Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Race, gender, size, age and the Oscars

There is a lot of discussion around race surrounding this most recent Oscars ceremony, most of it centered around The Help, Viola Davis, and Octavia Spencer. I didn't see most of the movies nominated this year, so I'm hesitant to contribute (at least in writing!), but I feel there is a part of the Oscars that is glaringly absent from these conversations.
“The way I watch movies, I’m really searching for myself because I don’t get to see enough of myself and I don’t get to like myself enough. But if I get to see myself onscreen then I know that I exist.”

-Gabourey Sidibe
Awesome, confident, and beautiful
I have been searching for a clip of this candid, disarmingly honest admission since it aired during Sunday’s Academy Awards, with no luck. I haven't even found anything from anyone talking about how important this statement is. This was the most profound thing I heard come from that ceremony, and I am so shocked I haven’t read anything about it, that I figured maybe I have to (try to) say it myself. I'll start with the disclaimer that I don't have any expertise in race or gender issues beyond my personal experience, and I know I won't be able to say this very eloquently, I just know that someone has to say something.

Gabourey Sidibe is most well known for her portrayal of the title character in Precious. I actually haven’t seen Precious, or anything else in which Sidibe has appeared. I don’t know much else about her than the acclaim I’ve read for her performance in Precious and seeing some photos.

Before this past weekend, here are a couple things Sidibe has said about herself:

“[The media] try to paint the picture that I was this downtrodden, ugly girl who was unpopular in school and in life, and then I got this role and now I’m awesome. But the truth is that I’ve been awesome, and then I got this role.”
"People always ask me, 'You have so much confidence. Where did that come from?' It came from me. One day I decided that I was beautiful, and so I carried out my life as if I was a beautiful girl. It doesn't have anything to do with how the world perceives you. What matters is what you see."
It strikes me that people (enough for it feel like a repetitive experience for Sidibe) have taken it upon themselves to paint her narrative and story, and to make assumptions about her. It’s difficult to imagine that these people do so because when they look at Gabby Sidibe, they see someone on whom they have the right to impose, or oppress, their impressions. I can’t imagine that these assumptions that an Oscar nomination made Sidibe an amazing person, that these shocked questions about Sidibe’s confidence, stem from anything other than that she is a young, plus size woman of color.

So, if you know me, you can see where this strikes a chord: I identify as a young, plus size, woman of color. I know to some people I’m not that young, or not that plus size, or not that... non-white, but to a society that is dominated by older white men and a culture that values skinny white women, I do not get to see myself enough. Assuming that a woman of color was "downtrodden" and asking a plus size woman where she gets her confidence from, to use an analogy, is like telling a person of color that they "speak so well." It stems from the dangerous assumption that because a person looks a certain way, they must be a certain way. It stems from an American culture that looks down on those they fear to be "other."

The difference between Sunday’s quote and the previous two I shared from Sidibe is stark. This is a woman who proudly exclaims her awesomeness, confidence and beauty, now saying of her own industry, “I don’t get to see enough of myself and I don’t get to like myself enough.” Maybe she was referring to her personality, her values, or her beliefs coming across through dialogue or character development, I don’t really know. But I know that as someone who shares membership in some of the same marginalized groups as Sidibe, that I am told by Hollywood and so much of society that I am not worth portraying, that I’m not worth letting others know of my existence.
Sidibe is certainly an other in the group of the voting academy to whom she spoke Sunday: they are 94% white, 77% male, and 86% over the age of 50. I believe that race is a huge part of why Sidibe doesn't see herself in film and also other common depictions of the world, but we can't ignore that gender, age, and size are judged too often by society.

We can't ignore it, and we have to talk about it.


  1. LOVE. I happen to be a small white woman, but I value the opportunity to see other kinds of people (especially women) on the silver screen. I haven't seen _Precious_ yet, but I just put it at the top of my movies-to-see list. Thank you.

    1. Thank you for your comment! I am glad that this post has spread beyond my usual readers, because I can't emphasize how much I think people should be talking about this.