The Dialectic Struggle Between Representation and Merit

In a bid to increase diversity in films, the Academy introduced new representation aimed at introducing long-term change. Yet historical evidence leads us to expect counter arguments from the meritorious. Read further for a more detailed analysis. 

Last week, hot on the heels of criticism of its lack of diversity, the Academy made changes to its eligibility criteria for gaining a nomination in the Best Picture category. There are four sets of standards, which can essentially be broken down into two large brackets: standards for the promotion of more inclusive representation and standards for the promotion of more inclusive employment. Movies will need to meet the standards in any two of four categories. Moreover, these standards will be implemented from 2024, giving out ample time for studios to configure paths to meet said criteria. However, an explanation of the criteria isn’t the central focal point of this article (For a more comprehensive breakdown, go through this article by Variety). The introduction of these new benchmarks has sparked the same old concerns that plague affirmative action everywhere, particularly caste-based reservations in India.

Cries of the ”death of meritocracy”, more often than not, is an epiphenomenon of affirmative action everywhere. People of privilege, whenever challenged, resort to complaining about how the implementation of quotas for the marginalized and under-represented would mean that the meritorious would have to make way for the undeserving. Affirmative actions are further subverted by labeling them as lunacy of the wokes. It’s no surprise that people (overwhelmingly, on the right of the political spectrum) use the term “woke” as a pejorative. After all, they are used to sleeping with their eyes wide open. It becomes evident that, behind all arguments, the privileged merely try to masquerade their intentions of keeping the unequal superstructure of caste alive. 

First, this argument rests on the assumption that people from the lower rungs of society necessarily aren’t worthy of going toe to toe with those from the higher echelons of society. Second, even if we do concede that indeed, ascriptive identities would take preference over a person’s merit, it is imperative for us to realize that merit doesn’t exist in a vacuum; a person’s socio-economic location is perhaps the most important determinant of a person’s merit. In our money-driven society, one’s capital helps them to access institutions and resources that the marginalized, by virtue of their position in the social hierarchy, are unable to. The tendency of people to decry affirmative action in the name of merit can be seen being mirrored in the context of reservations in India (a very lively debate in Delhi University, still) as well as the diversity criteria of the Oscars. 

Another issue raised by people is that affirmative action helps only the economically privileged among the marginalized and hence, it should apply symmetrically to all the economically-deprived. While there is some truth to it, the fact is that even the economically well-off weren’t represented prior to the introduction of these policies. Deprivation of social status is what contributed to their misery, which even if cloaked by economic status, was hard to shed due to the complex nature of their ascriptive social identities. OBCs/SCs/STs in India or the racial/sexual/gender minorities elsewhere weren’t just under-represented because they lacked the economic avenues to develop merit, but because they lacked the social capital to unlock these avenues as well. In the face of their social identities, their economic status assumed a secondary role.

Coming back to the Diversity Requirements, I’m compelled to say that arguments by the privileged are largely misplaced and seek to obfuscate the larger problem here- Are these criterions going to have tangible changes in Hollywood, or are they merely tokenistic attempts by the Academy to whitewash their tarnished image?

While it is hard to jump onto ex-ante conclusions, if applied to previous winners or nominations in the Best Film category, there hardly seems to be a difference. Most movies already do fulfill these criteria (even the much-criticized Green Book) and it barely makes a dent on the heterogeneous landscape and hiring practices in Hollywood. But, it does send across a very powerful message, one that might even inspire further generations of the marginalized to more actively pursue careers in Hollywood; the message that they are no longer second-class citizens of a white-dominant Hollywood and they should attempt to match their privileged counterparts step-for-step.

Feature Image Credits: AP Photos

Ishatva Rajeev

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Journalism has been called the “first rough draft of history”. D.U.B may be termed as the first rough draft of DU history.Freedom to Express.