At the heart of our age lies a whole slew of deep contradictions; one of the greatest of these is the desire to hold two contradictory thoughts in our heads simultaneously.
On the one hand, our societies are desperately keen to assert that all people are the same: not just equal under the law or equal in dignity, but equally capable and with the same abilities. One demonstration of this is that there are no currently acceptable explanations for unequal outcomes that do not currently fix solely on prejudice or lack of opportunity. The era insists that we are all equally capable, and if we are not in the same place at the end of it, then that is only because the playing field has not been sufficiently levelled.
As the same time, we also like to believe that certain groups of people bring special attributes to the table, the phenomenon I have tried to identify as “Equal and also better”. So, for instance, there is the example of Christine Lagarde, who regularly asserts — without of course having any skin in the game herself — that women bring attributes to the table that men do not.
Last month she was at it again, claiming that world leaders who happen to be female are doing a better job at dealing with coronavirus than their male counterparts. Putting aside for a moment whether that is provable or not, or indeed correct, the deep assertion is what is important: there is something about women which makes them more capable in coping with pandemics. Equal, but better.
And that may be even be true — but you cannot run this programme at the same time as the programme that says we are all the same and that the justification for women being at the top table is that they have precisely the same competencies as men. Or you cannot do so without some serious grinding of gears.
Now Hollywood — like all other areas of the entertainment industry — is at present contorted by this same underlying contradiction. With an eye on the prevailing winds, this week it was announced that only films which are “diverse” will now be considered for the Best Picture award at the Oscars. Specifically, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences declared that certain diversity criteria would need to be met in order to satisfy the judges.
For these purposes the Academy is focusing on “underrepresented groups” and lists these as “women, racial and ethnic groups, LBGTQ+ and people with disabilities”. To be considered, a film must fit at least one of the following criteria, among them:
— “At least one of the lead actors or significant supporting actors: must be from “an underrepresented racial or ethnic group”
— Underrepresented people must be in creative leadership positions, as departmental heads or as part of the crew.
— There must be paid apprenticeships, internships and training for underrepresented people.
— Audience development, from publicity and marketing to distribution, must also include people from these categories.
Cinema is already one of the most diverse industries on earth, a place where human life in its fullest is already on display, from Gandhi and The Last Emperor to Dances with Wolves to Rain Man — all previous Oscar winners – not to mention the all-black Moonlight, which in 2016 was finally given the award after it had been wrongly handed to the rather bland, all-white La La Land. But by then already the demands for more representation were in full-flow, the #OscarsTooWhite campaign showing what the real problem was. Hollywood might be diverse, but it is not diverse in the right way. Diversity means minorities being equal, but better.
Yet the film and entertainment industry is unusual, and trying to use Hollywood to address underrepresentation is as doom-laden as trying to use it as a test-pad for global sexual etiquette. It thrives on untypical people with exceptional talents, tall poppies who don’t reflect the wider population. Although Hollywood is a town where progressive views are almost mandatory, it is also a land of almost brutal, Darwinian competition, and the last place to enact an egalitarian experiment. Rather than being fair, success is won or lost by most unjust of criteria — beauty, wealth, nepotism personal connections, and raw talent.
None of the Oscar winners of the past decades has been the product of fairness or equity, but of unusually talented and exceptional artists. Few previous Oscar winners would have passed this diversity criteria – which is perhaps the point – but then it’s hard to see how any of them would have been improved by diversity.
Would The Godfather have been a better movie had it featured more “LBGTQ+ people” or “people with disabilities”? Would The Departed or Shakespeare in Love be improved by its producers being compelled to offer training opportunities to people from underrepresented groups?
The assumption behind criteria like those introduced this week is that the answer is that, yes, The Godfather would have been a better movie if it had had better representation. But that is a difficult, bold claim to make, so the only acceptable argument to make would be to state that The Godfather would have been exactly as good a movie if it had fulfilled the new criteria. Diversity equals the same, or better.
Nor will it end there, because it never does, not when a group of people are determined to hold two impossible things at once: that diversity in itself is good, but that diversity must also mean equality (except when minorities are overrepresented, of course). The #OscarsSoWhite campaign of recent years has not concerned junior apprentices and there is not a chance it will be satisfied by it; the real goal is onscreen representation, a criteria by which very few of the past winners could ever be made today.
Perhaps The Godfather, about a clannish Sicilian society unwelcome to outsiders, would have to feature some people of colour to pass the test, although obviously not as fellow criminals because visibility only counts if it is positive in its portrayals. Titanic is full of quite unfashionably white people drowning and would have to feature black working-class Irish passengers in Third Class (a BBC production might actually do this). Schindler’s List could obviously present a problem on the representation front, with the famous lack of diversity in the Third Reich, and casting black actors as victims or perpetrators of the Holocaust could be deemed insensitive.
Still the diversity demands will expand, because the film industry is stuck in that same logical conundrum as Christine Lagarde and everyone else – that the representation of certain groups is desirable because members of that group have exactly the same abilities as everybody else. And also that they bring something which makes the end product distinctly better.
It is possible that the diversity criteria will mean that Hollywood movies from now on will be distinctly better, in which case everyone — not least any cinema-goers who still exist — can celebrate loudly. Or it is possible that it will make no difference.
But of course a third possibility exists, which is that the results are worse, that the films – their plotting and casting – are more obviously contrived, and that the audience does not take to the films which Hollywood wishes them to. And there lies a possible end-point to this commonly held contradiction in our age – that the great play for equity will have been made and the end results will be seen to be not just the same or better, but in fact visibly worse. What a story that will be.