Sociologist: Oscars are “insiders rewarding insiders”

As people watching the Oscars last night might have wondered what some some of the winning films were about (Best Picture winner, The Artist, has taken in just over $31 million at the box office), a sociologist argues that the Oscars represent “insiders rewarding insiders”:

“The annual Oscars are a vital component of our cultural machinery, not only reflecting taste but producing it – and thereby creating profit for moviemakers,” says Ben Agger, director of the Center for Theory in the University of Texas at Arlington’s sociology department, in an e-mail. “The voters are insiders rewarding insiders.”…

A Los Angeles Times report found that 94 percent of Academy members are white and 77 percent are male, with blacks making up only 2 percent and Latinos less than that. The median age of Oscar voters is 62, with just 14 percent under 50 years old.

This has led to accusations of gender and race bias. But Charles Bernstein, who for 10 years was chairman of the Academy Award rules committee, is a bit tired of the yearly accusations that come AMPAS’s way.

“The Academy is not a democracy but a meritocracy,” he says.

The job of the Academy is not to reflect but to lead, he adds. These are great professionals who have achieved distinction in motion picture-making, and they are merely saying, “Here is what we most respect.’”

This is a classic culture question: does culture reflect society (perhaps the organizations and social conditions or the demands of consumers)? Or put another way, should cultural products be rewarded for being popular or being the best or outside of the box?

This could be viewed as a gatekeeper issue: who gets to decide the merits of a cultural product? I suspect the battle between “mass culture” and “high culture” will not be settled anytime soon. At this point, what would Hollywood gain by changing the current system? The Oscars are popular television and there still are enough blockbusters for Hollywood to keep moving forward. At the Oscar gathering I attended, another attendee and I were thinking through an award titled “the movie American movie-goers loved the most,” perhaps marked by the box office winner or some votes from people who actually attended the movies (perhaps like the older system of doing all-star balloting at sporting events). I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Oscars found a way to include some voting input from the public, even if it was more symbolic than anything else. Perhaps their solution right now is to include enough popular films (like Bridesmaids) and celebrities (like Tom Cruise, Jennifer Lopez) in the show to keep people happy even though the popular people aren’t going to win.

If we truly are headed toward a more individualistic, more culturally diffuse world, we might expect that the Oscars and Grammys and all sorts of cultural gatekeepers (officials reviewers, critics, etc.) will face more trouble. This would not only be an issue of whether a majority of a culture actually experiences significant works (an interesting question in itself) but whether the public actually cares about what the gatekeepers think (why watch the Oscars if they don’t even talk about movies that most people see?). I don’t think we are close to the end of the gatekeepers but this is going to continue to be a fault line to watch.

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