What Is Good? Why Awards Shows Are Bullshit

In the past week, I’ve been invited to five separate Oscar viewing parties. Something about me seems to make friends and family think that watching the Oscars in a group would appeal to me. I’ll grant them that my encyclopedic, bordering on discomfiting, knowledge of films and the people that make them might give someone the impression that I would care about an award show like the Oscars. But I don’t. Quite the opposite.

 I find the whole concept of awards shows repugnant, their execution worse, and the whole apparatus around them a swampy mess of bad politics and hedonism. You’ll have to excuse me here, pop journalism is so rarely my thing, but here’s why we should stop watching them.

NOTE: I’m going to use the Oscars and Grammys as my case studies in this article, and have no research for any others. It is worth noting that they all (except for the People’s Choice Awards) operate using the same “Academy” system.

The “Academy” is Bogus

These are the old boys’ clubs of old boys’ clubs. The ultimate in nepotistic, recirculative nonsense. For example, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the folks who vote on the Oscars) has a membership of 6687, divided between 17 branches of film production. Sounds good, right? Who would know better what makes a good movie than an organization of people who make them professionally? Well, maybe lots of people.

It turns out that membership in the organization is far from egalitarian or easy to get into. Here is a sample of the criteria for admission in the ‘Actor’ category:

To be considered for invitation to membership in the Actors Branch of the Academy, an individual must:

(a)  have a minimum of three theatrical feature film credits, in all of which the roles played were scripted roles, one of which was released in the past five years, and all of which are of a caliber that reflect the high standards of the Academy,


(b)  have been nominated for an Academy Award in one of the acting categories,


(c) have, in the judgment of the Actors Branch Executive Committee, otherwise achieved unique distinction, earned special merit or made an outstanding contribution as a motion picture actor. (via Oscars.org)

See that? Where they say that you can only get in to vote on the Oscars if you’re the kind of person who the people who vote on the Oscars think is an Oscar-type person. This level of exclusivity would make the most decadent country-clubber blush. These organizations are friends letting friends into their club to give awards to themselves. Hardly an objective measure of a film’s quality or mass appeal.

The Grammys are similarly messed up.

Studios Buy Awards

The estimated cost of an Oscar is anywhere from 3-10 million dollars. This is comprised of the $300,000 necessary to make all the advanced viewing copies of the film, the millions in print and media advertising, private screenings, and the parties and balls thrown by studios to raise awareness for their films. Much like in the field of politics, mere candidacy has a price tag that is unattainable for most people. This process also rules out the possibility of independent filmmakers being able to raise awareness about their movies. How are they supposed to compete with huge studios?

The Grammys similarly rely on an Academy system and so the chances of an upstart or unknown artist winning anything other than “Best New Artist” are basically nil. There is less data on what various artists or studios spend on promotion, but it’s a safe bet that those with more spending power are more likely to end up onstage.

The Categories/Representation Are Fucked

At the Academy Awards, this has long been an issue. The Oscars are often accused of racial bias and sexism – and although the distribution of awards roughly coincides with the demography of America, it’s hard to argue with the fact that the Academy itself is 94% white and more than 60% male. This does mean of necessity that the awards skew towards white men, it also means that the Academy is not representative of the film industry more broadly, even if the awards break down about equal.

Another vexing categorical issue with the Academy Awards is that there are separate categories for Actor and Actress, as if those skills are different for different sexes. There’s no Directress or Editress categories, and it strikes me as both hypocritical and condescending to assume the challenge of acting well is different for men and women. If you want to give out more awards, just give out two of each and let the best person win.

For the Grammys part, there is the issue of categorization. When artists submit their work, they are then sorted by a panel into the many categories of music for which it is possible to win an award. The problem is that this sorting process is often, well, racist. The big scandal this year was that Adele beat Beyoncé for album of the year, and that meant the apparatus was racist. Nope. That’s a vote of preference and arguing that they preferred Adele for her whiteness seems highly unlikely. For real issues of racism, this year Drake won the awards for Best Rap/Sung Performance and Best Rap Song for his single ‘Hotline Bling,' when that song ain’t rap. Listen to it. He’s singing, not rapping, and it’s a pop song. But because Drake is a black artist who raps most of the time, he’s put in the rap pile and not the more prestigious and competitive pop category. (I’m also upset because Rae Sremmurd’s ‘Black Beatles’ was clearly the best rap song of the year.)

The Hypocrisy is Rampant

As many folks will tell you, they’re tired of celebrities using the platform of awards shows to make political points, be they tirades against the president, awareness raising for ostensibly good causes, or speaking in general about the cause of social justice. I’m the first person to admit I generally lean towards social justice action, but when it comes out of the mouth of an actor accepting an award, even I find it hard to swallow.

The Oscars cost $42.7 million to put on last year. Every winner received a $200,000 gift basket. Seats go from $750 a piece, and the average attendee spends $35,000 getting ready. Am I supposed to sit there and watch people speak from a pulpit of cash and take what they have to say about equity and fairness in the world seriously? Are these the people who are qualified to speak to me about the realities of life – the same people who can shell out 30 grand on a tux or dress?

And I’m not saying what artists have to say about the world is invalid, I would only ask that they do it from a platform that is a less poignant reminder of their position of extraordinary privilege.

We’re Smarter Than This

Awards shows are one long commercial. The actual footage advertises the movies, songs, TV shows, etc. that you are statistically way more likely to watch following the broadcast. The commercials themselves represent a huge boon to the networks, with Oscar airtime costing around $2 million for 30-seconds. The social media implications are also worth considering, since last year Facebook generated 67 million posts about the Oscars and Twitter a modest 24 million. These are serious marketing opportunities that benefit everyone involved – except you, the consumer. Watch movies. Listen to music. Support the artists you like and who you feel deserve it. Don’t wait to be told by groups of hyper-wealthy sycophants what “good” is, and for the love of God don’t watch the shows that systematize it.

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