Seeing Ourselves on Screen: My Take on the #OscarsSoWhite Controversy

A crowd gathering to watch a movie

A crowd gathering to watch a movie

I love going to the movies. I love stories—reading them, telling them, and listening to them—and movies are some really good stories. I love the shared experience of movies, how we can connect with others by reciting movie lines, alluding to familiar movie characters, and debating their messages with others.

Stories are a part of every culture, and the North American version of storytelling is with big budgets, big-name celebrities, and big-time movie sets. One movie may not give us insight into a culture—it is just one story, after all—but watching the repeated messages of a collection of movies can inform us of our underlying beliefs and values. This is why the #OscarsSoWhite controversy is worth discussing. Our movies represent us.

On more than one occasion, someone I’ve met abroad, whose experience with American women has been solely through Hollywood, has told me that they thought American women were easy. Why? Because that’s what we are like in the movies. (Canadian is close enough to American that I should fit the mold, too.) When I hear of something like the Bechdel test, which indicates whether or not two women on screen talk to each other about something other than guys, I take notice. It’s a simple concept, but a surprising alarming number of movies fail.

So what does that tell someone outside of North America about American women? One might start to believe that all we do is talk about guys. Of course, I live here, so my experiences are broader than what I learn from movies. Yes, I do talk about guys with my girlfriends, and once in awhile we even talk about shopping! But women are so much more complex than that. What we put on the big screen should represent that, so when the messages are put out to the world, other people know that too.

If we want to tell the world stories about who we really are, stories that actually represent us, then we need to tell more than just the “white” story. The #OscarsSoWhite controversy matters. But for me, it’s not about simply counting the number of black people on the screen. The Economist magazine does a good job of breaking down film roles and nominations. It’s not that black actors are under-represented on film; actors of colour, but especially Latino, Asian and Native American actors, are under-represented in starring film roles worthy of an Oscar nomination. And what about people of different social classes? Ages? Physical abilities? 

The classic Hollwood sign

The classic Hollwood sign

I don’t want people to make assumptions about me (how easy I may or may not be) based on representations of American women on the screen, and I can only imagine others feel the same way. We should also care about the types of roles people are getting, and who is telling the story. Where are the directors, screenwriters, and producers who are people of colour?

Culture and movies is kind of like the chicken-and-egg dilemma: which comes first? Does culture influence what we see on film, or does what we see on film influence our culture? It’s likely both, happening at the same time. But it is a problem when they’re not working together to strengthen our definition of who we are. The stories we tell are not just for us; they’re for everyone who hears them. And for those who are just learning who we are, we should care about the messages they’re seeing on screen.