A distinguishing feature of today’s politics is that they seem to turn as much on struggles over representations as over material resources or tangible political power. For many people who are active in politics, especially on the left, a primary issue is how and by whom members of marginalised groups are depicted in film, television, social media and art. It strikes me that there is exponentially more public discussion of such matters than, for example, education policy.
Awards shows like the Oscars have become central battlegrounds in the representation wars, partly because they have relatively large audiences and symbolise “mainstream” culture: To win a Grammy or an Oscar signals a certain sort of cultural currency. The shows thus get read as capsules of the entire culture, and every aspect of their presentation gets evaluated demographically — from nominees and winners, presenters and performers, speeches and the audience in the auditorium, right down to Katy Perry’s shoes.
By these standards, the big awards shows are, fitfully, coming into conformity. The Grammys have survived, though not without controversy, and managed to find an acceptable host this time around (Alicia Keys) and a reasonable balance of demographic groups and concomitant styles. The Oscars evidently still have some way to go. The sheer weight of group representation falling on the host and the likelihood that no comedian has a fully defensible Twitter feed seem to have been enough to scare everyone off.
It is often taken as obvious that the effects of representations are profound — and in some sense, they are. There is no doubt that the experience for individuals of seeing performers like Sidney Poitier or Ellen DeGeneres wildly exceed the limits imposed on their identity groups did in fact change lives, primarily by enhancing self-esteem, or by making viewers believe that it was possible to live lives they hadn’t previously imagined.
Good reasons to be sceptical
But there are also good reasons to be sceptical of the real impact of such success stories, which can be depicted in ads and flaunted at awards ceremonies in part to quell anger at systemic unfairness still in place. Such depictions may be employed to generate more profit for the same commercial empires that engaged in the oppression in the first place.
It is probably in the best interest of the goal of achieving a fairer, less discriminatory future to keep in mind that whatever the Grammys or Oscars looks like in the long run will have little actual impact on social justice. Perhaps, over all, the emphasis on what sort of person is on television has been a distraction from much more urgent matters.
Imagine an America that gets the awards shows exactly right but in which, for example, mass incarceration or the internment of asylum seekers just ticks right along, or in which income inequality grows or residential segregation remains unchanged. It’s easy if you try: That’s liable to be the reality of 2020. And 2030.
Racial and gender hierarchies are structural and material. They have to do with differential access to power and resources, along with the daily privilege that attends them. These could continue even in the face of a representationally perfect movie industry, I’m afraid, and I expect that we will prove that by experiment.
The ‘social realism’ experiment
Rarely, I think, does history teach clear lessons that can be straightforwardly applied to present circumstances. But history has actually shown that representations do not create reality. The Soviet Union imposed a single style in the visual arts and enforced it for decades. Known as “socialist realism,” it relentlessly depicted strong, dignified workers, their shining eyes gazing upon a transformed future. To a large extent, the Soviet Communist Party achieved and enforced a monopoly on all media to portray the world as the party wished it to be, or at least as it wished other people to think it was. That didn’t make the forced collectivisation of agriculture, in which millions of these same workers were displaced, dispossessed, starved and executed, hurt any less.
Stalin annexed thousands of filmmakers, novelists, painters, dancers, musicians and architects to his project of embodying a more just and equal world, and sent those who wouldn’t help to the gulag. That made, for example, his ethnic cleansing of Chechnya hard for people elsewhere to know about, much less criticise. But it definitely did not make it not happen.
Many other sorts of regimes, from theocracies to military juntas, have tried similar approaches. The contribution of all that activity to producing the envisioned world has been considerably less than zero. It makes the brutal reality a bit harder to see, without ameliorating it in the slightest.
Now, Stalin is not an awards show. But as everyone knows, images can falsify as well as depict reality; they can mislead as well as inspire. On the other hand, to say that Black Panther is a falsification of reality is to say something that is obvious and ridiculous: It is a superhero fantasy rendered by CGI, after all. It can’t magically transform any of us, much less all of us, though it could provide a diverting entertainment and raise some interesting questions, maybe primarily about the history of movies.
To a very large extent, American media have portrayed a kind of racial paradise since the 1960s. Only a few extreme racists continue to use the direct slurs, and no one does so on television. Sesame Street and more or less every other children’s programme have taught uplifting racial lessons for decades. White people came to believe by this means that we were not racists, because we did not produce or approve the prohibited representations. Meanwhile, the racism ticked right on at a structural level, but it became harder to identify and attribute.
When only approved images can appear, we have what amounts to censorship — not imposed by the government, but by all of us on one another through social pressure. The goal is a politically uniform flow of images. In order to achieve that uniformity, people are being vilified, pictures and Tweets deleted, novels withdrawn, films reshot with different actors, projects abandoned, works removed from museums, hosts disqualified and so on. Such procedures are not liable to help very much in achieving their intended goals.
It’s a lot easier to fix the pictures than fix the world. Additionally, it would be a relief if we stopped looking to awards shows to fix our social ills: If those things aren’t fun, there’s really no point.
Crispin Sartwell teaches philosophy at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. His most recent book is ‘Entanglements: A System of Philosophy.’