This Sunday, millions will watch the Academy Awards—or boycott it.
When the 2016 Oscar nominations included only white actors for the second year in a row, the results sparked outcry on social media (with #OscarsSoWhite) and beyond. Spike Lee, Jada Pickett Smith and Will Smith called for a boycott over the lack of minority representation. In response, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs issued a statement committing to increased efforts for diversity.
Why is it important?
Most superficially, the public response matters for the award show. In 2015, the backlash arguably contributed to a decline of 16% in viewership and 18% in ratings from the year before.
Further, the almost exclusively white nominations reflects not only problems within the Academy but also in Hollywood as a whole. A recent study shows that minorities make up only 28% of speaking characters in film and scripted TV—10% percent less than their proportion of the population.
Should actors boycott the Oscars over the lack of minority nominees?
The lack of diversity in the Academy and in Hollywood is an important issue but this boycott is not the way to address it.
First, the Academy: under Cheryl Boone Isaacs strong leadership, the organization is taking action to promote diversity. Though leading the boycott, Jada Pinkett Smith publicly thanked Isaacs for her response and activism for (not to mention personal example of) diversity in Hollywood. Academy voters have lifelong membership—Isaac's improvements naturally take time. In this particular case, there are people within the Academy working hard to make that happen.
Second, Hollywood: even if the Academy were a perfect representation of the film industry's racial makeup, it would still face an enormous problem. Hollywood itself is predominantly white. Instead of boycotting the Oscars, it would be more productive to energize film industry leaders to hire, promote, and tell the stories of a more diverse set of people.
There are lots of initiatives that take up this mantle in ways that are likely more impactful than the boycott. For example, the Multi-Ethnic Media Coalition partners with major studios and casting agencies to provide data on hiring practices and promote greater opportunities for minority candidates. And their initiative is just one of many.
The boycott calls attention to two major categories of concern: 1) fair representation within the Academy and its nominees and 2) diversity in Hollywood at large.
Voting members of the Academy are shockingly homogeneous. Oscar voters are approximately 94% white and 77% male, with a median age of 62. African Americans make up only 2% of the membership, Latinos even less.
When these voters nominate actors and films, their collective choices reflect this complete dearth of diversity. This protest sends an important message: the Academy needs structural changes to remove the existing bias against non-white actors and filmmakers.
The boycott recognizes that the Academy's problems are a function of Hollywood's lack of diversity in general. Leading characters and directors are 22% and just 13% minority respectively, compared to a U.S. population ratio of 38% non-white. By protesting the industry's most important awards ceremony, the boycott draws attention to the issue of representation in the films and those who make them.
Viewers can also join in. Instead of watching this year's show, there are plenty of options that—through decreased viewership—will help push the Academy to change.