by Jordan Reeves
It's important to note that an award doesn't necessarily mean that a performer, album, television show, or movie is good. It does typically mean that whatever has received the award has made some notable contribution to its respective medium.
I should also state the obvious. I am a white man talking about the importance of diversity. I don't deny that whatever privileges I've experienced because of my race are largely represented in institutions like national and international awards shows.
It's difficult to have a good understanding of diversity in entertainment unless you understand its history. Some scholars devote their lives to this study making impossible to distill it into one blog post, so I'm going to stay in the western world starting with Shakespeare. During Shakespeare's time, every role (including women) was played by mostly white men. That was a given. Ironically, the 1998 drama, Shakespeare in Love, focused on an aspiring female actor and won 7 Oscars. We have this world dominated by white males that dominated entertainment even through the advent of moving picture films.
It wasn't until 1939, 323 years after Shakespeare's death, that Hattie McDaniel won for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. It wasn't until 2001 that a black woman, Halle Barry, won an Oscar for best actress. Octavia Spencer was on the fifth person of color to win the oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 2012 for her role in The Help, a movie about race and the plight of black women in the 1960's.
Gay men and lesbian women are represented pretty early compared to trans people. John Schlesinger won best director in 1970 for Midnight Cowboy, and in 1981, Sir John Gielgud won for his performance in Arthur. Best song awards have gone to gays and lesbians a few times. Howard Ashman won in 1989 for The Little Mermaid's Under the Sea and in 1991 for the title song in Beauty and the Beast. Then, Elton John won for their song, "Can You Feel the Love Tonight." Then in 2007, Melissa Etheridge won for "I Need to Wake Up,” her song in Al Gore's documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Trans and queer people are finally receiving recognition For instance, Orange is the New Black star, Lavern Cox, won a Daytime Emmy, GLAAD Award, and Screen Actors Guild Award. In 2016, RuPaul won a Primetime Emmy, and for the first time in awards show history, Mya Taylor, star of the Indie film Tangerine, won for Best Supporting Female during the Spirit Awards.
It's clear we've come along way since Shakespeare. I can't mention him again without turning our attention to Will Davis, a trans director for American Theater Company in Chicago, who recently staged a version of Men on a Boat. It's about ten explorers, four boats, and one Grand Canyon. The irony here is that in 2017, all the characters are male but they are played by women on the stage. That's progress. But there is still a long way to go.
Speaking about Maura Pfefferman, the main character in the hugely successful Amazon series, Transparent, show creator Jill Soloway says:
"...we’re in a post Transparent world. We’re in a post Tangerine world. We’re in a post Dallas Buyers Club world. Nobody should be that ignorant right now to cast a cis man in this role. If anybody has been reading the Internet they understand how awful it is for trans women to see cis men portraying them. It’s an insult."
That's not to say that Jeffrey Tambor isn't capable of playing the role, but it is saying that there's no reason it shouldn't be a trans woman. Even Tambor himself pleaded with Hollywood to give trans actors a chance.
I agree with Meryl Streep when she says,
"An actor's only job is to enter the lives of people who are different from us and let you feel what that feels like. And there were many, many, many powerful performances this year that did exactly that, breathtaking, passionate work."
I would only add that Hollywood can do a better job of allowing a broader diversity of people to represent themselves in that work.
For instance, nearly 1 person in 5 in America has a disability, according to a 2012 report by the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2015, the Washington Post reported that only 2.4 percent of notable characters in the top-grossing 100 movies had disabilities. Similarly to Tambor's Maura Pfefferman, roles like Benedict Cumberbatch's Alan Turing and Sean Penn's Harvey Milk could have been played by LGBTQ actors.
There is hope. Starting in 2019, the British Academy of Film and Television Awards has implemented a new policy. Films will no longer be eligible for two big awards if they meet less than two of four new diversity criteria. Films will have to show efforts to improve diversity in onscreen characters and themes, senior roles and crew, industry training and career progression, and audience access and appeal to under-represented audiences. Now we need other institutions, like Hollywood Foreign Press Association and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, to follow suit to ensure that diversity is encouraged.
There's no excuse for the kind of statements that Charlotte Rampling made. Whether it's a lack of opportunity or blatant prejudice, awards shows should improve opportunities for actors from black, ethnic minority, and LGBTQ communities in the film industry.
Listen to Amy Guth, host of Chicago's WGN Radio show, Saturday Night Special, as she interviews guests (including VideoOut Founder, Jordan Reeves) about diversity in awards shows.