Telling us what to think since the Birth of Audio-Visual Media
By Yana Makuwa
Awards season is the best time of the year for people who engage in frequent small talk. The first two months are sprinkled with a series of pop culture conversation grab-bags. If there’s ever a lull in the conversation, you can strike up at least five minutes of talk about nominee (or winner) speculation and criticism in any number of interesting categories. Awards shows have been around for so long that they are practically a part of American consciousness. But while we know the most intimate details of the beautiful people on the silver screens, hardly anyone knows or even thinks about the people behind the scenes, sitting at mahogany conference desks and secretly manipulating our casual conversation, bar trivia questions, and (gasp) our personal opinions.
In the world of awards shows, there exists the pretty obvious big three: the Grammys, the Emmys, and the Oscars. These shows can be organized in a series of odd-one-out patterns. They happen at the beginning of the year (except the Emmys, which are in September), they have a parent network that broadcasts their show (except the Emmys again, which has a rotating slot on CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox), and they end in the letter Y (except the Oscars because they were tired of the Emmys always being the special one). The Golden Globes are often confused with the Oscars even though their names clearly describe two differently shaped statues (It’s likely due to the fact that they give awards for television and movies). This discussion could go on forever, and I could explain how the Tonys, the MTV Music Awards, the Kid’s Choice Awards, and even the fictional “Soapys” (spelling debatable), all fit into this strange matrix of similarity and difference. Suffice to say that for all their individual quirks and specifications, the main awards shows have enough essential similarities that it is possible to treat them all as phenomena. For the sake of my sanity, I’m going to draw my examples from the first four that came to mind.
Each of these shows (Emmys, Oscars, Grammys, and Golden Globes) started out as insiders in each industry wanting to commend their peers for innovation and excellence in the fields they care about. According to the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’s website, “When Syd Cassyd, its founder, first conceived of the organization, he envisioned a serious forum where all aspects and concerns of the fledgling medium could be discussed.” The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was the brainchild of Louis B. Mayer (of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), and was supposed to bring the different branches of film creation together. Following suit, the Recording Academy self-proclaims their cause for existence to be “to positively impact the lives of musicians, industry members and our society at large.” The Hollywood Foreign Press Association (the little-known bestowers of the Golden Globes) was an organization of foreign journalists who wanted to commend the creators of the work they were reporting on. All of these associations are focused inward; they’re tight communities congratulating their members on the specific talents they share.
So how come the general public discusses these semi-self-indulgent awards, at least to some extent, as though they were the deciding measures of high artistic quality and esteem? There is even published evidence that the entire system of voting behind these awards is not at all based on some precise, elaborate rubric with objective judges and profound criticism. This year, a writer for The Hollywood Reporter, Scott Feinberg, included in his in-depth coverage of the time leading up to the Oscars a daily “conversation with an Academy member—who is not associated with any of this year’s nominees—about [his or] her ballot.” These raw and anonymous peeks into the minds of voters are enough to completely disillusion the staunchest of awards show supporters. Comments include not voting for Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Whiplash because he didn’t believe that the main character wouldn’t have confided in his father about his abusive teacher, and voting for Patricia Arquette because she deserves “a bravery award” for “having no work [i.e. cosmetic plastic surgery] done during the twelve years.” Some members didn’t even bother to finish watching the films they were supposed to vote on.
It’s quite clear that these awards weren’t intended to be public guides at the outset, and today don’t resemble in the slightest an awards show idealist’s image of an averaging of excellent critical reviews that leads to the one true winner of society’s esteem. Since this is the case, we are still left wondering what the draw is. And this is by no means a new question. Many media fans of all ages understand that the actual value of art is incredibly difficult to determine, and definitely can’t be allocated categorically by a committee. Even artists themselves (and not just Kanye) recognize that receiving one of these awards, while honorable, is not the same as knowing the real worth of their art.
So many people have contemplated this problem that Google has an autofill for it. In the Internet’s secret drawer titled “Why do we have awards shows,” there are at least three articles, one from CNN, one from pajiba.com (a satirical media site), and one from Boston.com, all with variations on the same title. Although each article took a slightly different stance on awards shows, from condemning their outdated self-indulgence to admitting them as communally enjoyed guilty pleasures, they all pinpointed similar aspects that draw us to the shows. The articles focus on the act of watching the shows as the main source of enjoyment. We watch them as a group, whether we throw Oscars parties or spend half the time staring at our social media, awards shows are a shared experience. The second main reason they say we enjoy these shows is the pleasure of observing celebrities. The live shows mean that actors are playing themselves and directors are in front of the cameras, and we love pretending that we’re watching the stars be themselves.
While we can all agree that watching celebrities with our friends is fun, I would argue that there’s more to our obsession with these awards and their shows. The awards shows exist in a weird space between high and low brow culture. On the one hand, these are prestigious awards given by groups of successful art creators and critics. The technical professionals are acknowledged, and people with really specific skills and information can discuss whether the decisions made match their well-educated conclusions. Those same people can also join everyone else in a merciless critique of the clothes, attractiveness, and personality of their favorite and least favorite celebrities, and a rehashing of the best moments from that year’s big blockbuster. This extraordinary in-between-ness of awards shows perhaps explains their staying power—they let our inner snob come out and play with our inner fangirl.
As for the awards themselves, as Americans we all have a weakness for pseudo-democratic systems and pretend meritocracies. From preschool to politics, we’re taught that if you get enough of the best and smartest people together and let them talk until they reach a consensus, what they come up with could be nothing but the best ideas and solutions to the most important questions and problems. Whether or not this is true or even achievable in practice, awards shows mimic this. They indulge us in our fantasy that somewhere beneath all of our subjective opinions about the popular art we consume, there is an objective truth that separates the “good” from the “best.” The academies let us believe that if we let the right groups of people (them) discuss it long enough, the difference will become clear and they will announce it for all the world to see. As unrealistic and idealized as that is, it’s a fantasy that many take comfort in.
The various academies and associations have prestige oozing from their names, and it is so easy to let that authority become real. Even a person who knows how flawed the voters are can easily forget that and believe that some higher power is revealing to them the definitive Best Album or Best Actress of the Year. And the second we forget the flaws of the present academies, we’re making it easier for future generations to forget the work that doesn’t get recognized by them. It is comforting to leave the (perhaps unnecessary) burden of choosing superlatives to some presumed all-knowing group, letting them decide what will be remembered down the line. On top of that, the presence of this authority gives us an impersonal higher figure for our personal opinions to interact with. If your choice matches that handed down by the authorities, you feel validated and can rely on the strength of the award to support your view. If you disagree, you have a set of ideas to fight against, resulting in a sort of reverse validation that comes from defending your point of view. Either way, the outside authoritative opinion gives your own opinion something on which to sharpen its claws.
In the end, we want awards shows to tell us something about our own tastes by justifying them or forcing us to defend them. We want them to introduce us to new good things and tell us what we should remember forever. It’s perfectly valid to wonder whether this setup will last in the new Internet age, when everyone’s opinion seems to matter and we’re all more concerned with what the multitude thinks than what a higher authority says. Public polls, up-votes, and the general tone of comment sections are encroaching on the space of Academy-approved awards, and almost everyone agrees that we could do away with them if we wanted to. But deep down, I think we know that our input via the open Internet only holds its importance when we can favor it above some alternative. In the end, awards shows give our opinions power.