Speech Melba | Society

Drawing a new start line

Given its overwhelmingly white and masculine makeup — “pale, stale, male” — when the Oscars announced its new diversity rules last month, they were largely welcomed. The Academy said it hoped to not just reshape how movies are awarded, but also who makes movies and what stories are told. Amidst the bouquets the Academy got, there were also a predictable number of brickbats. These critics trotted out the usual arguments against affirmative action — arguments that are extremely familiar to us here and brought up frequently against reservations of all kinds.

The Academy’s website had comments that said: “It’s no longer about cinema as a genre of art. Now it’s about politics.” Another said: “Forced diversity lowers quality”. Actor Kirstie Alley raged: “I’m opposed to mandated arbitrary percentages... It’s impossible to ‘police’ quotas as a prerequisite for a ‘best’ picture.”

For me, sitting here in Chennai, there was a moment of déjà vu. Not so long ago, I was listening to an acquaintance, a senior manager in a multinational banking company, fume about the fact that they had recently been mandated to promote a certain number of women to the executive cadre to meet the company’s diversity rules. The manager’s objections were that first, she thought these women were not good enough to be promoted. Second, she resented having struggled to reach the top while these women would get a free pass. Third, she thought the move would backfire — the unqualified women would give their whole sex a bad name and reinforce prejudices against women.

On the face of it, these sound like rational objections, but scratch the surface and you see why her response, like Kirstie Alley’s, contributes even more to entrenched positions of deep inequality. Both women assume that the absence of ‘quotas’ means an objective preservation of the highest quality standards. But one look at the Oscar’s long history of awarding mediocrity shows you how fallacious this assumption is. If Gary Oldman can win the Oscar for hamming it as Churchill the same year that Daniel Day-Lewis was nominated for Phantom Thread; or if Around the World in 80 Days can win in a year when Seven Samurai was released, then quality is not exactly being upheld.

Rank bad performances regularly make the red carpet, so let’s not pretend that diversity rules alone will open the floodgates to less than stellar stuff. At any rate, so what? Let an imperfect film made by a Romani director win the statuette — it’s not going to ruin cinema any more than awarding it to Rocky did.

In offices too, incompetent men, duds and dullards, can be seen at all levels, including in leadership positions — positions where nothing but brilliance will be accepted from women. The office is men’s grazing ground — their actions and rewards, their foibles and follies all part of an ancient, well-oiled, and mutually beneficial ritual. Women have a lot of catching up to do to own this space, and that can happen only when there are enough of them for long enough. If diversity rules push a few women up the ladder even when they aren’t fully qualified, it’s a beneficial exercise. It goes on to create a large pool of female experience, confidence, mentorship and lineage that men have enjoyed for centuries.

I recently saw a brief experiment conducted by a teacher in an American school. He lined up a bunch of students for a race but before blowing the whistle, he asked those from a certain income group to step 50 metres forward; then those who were second-generation educated; then those who had libraries at home; and so on. Soon, many of the white students had advanced halfway down even before the race had begun.

This is structural inequality. The entry barriers to the race are so high for some that it’s a miracle they made it the field at all. They must be allowed to jump a few steps ahead and meet the other racers at a fresh start line. It’s not a fail-proof guarantee of success but it gives them a fighting chance in a game that the established contestants have been playing for eons. Forced diversity is invariably the first step to real diversity — whether in cinema or in workplaces. And we need to embrace it.

Where the writer tries to make sense of society with seven hundred words and a bit of snark.

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Nov 24, 2020 2:44:28 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/on-forced-diversity-rules-at-the-oscars-and-at-the-workplace/article32929185.ece

Next Story