by older institutions are misrepresentative of the culture and, in the case of the Grammys at least so committed to misconduct they will essentially fire even the CEO for confronting their sexism, artists have turned to smaller events for direction. Free of institutionalized myopia, they move more fluidly with the times. Before the Nobel committee announced it was awarding genocide denier Peter Handke the literature prize, for instance, The New York Times published a conversation among critics in which the Booker Prize (big in the industry, less outside of it) was floated as more indicative of the literary world’s proclivities; two women, Margaret Atwood and Bernardine Evaristo, shared the award the same year Handke won the Nobel. Meanwhile, the Independent Spirit Awards have openly owned their status as the official alternative, riffing this year — “we recognize female directors — all two of them!” — on the gaping lacunae the Oscar nominations left behind. Lulu Wang’s The Farewell won the top prize, while Adam Sandler secured a long-awaited win for his frenetic, lived-in performance in Uncut Gems. On the podium, the Sandman directly confronted the Academy he had only poked fun at on social media. He compared the situation to being passed over in high school for most good looking — in favor of a “feather-haired douchebag” — and winning best personality instead. “So let all of those feather-haired douchebag motherfuckers get their Oscars tomorrow night,” he said. “Their handsome good looks will fade in time, while our independent personalities will shine on forever.”  

Oscar winner Bong does happen to have feathered hair, but cognitive dissonance still accompanied his victory as a corrective for how unexpected it was. Parasite won four awards, yes, but why no acting prizes? Racism, obviously. The wider skeptical responses to what appeared to be attempts by the Academy to be a little “woker” further unmasked them as shallow performance, sometimes literally. The opening Janelle Monáe–led musical number? “Diversity,” a number of critics of color deadpanned. Natalie Portman’s cape festooned with the cursive names of overlooked female filmmakers? Hypocrisy. Her production company has worked mostly with men. Meanwhile, Renée Zellweger’s win was just a reminder of Judy Garland’s lack of wins, and Joaquin Phoenix’s speech was more like an ad for PETA. The complaints had varying levels of validity, but why the impulse to make them so expediently? There seemed to be this overarching need to expose the flaws in what appeared to be a precarious night based on a set of arbitrary choices — to cast aside these momentary remedies to reveal the foundational faults that cannot in the long run support them. 

This is the drive to push for deeper systemic change where we can, to protest where there is nothing apparent to protest, to miss no chances. To revel in a win is to fleetingly ignore everything that’s wrong, and there’s no time left for that. A symbol of progress like Parasite thus becomes shackled by its own symbolism, dragging along the wider sociocultural implications with its artistry. It then becomes not only a perfectly executed piece of filmmaking, but the Oscar anomaly, the one which bolsters our expectations of the Academy, the foreign film which secures a wider theatrical run post-win, the popular nonwhite release standing in for all the nonwhite releases.

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“Cognitive dissonance is a motivating state of affairs,” wrote social psychologist Leon Festinger, who coined the term. “Just as hunger impels a person to eat, so does dissonance impel a person to change his opinions or his behavior.” Bong didn’t expect to win over the Oscars. The dissonance he felt was clear in the way he admired his trophy on stage, the way he proceeded to lead a standing ovation for fellow nominee Scorsese, who he quoted — “The most personal is the most creative” — and praised along with the remaining nominees: Tarantino, Todd Phillips, and Sam Mendes. “If the Academy allows,” he concluded. “I would like to get a Texas chainsaw, split the Oscar trophy into five and share it with all of you.” That the director from South Korea who made a quintessentially South Korean film felt the need to create a feeling of inclusivity on a quintessentially American stage says something about where America, if not the Oscars, is right now. That is to say, that marginalized communities, while protesting their historical treatment, can also recognize the merits of the institutions that have neglected them, deferring to aspects of their legacies despite their lack of diversity. 

But the opposite is rarely true. The institutions and the people who represent them should be deferring to the populations that they have overlooked for so long. But they don’t; just look at Tarantino’s refusal at Cannes to even engage in a question about gender politics with respect to Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. Which is why Phoenix’s words at the BAFTAs were so powerful, because he was admitting that in some sense it is a zero-sum game, that his chance denied someone else’s, that he was complicit in this denial. It was groundbreaking when it really shouldn’t be, when for nonwhite filmmakers like Bong this level of discourse is expected.

Generally, it’s up to the outsiders to help other outsiders. On the Oscars red carpet, Bong made sure to mention Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, which had been overlooked, despite taking Best Picture at the Independent Spirit Awards. Insiders seem to miss this heightened urgency around inclusivity because it is not urgent for them. Critics clamored to determine what Parasite’s win could mean for American cinema, but that question was beside the point. The unexpected win by an international artist on domestic soil says less about the cracks in Hollywood’s traditions than it does about the world, which almost imperceptibly but certainly is changing both despite us and because of us, both for the worse and for the better, with marginalized populations leading the biggest changes of all. As always, Bong was already aware of this communal dissonance before everyone else. As he said at the Lumière Festival in October: “When I made Parasite, it was like trying to witness our world through a microscope. The film talks about two opposing families, about the rich versus the poor, and that is a universal theme, because we all live in the same country now: that of capitalism.”  

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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.