The Academy Awards celebrated its 95th ceremony last Sunday and was marked by what has been widely considered as a win for diversity and equality at the Oscars, with Everything Everywhere All At Once winning Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, and more in one fell sweep.
The sci-fi comedy-drama made history as having the first Asian woman ever to win Best Actress, and the second non-white woman to win the award after Halle Berry in 2002. But whilst the diversity in Oscar 2023 nominations and winners is a moment of celebration for some, to others it is just another feeble step forward in a movement that is about eighty years too late.
Aside from the red-carpet fashion moments and interview highlights, the 2023 Oscars made its mark as the world witnessed the glaring success of Everything Everywhere All At Once in many of the leading award categories; a welcome display of diversity in what has historically been a predominantly white washed awards show. News websites are overflowing with images of Michelle Yeoh holding up her Best Actress Oscar which symbolises “a beacon of hope and possibility” to marginalised communities.
Other award categories also saw a triumph for diversity. ‘The Elephant Whispers’ won Best Documentary Short and became the first Indian-made movie to ever win an Oscar. African-American costume designer, Ruth Carter, won Best Costume Design for ‘Black Panther: Wakanda Forever’. And ‘Naatu Naatu’, a song from the film ‘RRR’, became the first song ever from an Indian film to win an Oscar when it took home Best Original Song. The 2023 Oscars were also the setting of some less than inclusive behaviour, however, with Jimmy Kimmel coming under fire for making jokes at the expense of Malala Yousafzai and anti Irish stereotyping amidst controversy surrounding an offensive Saturday Night Live sketch the evening prior.
With the diverse list of nominees and winners from the 2023 Oscars, it is easy to be distracted from the Academy’s history of grappling with inclusivity. Since the Oscars’ first ceremony in 1929, in nearly 100 years, just 16% of winners have been women and less than 2% women of colour, with 6% of all winners from marginalised ethnic groups. And that is if these films and individuals even make it to nomination, as there also appears to be a trend of perceived shoo-ins (which happen to be non-white individuals or predominantly non-white casts) for Oscar nods being left out of categories completely. ‘The Woman King’ and ‘Till’ were notably left out of this year’s nominee list altogether, whilst previously films have been nominated for some categories but have left the actors largely unrecognised, as was the case with ‘Us’ in 2020 and ‘Selma’ in 2016; both scenarios which garnered much backlash from the public.
It is unsurprising then that there has long been criticism of the Academy and awards shows in general for their lack of diversity and, furthermore, what appears to be their refusal to address it. This came to a head in 2016 when people were shocked to see that all 20 nominees were white, sparking the #OscarsSoWhite protest movement and a subsequent emergency meeting of the Academy to re-evaluate and establish goals for inclusivity. This seemed like a watershed moment for diversity at the Oscars, and whilst there has been a marked increase in the diversity of nominees and winners, the eight years since have fluctuated between indications of progression and all too familiar lapses in diversification.
So why is there such a lack of inclusivity, not just at the Oscars, but award shows in general? Well, to start, the voting pool responsible for deciding who is both nominated and receives the ‘prestigious’ awards has been shown to be extremely undiverse. An LA Times study found, in 2012, that of the estimated 10,000 Oscar voters, 94% were Caucasian and 77% were male, with a median age of 62. In 2020, it was announced the members pool had shifted to now include 3,179 women (up from 1,446) and 1,787 members of colour (up from 554). However, this only works out to around 33% and 19% respectively, when around 40% of the US is an ethnic minority, according to the US Census.
Expanding even further, the TV and film industry as a whole is still a battleground for diversity and inclusion in some areas. For example, whilst women are relatively equal to men in terms of on-screen roles, there are significantly less women in director and writer positions, a 2022 UCLA study shows, and this decreases even further for women of colour. It also brought to light that women and racially under-represented groups struggle more to secure financing for films, and generally work with smaller budgets. It would therefore make sense that the selection of glitzy, high-budget films chosen as potentials for Oscar and other award nominations are likely not as diverse as they should be.
It’s clear that there is still a lot to be done to reach adequate levels of inclusivity at high profile awards ceremonies like the Oscars, but whilst progress is, at times painfully, slow, there are clear indicators that the nominee and winner pools are beginning to reflect the society that watches them. The 2023 Oscars teased a breakthrough, but is enough being done? I suppose we’ll find out next year.