The Oscars' Gauzy Take on Intersectionality

On its biggest night, Hollywood stressed inclusion: from a gentle and safe distance.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

It’s the coalition that might just save America: queer people, black people, fish people. In the Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water, a mute maid, her gay best friend, her African American co-worker, and a merman team up to escape the menace of a straight white guy who works for the government. Though the period film laced with classic-cinema references had been knocked as a fairly safe, consensus pick—and its success on Sunday confirms that read—it’s certainly not an apolitical one. On the red carpet, director Guillermo del Toro said the film was about “empathy for the other.” Accepting the award for directing, he talked about how the movies are like a rainbow utopia: “The greatest thing our art does and our industry does is to erase the lines in the sand.”

Magical, life-affirming, and oddly familiar, The Shape of Water is almost a too-apt companion piece for the state of social thinking in Hollywood. After years in which the public could be forgiven for thinking that the “cause” of the day was determined by rotating schedule—racism in the spotlight one awards show, sexism the next, with interludes for venting about Donald Trump—popular entertainers appeared to reach an admirable if potentially edgeless synthesis: Fight all the battles. Or rather, treat them as one battle.

Ashley Judd ushered in the Oscars debut of the academic term often used to signal a multi-pronged approach: intersectionality, whose complicated and weighty meaning notes how social and economic power collects and collides to bear down on some people, like black women, more than others. In Hollywood, recognizing intersectionality will mean a shift of rhetoric and business practices, and there are promising signs that that is happening. But the concept has also been co-opted as an aesthetic—a look, a sound, a feel—and in that, its utility becomes more limited or, at the least, more predictable. The word diversity is beginning to fall out of favor, but its accompanying tropes remain: a pageant of varied faces, a thematic call for unity, and maybe some celestial lighting.

Grouped together, it could be called Commoncore. The moment that, for better or worse, crystallized the Oscars’ politics was Common’s turn on Andra Day’s “Stand Up for Something,” an anthem from the movie Marshall. With Dr. Seussian simplicity, the rapper made a rhyming laundry list:

On Oscar night, this is the dream we tell
A land where dreamers live and freedom dwells
Immigrants get the benefits
We put up monuments for the feminists …

Tell the NRA they in God’s way
And to the people of Parkland we say Asè …

Sentiments of love for the people
From Africa, Haiti to Puerto Rico

As Common rapped and Day sang, lights shone upon 10 activists from a variety of causes—Alice Brown Otter from the Standing Rock Youth Council, Tarana Burke of #MeToo, the trans icon Janet Mock, the celebrity chef and anti-hunger advocate José Andrés, to name a few. It might have been the debut of an explicitly progressive coalition, rooted in shared ideals about universal equity and collective duty. Yet Common changed the subject with this: “Anybody in this room, whatever you believe in, we want you to stand up right now … Stand up for what you believe in.” But what if you believe in building the border wall and arming teachers? The Trump-dissing Common would likely prefer you sit down then. Right there is the limitation of treating protest as an aesthetic.

Minutes later in the telecast, another musical performance got across a very similar idea with very similar staging. The Greatest Showman’s “This Is Me,” an uplifting march song with Arcade Fire–like wooing, is about being proud of yourself no matter who you are—even if you are, to use the movie’s example, a member of a circus freak show. Behind performer Keala Settle stood dignified-looking singers clearly meant to telegraph inclusivity: a woman in a headscarf, a kid with pink hair, and so on. We’ve seen this sort of spectacle time and again. People are still inspired by it, as seen in The Greatest Showman’s success. But it’s hard not to be cynical. Catchy choruses telling anyone who’s been made to feel like a loser that they are actually a winner have been in vogue for a while now, and still the (actual) state of representation in the music industry is dismal.

Unlike pop songs, movies don’t have such a need to simplify things into a singalong slogan. They can tell more complex stories, and as such, they can challenge the audience. The Oscars ceremony was at its best when it embodied those possibilities. In one pre-taped segment, filmmakers were able to actually make the case—rooted in their own lives—about why broader representation is good. “Some of my favorite movies are movies by straight white dudes, about straight white dudes,” Kumail Nanjiani, the star and co-writer of The Big Sick, said. “Now, straight white dudes can watch movies starring me, and you relate to that. It’s not that hard. I’ve done it my whole life.”

Most powerfully, Best Actress winner Frances McDormand ended her charmingly flustered speech with a plug for “inclusion riders,” contractual clauses that require productions to maintain a certain standard of representation. It was a smart provocation, offering a concrete action item, not a buzzword. But the reason her call landed so fiercely was because before it, she asked all the women nominees in the room to stand up. The gesture both affirmed those women and scathingly critiqued Hollywood, given how few female nominees there then appeared to be. With that jolt of specificity—she’s talking about herself, and her gender—she could credibly make the bigger argument.

Similarly, the 2017 Oscars films most likely to be remembered for a long time didn’t go for the catchall. Get Out inhabited a black person’s point of view, satirizing racism with a well-earned sense of intimacy. Call Me by Your Name lived with the particularities of a blossoming gay romance—the secrecy, the abandon, the sex. Lady Bird portrayed a prickly mother-daughter relationship with an autobiographical sense of detail. Viewers who don’t already relate to the perspectives in these films may be made uncomfortable by them. But those viewers also stand a chance of being won over—of, ultimately, seeing another person’s experience as full and valid.

The Shape of Water is a fine film, smartly rooting its characters’ different struggles in the same source: a dehumanizing, conformist culture and state. Anti-otherism of all sorts really is linked, both in the film and in life. But the movie’s take-home message, embedded in each sumptuous frame, is even simpler and more comforting than that. Everyone deserves love—who can disagree? It’s when it comes to what else people deserve that the discussion becomes more interesting, and the dreamy, harmonious vibe will have to be pierced.