*Wear Your Voice Magazine published this essay on March 5, 2018, and every year as we enter so-called awards season, it just gets more and more relevant.*
When I was young and an aspiring actress all I wanted was to have my work honored at an awards show one day. This fairy tale was part self-care, an escape from a dysfunctional home life as well as the difficulties of being a biracial Third Culture Kid constantly negotiating worlds.
It was also part revenge against people who bullied me and told me I’d never be worth anything. More importantly than all that, fame was a means to an end: celebrity offers an instant platform, and once I became a successful actress, my ultimate goals were to be a writer and eventual philanthropist. Being famous was an aspiration in itself, but it was my road to being able to promote social consciousness and be beneficial to the world other than just my bank account and accruing material possessions.
I ended up dropping my theatre major and instead focused on anthropology, deciding I would be a writer from the get-go instead of hoping for a celebrity platform to jump-start my writing career. But even though I gave up my silver screen dreams, each year I would strap in for the opulent displays of “award season” no matter where in the world I might have been watching from.
Decades later, and as my consciousness—and in particular my racial and intersectional feminist literacy—has developed I started to find these displays of wealth, celebrity, and privilege as morally bankrupt as Trump’s presidency. How can the gift bags for an already-privileged event cost more than what an average person makes in years? Why should we care about outfits that cost more than months of wages that often these entertainers don’t even have to pay for, in spite of the fact that they are the only ones who can afford those things in the first place? How can anyone find these grotesque presentations of capitalism and materialism aspirational when teachers use their meagre salaries to buy their own school supplies? Worse, how many young people sit at home now like I did when I was little, aspiring to this level of consumption?
As the veil began lifting, I started to see that award shows are an integral cog in a misogynistic media machine driven by capitalism. And it started to make me sick.
Don’t get me wrong: As an informal sociologist and anthropologist, as well as a feminist researcher, I love visual media. It often highlights social and cultural issues in ways that make it easier for people to engage with critical issues. The slight increase in representation of people of color on-screen has an immense psychological benefit for non-white Americans. More women and in particular women of color behind the camera has made for some of the most compelling art we’ve seen in years.
But do these projects need to come with absurd salaries for the simple task of emoting into a camera? Sometimes they don’t even need to have that particular skill: Kaley Cuoco, Johnny Galecki, and Jim Parsons each make $1 million per every banal 20-minute episode of The Big Bang Theory. I’m stymied by this completely inappropriate distribution of wealth.
But beyond the grotesque commercialism of the award shows themselves, it’s also important to note how so many of these celebrities are already people who come from money. Click on virtually any celebrity’s Wikipedia page and you’ll see they had a life of privilege before becoming famous that in many cases was what gave them the economic space to “struggle” as an actor before getting made. Hollywood nepotism has also been thriving since the start, and many actors went so far as to change their names to hide their family connections. The fact that those who rise to celebrity from poverty or even middle-class are outliers says a great deal about the Hollywood machine and which faces—and which kinds of bodies and experiences—they want in these aspirational millionaire roles.
We already know our priorities in this country are all ass-backwards. Sexual predators are enabled by vast networks and operate sometimes for decades with impunity. Children are scared to go to school because our politicians care more about their gun money than passing sensible gun laws. The Trump regime would rather arm teachers than get AR-15s off the civilian market. And Trump’s new tax bill will give rich people even more breaks to swim in money while teachers, artists, and freelancers won’t be able to even declare the business expenses that keep us afloat.
And yet several times a year, during “award season,” millions of economically, socially, and culturally struggling people turn on their televisions to watch circle jerks of rich, (mostly white) famous people parade around, patting each other on the back for how beautiful and talented they all are. And why do we do this? One person on that screen has more money, power, cultural capital, and privilege than many, many of us regular folks combined.
In the context of an industry that abuses vulnerable members and allows perpetrators to have long, illustrious careers, shouldn’t time also be up for glorifying a materialistic celebrity culture that benefits only them? Instead of lauding people for their accidental genetics that fit Western beauty standards, existing privilege and nepotism, we should instead be honoring the people who struggle to keep our children educated, the activists risking their lives for social change, and all the people who do so much unpaid and necessary emotional and other labor to make this world a better place.