Friday, January 22, 2016

Oscar Observations

The Academy Awards have managed again to stir up the diversity controversy.  The dispute and talk of a boycott is all over the news.  Last year I commented on a similar fuss pointing out that the Academy Awards show is really just one long commercial to sell movie tickets, that one or two years without a nominee of color had to be considered against the 16 years in a row prior to last year, and that those with good perspective understand that the issue of entertainment awards should be small potatoes when it comes to setting priorities in real life.  In the end, this is just a bunch of narcissists crying about not getting the attention they crave.

Then I asked myself, what about diversity in other areas?  Doesn’t the lack of diversity in the NBA, for example, teach us something?  Last season 74.4% of NBA players were African American and 23.3% were white.  The reason for this apparent imbalance is that fans reward their teams for winning basketball games.  Generally, those teams with the best players and the best teamwork win the most games, go to the playoffs, and rake in the big bucks from ticket sales, team apparel and television.  The sport is objective.  Whoever scores the most points wins.

Best movie (or actor), on the other hand, is not objective.  It’s a case of preference or opinion.  Maybe there are underlying prejudices, but like any category in the arts these days, it is very subjective.  In addition, the best picture voting process is complicated, and it is very possible that the winner isn’t even the one with the most first place votes.  (In case you are curious, here is a brief explanation of how it works.)  So the meaningfulness of advertising a movie as best picture is greatly diminished.  But either way it’s still no big deal.

In doing the research, though, I learned something even more surprising.  Diversity does not mean what I always thought it did.  It doesn’t mean a range of different perspectives or backgrounds or experiences at all!  The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport gives the NBA an A+ rating for diversity.  This is how they explain their calculations:  “Currently, 24 percent of the U.S. population is comprised of people of color, thus an A was achieved if 24 percent of the positions were held by people of color. A position was determined to have earned a B if people of color held 12 percent of the positions, and a C was earned if people of color held only 9 percent of positions.”  (By “position” they mean player, front office, coach, owner, etc.)

So all people of color represented 76.6%, which is more than 24%.  That equals an A+.  One would assume from the above concept of diversity that the curve would go down on both sides from the 24%, that too many would be as bad as too few and cause diversity to start to diminish.  The more people were alike, the less diversity.  Since that is clearly not the case, this organization has a different definition; and if there were no white players at all, the diversity grade would still be A+.  (Regular readers know from my other posts that I don’t buy a definition of diversity that relies on skin color.  You can’t walk into a room and see into people’s heads, but that is another topic.)

So before we get too excited about lack of diversity in Hollywood, we should probably decide whether everybody agrees on a single definition.  I guess we need to mix everyone together by some formula, which is easy to do when the whole exercise is subjective anyway.  The alternative would be to treat everyone the same – but that might mean having only a single category for best actor and best supporting actor, not splitting into male and female categories.  Wow, that would open up another can of worms!

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