As the eminent actor George C. Scott remarked following his second Oscar rejection, “The whole thing is a goddamn meat parade. I don't want any part of it.”
Scott is proven right—perennially. This year's ceremony provided plenty of debates about dreadlocks and race, inequality and backstage commentary, and Sean Penn. There’s always a political and social discussion after the Oscars. But is discussion the point? Maybe our obsession with celebrity culture gestures toward a deeper problem: the loss of dignity in our public rituals.
I’m all for joking. Almost everything is fair game when it comes to humor. That being said, however, there is a time and place for the parodic, the satiric, and the generally comic. Award shows and other serious ceremonies bring people together to celebrate human accomplishment. Humor’s invited, so long as you remember that the ceremony is something greater, a way of bridging differences, building community, and celebrating creativity.
In the past, the coronations of monarchs, the triumphs of Romans, and the canonizations of saints united people in moments of joy and solemnity, of love and community. Our modern, American equivalents of such ceremonies take place within the realm of pop culture: the Oscars, the Emmys, and all the rest. We celebrate the artistic accomplishment and power of our contemporaries. We scrutinize everything from fashion to film. And while I have my own qualms with such obsession, it’s nothing new.
What is new is the loss of dignity and cultural unity. Every year introduces new controversies about fashion, politics, culture, and the issues of the day. Every phrase becomes weaponized because celebrities are aware of every word that comes from their mouths. Clothing, language, and movements are all possible political problems waiting to happen on the Oscar stage. So of course the jokes and speeches grow staler and staler. Community and celebration are lost in a mist of self-censorship and gossip. Even certified liberals like Sean Penn must tread lightly.
But we owe ourselves and our culture better.
Let people speak as they will. Celebrate the art, not the politics. Celebrate what brings us together as a society, not what divides us.