Yesterday, several prominent Asian-American Academy members, including Freida Lee Mock, Ang Lee, Sandra Oh and George Takei, sent a letter to the Academy’s Board of Governors protesting the insensitive remarks targeted at Asian-Americans made by host Chris Rock during the Oscars Ceremony. The “tasteless and offensive skits,” the letter cites, did not go unnoticed by media. Several media outlets made similar accusations in the days after the Oscars. The hashtag #OnlyOnePercent was created to shed light on the paltry number of Asian-Americans working in Hollywood. As Women and Hollywood noted in our post-Oscars wrap-up, not only were some of Rock’s jokes at the expense of Asian-Americans, apart from these mentions, Rock’s monologue and subsequent statements on diversity in Hollywood omitted non-black minorities. What the telecast and yesterday’s events highlight is Hollywood’s glaring need for greater cultural awareness, alongside expanded diversity initiatives.
Most affected by the bias of studio and network executives are minority women filmmakers who, in addition to women, cater to several other “niche” (ie: unprofitable) audiences: people of color, queer and trans audiences and differently-abled people. Though it’s not surprising that Hollywood’s PR speak reduces minorities to demographic segments, it is disheartening when conversations that try to be inclusive are also blind to the complex identities that make up the “diversity” category. For example, #OscarsSoWhite was initially a hashtag that intended to shed light on the lack of people representing marginalized communities in Hollywood. However as Lenika Cruz at The Atlantic pointed out, many of the think-pieces invoking the hashtag focus solely on the exclusion of black actors, actresses, writers, directors and below-the-line film crew. This does a great disservice to what #OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign intended.
Furthermore, though women of all races, ethnicities and ages have been calling for greater representation and opportunity in Hollywood, Rock also undercut efforts made by women to be taken more seriously by Hollywood and the media. The #AskHerMore campaign supported by Hollywood heavy-hitters like Reese Witherspoon and Shonda Rhimes encourages journalists to look beyond a woman’s body, dress and image and engage female celebrities on deeper issues. Rock made light of this important campaign: “Another big thing tonight is, you’re not allowed to ask women what they’re wearing anymore. It’s a whole thing, ‘Ask her more.’ You have to “ask her more.” It’s like, you ask the men more. Everything is not sexism, everything is not racism. They ask the men more because the men are wearing the same outfits. Every guy is wearing the exact same thing. If George Clooney showed up with a lime green tux and a swan coming out of his ass, someone would go, “Hey, what you wearing George?'” With remarks such as these delivered in an off-handed manner, as well as his seemingly tone-deaf skits, Rock revealed exactly why pushes for diversity in Hollywood have been so slow to create change: it still does not take seriously the cultural changes that need to take place to make Hollywood an inclusive place.
The issue with the Oscars demonstrates a point director Lexi Alexander made in a recent panel at 2016’s Athena Film Festival. The panel, titled “Unconscious Bias,” was composed of women filmmakers and executives. During the panel, the group discussed how “unconscious bias” manifests in the entertainment industry and provided ways women can combat it. Responding to fellow panelist Kelly Edwards’ anecdote about a young executive at a network who once remarked to her that encouraging more writers of color to pitch was moot because they didn’t “make shows about ghettos and drive-bys,” Alexander took issue with the term “unconscious.” She made the point that when anyone makes a derogatory statement towards a group that demeans them, questions their talent, or declares them unfit for a job based on their identity, it is not “unconscious” bias at all. Alexander argued overt bias is still alive and well — and the recent complaints of Asian-American Academy members confirm this. Asian-American Academy members are right to take issue with the Academy, rather than with Rock. As a comedian for hire, Rock crafts his material, but it is mainly the job of the Academy to protect its image. Allowing Rock to keep material that mocked and excluded the very groups the Academy is supposedly eager to include is irresponsible on the part of the Academy, a point that actor George Takei also recently made.
The issue of accountability is an important one, especially given the various moves taken by actors, directors and media outlets to shed light on the diversity issues in Hollywood. Two particularly striking stories in The Huffington Post and The New York Times collected dozens of personal experiences of actors, writers, showrunners and directors facing discrimination in the industry at no small cost. A scroll through the most recent Reddit AskMeAnything with Hollywood’s Original Six (the women directors who sued the studios in the 80s) is only a peek into the hostility women can incur when speaking about these issues and how this often discourages others from speaking out. And though diversity in Hollywood should be a collective effort, the onus of responsibility still lies with the institutions that produce and distribute films worldwide. Responsibility lies with the gatekeepers who manage unions and guilds as well as the Academy, networks and studio initiatives to ensure Hollywood becomes and remains inclusive. Though there are people happily speaking on behalf of women and people of color, this is a burden that remains led mostly by women and people of color.
During the Oscars broadcast, #NotYourMule began trending as a response to non-black people of color who suggested #OscarsSoWhite, as characterized by Chris Rock’s performance, excluded non-black actors and directors from diversity discussions. Those tweeting during the broadcast were rightly upset that some of Rock’s insightful, race-specific commentary was criticized as narrow, divisive and short-sighted. In a series of tweets after the show, which she boycotted, Reign expressed concern that her hashtag was mis-characterized, and that it was causing many people being unfairly asked to speak to a range of experience they never claimed to represent, despite her efforts to give all minorities a voice. Several actors, directors and producers have similarly attempted to create their own remedies to the diversity issue, all the while the Academy is rolling back the proposals they made in January that promised to ensure a more diverse membership. The relative silence of studio and network heads in light of #OscarsSoWhite, the recent Hollywood diversity report and the EEOC’s investigation into the DGA’s hiring practices says a lot about their willingness to publicly engage in these much-needed conversations.
By asking the Academy to take responsibility for the jokes made at others’ expense, the Academy members’ protest letter is an important, loud and clear plea for accountability. Their concerns get to the heart of the diversity issue: no amount of diversity initiatives will help minorities if their industry promotes stereotypical and offensive representations of them. True inclusion begins with treating minorities with respect and fairness. The Academy responded with an apology. They issued a statement calling the concerns “valid” and acknowledging their cultural insensitivity. Let’s hope all of Hollywood chooses to do better in the future.