Before the rise of Twitter, the Oscars existed primarily to serve the base. Sure, they earned the best ratings of any non-NFL event on the TV calendar and featured the same stars winning for the same types of performances — I couldn’t even tell Eddie Redmayne was Eddie Redmayne! — but those invested in the show were mostly captivated by the pageantry and the awards themselves.
Ever since Twitter established itself as the center of live pop culture dialogue, interest in the Academy Awards and awards shows at large, has shifted to new possibilities: the potential for the absurd and the resistant to take place. Twitter, as an increasingly universal appendage to the show itself, immediately transforms events that fit into the aforementioned categories into a calcified list of what matters from the night. This process reveals a tension between an audience with specific, growing expectations and a yet-to-adjust Academy will be clearer than ever.
Twitter waits for moments of absurdity. Such moments form the foundation upon which live Twitter is built, and the primary reason why Twitter has become an accepted attachment to popular live television. It’s bewildering to think that Kanye making Taylor famous became such a premier pop cultural language, but its effects have rippled through all awards shows since. It was a moment so commentable, so beef-worthy, so encouraging of side-taking and name-calling that it became the flag-bearer of Twitter’s appeal.
This expectation of the unexpected has superseded awards as the primary purpose of awards shows. Certainly, the VMAs figured this formula out years ago, but the dividends for more “serious” awards show to court the absurd have increased exponentially in the past seven or eight years. For the better, awards shows are more and more concentrated on the production of the spectacle than on the celebration of achievements.
The Oscars, however, have the most pride of any such show. The Academy Awards have ramifications within the industry for who gets funded and who gets jobs. Thus, the Oscars still stray towards traditional notions of what a monologue, speech or taped segment should be. Beyond Ellen DeGeneres’ instantly canonized selfie, the Academy Awards have been the least willing show to explicitly court Twitter’s attention.
The hope that awards shows can be platforms to resistance against the industries in question is more plausible now than it was just a few years ago. Two weeks ago, Kendrick Lamar took the Grammys stage in handcuffs to protest the violence against and incarceration of black Americans.
The consistent whitewashing of the Oscars reached a new low this January when the Academy nominated 20 white actors for 20 possible nominations. Although the studio system which so seldom casts actors of color in major roles remains the primary culprit, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Spike Lee and others announced their plans to boycott the ceremony this Sunday. This boycott and the Academy’s larger diversity problem has successfully become the dominant story of Oscars season. The outrage that sparked the first real diversity conversation possibly in Academy history owes much of its energy to Twitter. Changes won’t manifest until racism within Hollywood studios is addressed, but for the first time, Twitter has made Hollywood inequality Sunday’s theme rather than trophy fodder.
Sunday’s show also holds the potential to carry water in the discourse over Hollywood racism thanks to host Chris Rock. One of fewer than 10 people in world whom I cannot manage to criticize, Rock remains one of the three funniest people on the planet despite his recent inactivity. His monologue will almost certainly attack the Hollywood machine and its historic refusal to put people of color in the spotlight.
There’s an old Chris Rock bit about equality that always sticks with me. He said baseball did not experience true integration until the 1970s when bad African American players started to make the league. For the first couple decades after Jackie Robinson’s debut, only the best of the best black players made it, while the deserving middle-tier of players were still excluded. It’s a reminder of the sheer abundance of talent that Hollywood is missing out on due to its casting habits.
Though Rock will likely be the star of the night, the Oscars remain slow to react to what social media and much of society at large desires and expects of them. Social justice will only be achieved outside the confines of the normal production: it will not be embedded in the awards or speakers. Increasingly, a “good” awards show means one in which the establishment is challenged by an outsider or surprise guest, something unplanned. The walls which keep awards shows white and traditional are structurally unsound thanks in large part to social media, but it’s unclear whether the shows and the industries they represent will help in that demolition or fall along with it.