I had initially planned on permanently shelving this blog post, for the most part due to the fact that I felt the two incidents I was comparing had come and gone, and I try to stay topical. Then recently Facebook notified me that Kate Winslet not boycotting the Oscars was trending, and just today that acclaimed director Steven Spielberg had some thoughts about the awards ceremony. It appears that a discussion that began with the continuing hashtag #OscarsSoWhite is far from over.
This may surprise you, but the focus of this particular blog post isn’t race. It is about social justice in general, though [just because this pony has more than one trick doesn’t mean that he has a lot of them]. Social justice is ultimately concerned with change, a positive transformation of our society, and is more often than not battling against the presumption that this is impossible. I’m going to be covering two somewhat recent events, both surrounding awards shows, that prove it’s not.
The first is the Grand Prix de la ville d’Angoulême, a lifetime achievement award given out during the Angoulême International Comics Festival. According to Wikipedia it’s considered “the most prestigious award in Franco-Belgian comics”, but certainly holds some heft outside that circle.
For this year’s festival, however, the awards bore the curious distinction of not including a single female comics creator. Not one woman in a list of 30 candidates. While this garnered a few boycotts, one of which was from a member of the Grand Jury himself, the truth is that any and every blatant exclusion ends up with its fair share of detractors. No, what makes 2016’s Angoulême Grand Prix so important is how those directly affected reacted to the news.
“Charles Burns wrote to tell us that he refuses to be included in a list of nominees which has no women.”
– Burns’ French publisher, Éditions Cornélius
“I support the boycott of Angouleme and am withdrawing my name from any consideration for what is now a totally meaningless ‘honor.’ What a ridiculous, embarrassing debacle.”
“but as i drifted off to sleep last night i thought of my daughters. my smart, strong willed daughters who will STILL have to fight for their equal rights and how they will STILL have to fend off some men treating them as objects before they can see them as individuals and how insane it seems to me.so, with that i join my fellow creators in removing my name from the angouleme grand prix list. i hope the people in charge who, again, i do not know rectify whatever happened that created this mess. i truly thank them for the honor and will gladly accept it once the honor is restored to its full power of inclusion to all creators all over the world.”
These three men were joined by Christophe Blain, François Bourgeon, Pierre Christin, Etienne Davodeau, Milo Manara, Riad Sattouf, Joann Sfar, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Chris Ware, all of whom withdrew their names from the list of nominees. Bendis event went so far as to namedrop Jill Thompson, who “won more eisners than i will ever have while i was in college” as someone who “[deserves] the honor. not the nomination. the full honor.” Other comic creators such as artist Dustin Weaver expressed their support by reblogging posts that listed dozens of female creators who monumentally changed the industry as we know it.
All of this occurred in the wake of Franck Bondoux, executive officer of the festival, nissuing an incredible non-apology that stated:
“Unfortunately, there are few women in the history of comics. That’s the reality. Similarly, if you go to the Louvre, you will find few women artists.”
With almost half of their nominees withdrawing their names Angoulême organizers scrambled, releasing a statement that they would be adding female nominees, before ultimately opening up voting for their Grand Prix.
It was a powerful blow that overturned the erasure of Bondoux’s words, not only correcting a false record of history but changing comics history moving forward. With all of this taking place just this past January I began paying particularly close attention to the Oscars and the resurgence of the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, beginning with Jada Pinkett Smith’s call to boycott the awards:
I need to take a paragraph to express that I’m not going to conflate the importance of the Academy Awards with that of the Grand Prix de la ville d’Angoulême. The Angoulême Grand Prix isn’t even on the same level as the Eisners, and the world and life of the comic creator is worlds away from that of the Hollywood actor. I realize and am aware of the sheer magnitude of winning an Oscar, or even being able to bear the words “Oscar Nominated” before your name in a movie trailer. And granted, it was a different time when Marlon Brando asked Sacheen Littlefeather, an Apache woman, to refuse to accept his Oscar for Best Actor in 1973-
-but is it really? Isn’t all change rooted in discomfort, often to the point of sacrifice? I haven’t watched anything that made my heart catch in my throat as much as Littlefeather’s speech, and it kills me that forty years later it appears to have done almost nothing.
Like I said, I’m trying to approach this realistically, and as such had little to no hope that any of the 88th Academy Awards nominees would withdraw their names prior to the ceremony, or that anything even vaguely mirroring Brando’s achievement will occur at the end of this month. Not Bryan Cranston for Best Actor in Trumbo, not Jennifer Jason Leigh for Best Actress in a Supporting Role in The Hateful Eight, nor any of the White actors [both male and female] or directors [Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu is an exception]. I’m willing to be proven wrong, of course.
Thankfully it’s not just the nominees who can affect change, and Jada Pinkett Smith has been joined by a plethora of voices within the industry-
“The boycott, it’s doing a lot of good, just being around and being so talked about every day. We’re going up against things that are real barriers for us.”
“The Academy has a problem. It’s a problem that needs to be solved. [. . .] For 20 opportunities to celebrate actors of color, actresses of color, to be missed last year is one thing; for that to happen again this year is unforgivable.”
“If you think back 10 years ago, the Academy was doing a better job. Think about how many more African Americans were nominated. I would also make the argument, I don’t think it’s a problem of who you’re picking as much as it is: How many options are available to minorities in film, particularly in quality films?”
-all of which had to be processed by the Academy which gave out these awards. With this being the second consecutive year that they were under such close scrutiny and criticism something different needed to happen before an inevitable “incident” akin to what happened with Brando occurred. Maybe not in the 88th Academy Awards, but the 89th? The 90th?
On January 22nd the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences “approved a sweeping series of substantive changes designed to make the Academy’s membership, its governing bodies, and its voting members significantly more diverse”, releasing an official statement that will have long-lasting, permanent effects on Hollywood as we know it. With a goal of “doubling the number of women and diverse members of the Academy by 2020” it’s an ambitious target, but one they appear to be serious about reaching.
The AV Club provides a straightforward breakdown of the massive overhaul to take place over the following years, but the simple fact remains that a more diverse Academy will invariably result in a more diverse Academy Awards. An Academy that can spotlight the achievements of Leonardo diCaprio and The Renevant while being unable to ignore those of Cary Fukunaga, Idris Elba, and Beasts of No Nation. One that can acknowledge the value in The Big Short as well as Straight Outta Compton.
Whenever someone chooses to spend their time on the internet decrying injustice more often than not they are shouted down for complaining, told that their efforts won’t make an iota of difference. The truth is that it’s not only household names who hold the power [though their contributions certainly help]. Every voice adds to the strength of a given cause, every drops brings a bucket that much closer to overflowing.
Society and culture are changing, by steps and starts but changing nonetheless. This shouldn’t even be a question of whether you want to be on the right side of history, but what you want right now. It doesn’t matter if it’s the unassailable fact that women have always been a part of comics history, or that non-White art and talent has been overlooked in Hollywood, nothing can be altered without the contributions of many, or even just one person to start things off.