Sunday’s Academy Awards were heavily criticised as a whitewash. Amongst the nominees for acting, for the second year in a row, there were no blacks, Asians or Latinos. #OscarsSoWhite trended briefly. “I’m here at the Academy Awards, otherwise known as the white people’s choice awards,” sneered Chris Rock, the black comedian who was host for the gala evening.
But the stand-out theme of the Oscars was not the exclusion of people of colour. It was the elevation of victimhood into a badge of honour.
The best picture winner, Spotlight, was a film about the victims of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic clergy in Boston. It is a drama of dedicated journalists digging for the truth, righting wrongs, and fighting the establishment. A few predatory priests ruined hundred of lives and their crimes were hidden by bishops, priests, lawyers, police and politicians. It’s a story that need to be told. It may bring shame to Catholics, but we need a cautionary tale about moral complacency.
There are lessons in it for other institutions, as well. Last week a report was released about how management at the BBC failed the hundreds of victims that its star performer Jimmy Savile molested and raped during his decades working there. Perhaps someone ought make a film about that.
Spotlight was a worthy choice. But what propelled it to the top was not the acting or the script but a sense of outrage and pity and a feeling that these victims had to be acknowledged.
Then there was the Oscar for best actress. It went to Brie Larson for her role in Room. This is a sombre story about a kidnapped woman who is imprisoned in a squalid shed, and repeatedly raped by her captor. In the midst of this desolation she raises a child and she copes with depression after escaping.
Moving on to Amy, which won the Oscar for best documentary. It chronicles the life and death of British singer-songwriter Amy Winehouse. She had a stellar career but suffered from bulimia, self-harm, divorce, drug addiction and alcohol abuse. “Life teaches you really how to live it, if you live long enough,” seems to be the film’s epigraph. She died of alcohol poisoning in 2011.
Alicia Vikander won the best supporting actress award for The Danish Girl. She played Gerda, a painter in the 1920s whose husband was one of the first men to have a sex change. He died from complications of the surgery, but the real tragedy depicted in the film is the lack of understanding from the brutal world of binary sexuality. Both Gerda and Lili/Einar are victims of transphobia.
Moving on, we have the best documentary short, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, a 40-minute exploration of honour killing through the experience of an 18-year-old who survived an attempt by her father and uncle to kill her after she married a man of whom they did not approve.
Even the award for best foreign film fits neatly into the victimhood template. Son of Saul is a Hungarian drama about Auschwitz and its million Jewish victims. The novelty of this film is that it views the death camp through the eyes of a Jewish inmate who works as a Sonderkommando, leading other Jews to their deaths and sorting through their possessions for valuables.
Admittedly, Revenant, which snapped up the Oscars for best actor and best director, is a drama about survival and revenge, not victimhood. But it helps to clarify what victimhood means. Mountainman Hugh Glass survives an attack by a ferocious grizzly bear and then of a vicious companion who leaves him for dead. But instead of accepting his status as a victim, he crawls out of his shallow grave and tends his own wounds. He refuses to accept cruelty passively and struggles to live.
Which brings us to the Lady Gaga’s full-throated anthem to victimhood, “Till it happens to you”. This was a brilliantly-executed song about survivors of campus sexual abuse. As it draws to an end, 50 of them walk slowly on stage, hand in hand, with mottoes like “Not Your Fault” and “Survivor” written on their forearms. She sang:
You tell me “hold your head up”
Hold your head up and be strong
Cause when you fall, you gotta get up
You gotta get up and move on.”
Tell me, how the hell could you talk,
How could you talk?
Cause until you walk where I walk,
It’s just all talk.
Till it happens to you, you don’t know
How it feels,
How it feels.
Till it happens to you, you won’t know
It won’t be real (how could you know?)
No It won’t be real (how could you know?)
Won’t know how I feel
The campus rape victims and the central characters in the films have really suffered. They deserve compassion and solidarity. The question, though, is whether they should be encourage to move on – or live marooned on an island of despair waiting for a ship to emerge over the horizon.
There are dangers to treating victimhood as a special status. First, it cultivates passive entitlement as a solution. It’s somebody’s else’s job to remedy the injustice. Victims are powerless and hand responsibility for their lives over to someone else, usually the government.
Second, it makes it impossible to discuss the victimization in a rational way. “Till it happens to you, you don’t know / How it feels” is a truism, not an argument. We are all mysteries to each other. But we still have to communicate or there can be no justice, only anger and spite.
And third, someone who adopts an identity as a victim is morally paralyzed. Once he moves on, he is no longer a victim. So he stays frozen and helpless. The poem which inspired Nelson Mandela in his prison cell “I am the captain of my fate; I am the master of my soul” is a better guide than Lady Gaga’s “Till it happens to you”.
The 88th Academy Awards are a window on how much America has changed over the past 50 years. In the 1966 Oscars, life was a challenge; heroes got up and moved on. The best picture went to The Sound of Music. Most of us remember the story of the von Trapp family as the most cheerful and optimistic film ever made. But it is also a story about victims of Nazi persecution. Doctor Zhivago was runner-up for the major awards and won a few minor ones. One of the many threads in its plot is sexual abuse of the teen-aged beauty Lara. But she becomes a serene and mature woman. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a French film with a fabulous soundtrack was nominated for four awards, tells the story of single mother abandoned by her lover. As in the other films, her reaction is “when you fall, you gotta get up”.
Donald Trump may be a charlatan, but he’s a great salesman and he understands how attractive this philosophy is. His promise to “Make America Great Again” is essentially a call to abolish the cult of victimhood. This is far more appealing in Peoria than it is in Tinsel Town (which may account for Trump’s unpopularity in Hollywood). In box office receipts, Spotlight has earned US$39 million to date, far behind captain-of-my-fate flics like The Martian ($228 million), which was nominated in seven categories, but failed to win a single one; The Revenant ($170 million); or even Kung Fu Panda 3 ($128 million), which was nominated for nothing whatsoever.
Back in 1966 Lee Marvin won an Oscar as best actor for playing both the sozzled hero, Kid Sheleen, and the noseless villain in the cowboy comedy Cat Ballou. At one point the Kid dishes out some sound advice: “At first you don’t think you can stand to get hit, then you realize you can take it ’cause the blood don’t matter, and you know you’re gonna live. It’s a great gift I’m goin’ to give you — to know it don’t hurt to fight!”
Somebody tell Lady Gaga.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.