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  • Tue, 5, Feb, 2019 - 5:00:AM

Diversity vs Representation: Why Hollywood still needs to learn

Oscar and his clones at a shop in Hollywood, Los Angeles/ lincolnblues / Flickr

As screen awards season continues, fans and those in the industry rejoice and await the biggest self-congratulatory annual orgy since Caesar’s birthdays in Ancient Rome: the Oscars. The spectacle that is this awards show is both fun and nauseating yet its significance on the international stage cannot be ignored. The show has often garnered controversy and recently backlash such as #Oscarssowhite and #Oscarssohomophobic – which they tried to address this year by firing a certain host and nominating the controversial BlacKkKlansman and Black Panther (woop!) amongst others. So, have they learned anything?

The short answer is no. Not really.

The long answer is, we need to distinguish the difference between diversity and representation. The former is the flashy buzzword that has sadly become oversaturated and overused without actually changing anything.  Diversity is about hitting targets. Diversity is what happens when a film or show brings in the funny brown friend for the white protagonist in order to ‘sass’ it up a bit or what happens when you sprinkle in that one non-white person in an awards category otherwise awash with white actors (see Mahershala Ali and Yalitza Aparicio). Diversity is what happens when a story about a black historical figure is ambushed by a white saviour (see Green Book). Diversity is what happens when a superhero movie is nominated without actual hope of ever winning Best Picture (see Black Panther). Diversity is also supposedly not nominating one single woman for Best Director (obviously it’s not, but I’m pissed off about that so it needed to be said).

Representation is different. As actor, musician and activist Riz Ahmed notes in this brilliant speech, representation is fundamental to culture. Every time someone sees themselves reflected back, it means they are part of the national story and that “they matter and are valued and feel represented”. Representation is what happens when people from different backgrounds are represented onscreen as the norm and not the token Other. Representation is when they are represented in the writing rooms, on set and in the boardrooms making the decisions and funding the projects. Representation allows for diverse authentic stories instead of relying on stereotypes and clichés. I’ve always been a strong advocate for this because like Jaws: The Revenge, it’s personal.

In primary school, I always dreaded the annual folk dance. This archaic cult like monstrosity was always agony not least because every time that god awful “Brown girl in the Ring” song came on, I was shoved in the middle of a circle and laughed at by a majority of white students. I personally preferred the sports days where the same students would chant “Go Speedy Gonzales!” whenever I joined in a sprint. I liked people assuming that I was Mexican because I was completely in love with Zorro - the 1990 TV series (yes that one). Zorro was of course white washed, but Zorro came from a place with brown people. This extended to something even more wonderful when I started seeing more brown and black people onscreen in the mid 90s. We suddenly had non-white actors cast as successful characters, funny characters, characters with depth and characters that got major screen time. It was about seeing someone who looked like me onscreen. It was about being represented and acknowledged as a human being. It was about being represented in mainstream culture.

Hollywood pretends to acknowledge this whenever it drops a big hit like Crazy Rich Asians. Yes, it was great to have a mainstream Hollywood film where the only white people with dialogue were hotel staff but it still has a long way to go. You cannot erase years of prejudice onscreen by slapping some good looking Asian American actors on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter and yet at the same time still hire able-bodied actors for the miniscule disabled roles on offer (Bryan Cranston in The Upside).

So, what do we do? Protest (online, in person). Write letters. Boycott. Make your own work. Support films that need it. Demand more from what is being made (using the Bechdel test, the Riz test, the Ava test…). Demand more from the industry because underneath it all, they have no industry without an audience. Oh, and #fucktheoscars.

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Ghazaleh
Golbakhsh

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