New Oscars Inclusion Standards Set a Bar So Low ‘It’s Lying on the Floor’ (Guest Blog)

Last week’s Emmys were a sign of progress, but representation has been slow, uneven and falls far short, writes Jeff Yang

The Emmy Awards this weekend produced headlines celebrating wins by Black actors — Zendaya, Regina King, The Cephas Jones family — and LGBTQ-identified creators, most notably Dan Levy of Pop TV’s Canadian import “Schitt’s Creek,” which won everything that wasn’t nailed down in the comedy categories. It was a night of “huge wins” and “landmark moments,” if you look at the press, not to mention the Television Academy’s own messaging: “We feel it is a very positive sign that over the past decade the well-deserved recognition of performers of color has increased from 1 in 10 to 1 in 3 nominees across all performer categories.”

It’s important to acknowledge that the shifts in representation in Hollywood award shows represents progress; it’s just as critical to point out that this progress has been slow, uneven and far short of what is necessary or desirable.

“One in three nominees” sounds more impressive than it actually is, considering that the U.S. is poised to be a majority nonwhite nation by 2045 (and the “core demographic” of TV, aged 18 to 49, will be nonwhite even sooner — by 2033). And these nominations didn’t necessarily lead to wins: Yes, a record 11 Black performers took home awards, but only two Asian performers were nominated (first-timer Rain Valdez and Sandra Oh, who’s now eight nods in without a win) — and, most embarrassingly, just a single Latinx performer (Alexis Bledel, nominated in the category of outstanding guest actress in a drama series).

Why is awards show recognition even important? Quite simply, these awards are the most visible means by which the film and TV industry mints new “stars” — performers and creators that Hollywood considers to be worth investing in based on stature alone. And in a time where business models are in flux and the future of media murky, “stars” are the most viable commodity in entertainment, capable of drawing eyeballs to even to projects with minimal production values (like, say, a Zoom table read).

And Hollywood has frequently claimed that it’s impossible to find nonwhite star talent to headline projects, leading it to fall back on casting white actors in race-neutral roles, or even as characters originally written as nonwhite. But if nonwhite actors aren’t cast as leads, the path to becoming a “star” is narrow indeed, and more frequently than not, it goes through awards shows, which offer talented supporting and guest actors a shot at the visibility and critical credibility necessary for this industry to give them a chance.

If we agree that a diverse, inclusive and intersectional Hollywood is a goal worth seeking — and let’s be clear, this goal isn’t just rooted in equity and social justice, but in the sustainability of the industry as a business, given that nonwhite audiences already represent a disproportionate percentage of entertainment revenue dollars — then it’s clear that diversifying award shows is going to be part of the fix. The question is how?

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently decided to take a page from its British counterpart and adopt a set of diversity requirements, which take the form of four different standards, reflecting onscreen representation, offscreen creative leadership, advancement opportunities of underrepresented groups and diversity in audience development.

The announcement unleashed a whirlwind of backlash from the likes of actress Kirstie Alley, who called the requirements “dictatorial” and “anti-artist;” Bill Maher, who in a segment mockingly called “Oscars, No White” in parody of April Reign’s pivotal #OscarsSoWhite Twitter campaign, talked about “virtue signaling” and implied that the new rules were “fascist”; and of course, Fox News host Tucker Carlson, whose predictable rant is not worth wasting pixels on here.

These detractors didn’t seem to have read the actual requirements, which apply only to the Best Picture award, and which offer up loopholes that the collective fleet of the entire “Fast and Furious” franchise could drive through side by side. Only two of the four standards need to be met by Best Picture submissions, which means that the creative personnel standards, onscreen and off, could easily be totally disregarded. The other two standards, for inclusive “advancement opportunities” and “audience development” respectively, could essentially be met by an internship program with a lunch stipend and a handful of mid-to-senior level publicists — who could be people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ identified persons or women, or any combination of these.

And as Kyle Buchanan of the New York Times quickly confirmed by tweet, “almost every film would still be nominated under the new guidelines….Standards C and D are so easy to meet — studios simply need a robust internship program and a marketing department that’s relatively diverse — that the films those studios distribute could remain pretty homogeneous and still qualify.”

The bottom line: The bar is so low that it’s lying on the floor. In fact, it’s so low that it should make anyone actually interested in inclusion want to be lying on the floor of a bar. Yet the “we’ve gone too far” brigades are still up in arms about it, and calling it the end of free expression and the death of authentic creativity.

I’m trying not to be cynical. The fact is, the Motion Picture Academy is indeed trying, and its results are paying off in other areas. The active expansion of its membership to include a far more diverse and representative set of performers and creators has made a huge difference and will make even more as time goes on.

But the danger of weak standards that they galvanize the forces of regress, inflaming without transforming. The Academy and other awards organizations need to understand: Creating standards blessing a present reality that still doesn’t properly represent Hollywood’s creative culture, its audience or America (and the world) at large is worse than doing nothing at all.

BIO Jeff Yang
Jeff Yang is a journalist and cultural critic and the cohost of the podcast THEY CALL US BRUCE. His next book, "RISE: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now," co-authored with Phil Yu and Philip Wang, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in Fall 2021.