Authenticity, The Academy, and the Commodification of Activism: How Oscar Acceptance Becomes Political Platform

Curator's Note

An avid and lifelong follower of the Oscars, I have made it priority since my time as a undergraduate film major to watch every nominated film across all 24 categories. This year, however, I took a different approach: To watch ceremonies with a critical eye on acceptance. As we approach the 85th annual Academy Awards, to hold the shiny statuette on stage at the Kodak Theatre has become a signifier for prestige and a commercial marker for "what counts" as good cinema. In our culture of reality and Internet entertainment—where "authenticity" may be coming to lose its sheen—it seems the coveted Oscar "himself" (or, more accurately, itself) signifies one last modernist art remnant that separates taste from trash, substance from surface, and "true" artists from overnight YouTube celebrities. 

Since Marlon Brando's 1973 Academy Best Actor win for The Godfather and his controversial "non"-acceptance speech, it has become common practice for industry professionals to accept Oscar alongside some activist rally cry (at best) and political soapbox (at worst) as it relates to their film. In the new millenium, the award is often given to films whose aesthetic themes are marked by a potent socal/political message. And the pressure for artists to stand behind some cause has become exeeding: Look no further than Sean Penn’s Best Actor win for Milk where he deemed Academy voters “Comi-Homo-loving sons-of-guns;" or Hillary Swank's call for "uniting through difference" in her win for the provocative portrayal of a Female-to-Male transexual in Boys Don't Cry; or Jody Foster’s recently lauded Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award speech at this year's Golden Globes and her relunctancy to "come out."

I wonder whether these "calls to action" are attempts at genuine activism or political ruses in which Hollywood capitalism attempts to use (or use up) celebrities to catapult its cultural-political-social-economic agendas into mainstream public discourse. If artists are ultimately being commodified by Hollywood, how does the elusive and powerful nature of capitalism construct socially constientous celebrity advocates for political change as a way for, as Zizek remarked, "buying [their/our] redemption from being only a consumerist"? I assess the current award season cycle of acceptance speeches from the Golden Globes to Screen Actors Guild to the “granddaddy” of ceremonies, The Oscars. As a film critic, communication scholar, and ten-year veteran of public address, I hope to see we how activist sentiments become commodified by the entertainment industry vis-à-vis artists and their acceptance addresses.


This post notes a very interesting/bizarre trend-- see Anne Hathaway's comment about eliminating Fantine's from the world (???) I think it is especially helpful that you mentioned this "activism" separating Hollywood celebrities from their YouTube counterparts. In some ways, it feels like Hollywood is taking some cues from the social networking world by claiming to be part of the process of social change.

Lauren - Yes! Anne Hatheway's speech was the first of the major categories that really intrigued me: A social issue wrapped in a theatrical/cinematic metaphor? But, in reality, what is Anne Hatheway REALLY doing to contribute the burgeoning and taboo issue of sex work in our country (or globally)? Was this just a convenient platform? Another theme I have come to notice for several years running (and this year was no exception) was that the Best Documentary (Feature & Short) always has an activist message and yet gets glossed over. But you have to question whether this may be because these documentarian's messages are not in line with the liberal Hollywood agenda--which, at this point, is very much centered around LGBTQ Rights. In the case of "The Cove," that the speech was completely taken off the air actually increased awareness for the film's cause for the news media it generated nationally.

I think it is especially interesting how you mark the work that the term "acceptance" is doing alongside these speeches. The speeches seem to be made up of vaguely activist stances. However, as you note, it appears that only certain activist stances are given approval. And to touch on commodification, it seems that this then turns activist messages into commercial platforms for future projects. It is also interesting (given the awards' history) which bodies get to represent the "activist" most. An example of activism that we did not get to see is the visual effects workers protesting their uneven treatment in the industry. The lack of mention of the protest further highlights your point, especially an industy that prides itself on its union history and activism.

Thanks for supporting my post! You bring up a lot of great issues for all of us to keep in mind when viewing the Oscars critically toward the future. It might be interesting to be on the lookout for films concerning the issue of sex work given Anne Hatheway's pseudo-activist message. I mean, we've already seen it in Taken - although it glorified the issue around violence - the film did in fact raise awareness. Although I don't agree with her stance entirely, I think Victoria Brownworth's op-ed in the Advocate is in a lot of ways a response to the very interesting point you raise about what bodies "earn" the right to visibility in the ceremony's so-called "activism." The article talks specifically to Gay Men and Womyn in Hollywood, and even hits on female directors not earning recognition until recently even though the visual/technical categories (e.g. editing/suturing) was a profession originally dictated a feminine profession in the early days of Hollywood. Check it out:

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