With the Golden Globes airing tomorrow, Awards Season is almost officially upon us. (The People’s Choice Awards, airing last week, is more akin to hors d’oeuvre, or an aperitif.) Many fans of television, music, and film pretend not to care, but get outraged afterwards when their favourites don’t win– or if something they abhor does. It’s an annual tradition, for every award in every field: film buffs, obviously, get annoyed when Crash wins over Brokeback Mountain; sports fanatics are angry when their favourites are snubbed for the Halls of Fame; even literary snobs get annually annoyed when their favourite novels are passed over for the Booker. But why does– or why should– anybody care?
Theoretically, most awards are important for pragmatic reasons: awards draw attention to recipients who might otherwise go unnoticed, providing healthy sales boosts and promotional materials. They are distinctions of importance and quality, in theory, and provide incentives to improve. They get people talking about the mediums and, often, consuming more of them– some of my local theatres trade entirely in Best Picture nominees as the Oscars approach. Often, awards can have a direct monetary prize as well, and this financial difference can make a major difference for a struggling artist.
However, when you look at the popular discourse of these award shows, hardly anybody have these factors in mind (I root for 12 Years a Slave because I think the stark subject matter may start an important conversation about race relations, but that’s unlikely to happen.) Phillip Roth gets mentioned annually for the Nobel Prize in Literature (not to mention more outlandish claims such as Richard Dawkins suggesting Steven Pinker for the prize), but nobody can claim that he really needs the sales boost or the monetary prize at this point of his career. Perhaps the honor would’ve made a difference when he was young and controversial, but his novels’ sexual content and religious misgivings have become part of the literary canon by this point. Popular and successful nominees get suggested for other awards as well– the final installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy probably didn’t benefit very much from its sweep at the Oscars. If the monetary gain doesn’t matter, awards are hardly an indicator of quality or importance as well; many critics lambast the various award winners annually, and the winners hardly cause any trends or improvement. Despite a female director’s win for The Hurt Locker in 2009, the gender balance for directing in Hollywood is largely the same.
So why do we care about awards? Surely not just the uneven comedy or the fashion choices of award shows– if this was the case, we would all stop watching within the first 30 minutes of them. Public awards are largely a case of egotism–that is, self pride and not egoism, which is self-interest– both on the parts of the celebrities and artists involved as well as that of the viewing public. The egotism of the artists is clear: nothing feels better than to be recognized and to win. The egotism of the audience is more subtle: when you love a TV show or album, you feel a sense of validation when people agree with your taste. With awards, this effect is heightened: you feel a sense of expertise when your favourites are anointed, or your taste seems confirmed when you seek out award winners afterwards.
This audience egotism seems wholly misplaced. If you appreciate something, recommend it to your friends and peers– but don’t take it personally when the Academy doesn’t agree with you.
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