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Too Much Self-Love?

The Academy’s Inherent Narcicism -- A Good Thing?

By Philip Burrowes

As the 73rd Academy Awards approach, journalists, cinematic artisans, and the curious masses are giddy with anticipation. While the first group gets a job out of the show and the third is diverted -- if only for eight hours -- from their meaningless lives, what compels members of the film industry to attend this self-congratulation?

They are not alone in doling out awards to their own, with organizations from local churches to the federal government doing the same. Is this reflective of a national need for evaluation, a rudimentary meritocracy, or a general appreciation for peer recognition?

This is not merely a matter of listening to critiques, however; this is more about positive reinforcement. No section of the Tonys, for example, is dedicated to telling stage players how mediocre they may be. Yes, there are “awards” in more sardonic circles for extraordinarily bad productions, but even those are dedicated to products which are fantastic in their faults. Any gradient of ability or output is usually neglected as winner takes all.

Believing that participants in various activities instead want to honor the best and the brightest might be more acceptable. It’s certainly more honorable, celebrating achievement within the profession or pastime while elevating it on a whole by giving members something to strive for. Dispensing bodies can regard their intentions as optimistically as they wish, but awards shows are rarely so altruistic.

Rather, they tend to be snobbish, driven somewhat by patronage and nepotism, and incredibly subjective. This is especially true of older institutionalized shows where governing boards have had time to become set in their ways. Grammy nominations are hard to come by for the more esoteric musicians in mainstream categories. Mechanisms for choosing actual winners are always opaque and often inexplicable. Where else could one of the fastest selling albums of all time be considered counter-culture?

Large award show productions are events in and of themselves, which can be more alluring than the statuettes alone. Parvenus in the world of celebrity may be initially star-struck, but more importantly hot shots finally get to hobnob with people on their own level. How much better that is than dealing with peons, fans, or actual loved ones is all a matter of taste. Still, that aspect seems no more appealing than doctors going to a medical conference or councilors at your average UA meeting.

Nobody is trying to suggest self-awarding procedures are inherently flawed. External observations can be even more unreasonable, notably in athletics. How many times has the Associated Press or USA Today refused to recognize sports stars’ abilities because of character traits? March Madness itself, while significantly better than other college championship systems, is perennially rife with debatable selections.

League officials’ awards have been even more biased, especially in the era of David Stern image-fabrication. Many such important awards have superficial definitions (such as MVPs) that lend themselves even more to arbitrary dispensation. Contrapositively, any award that can be determined through more objective means, such as the NBA’s inconsequential IBM --calculated through empirical methods-- is less important.

Either system can create choices which are not just questionable but make absolutely no sense in retrospect. Tom Chambers as slam dunk champion is no worse than Shelby Lynne being awarded as a new artist in two shows only a decade apart. A cynic would note the number of Nobel Peace Prize winners who have died through violent means.

In reality, the attraction of an award is often different for different people. Oscars themselves might be life-long ambition for the professional thespian, merely a vehicle for publicity, or a baroque social. Whatever the case, there is little harm done when overblown fraternal circles pat themselves on the back. So long as we get to relate their narcism, they don’t start taking themselves too seriously, and you don’t have to think about your utter insignificance, it’s all gravy.