Beyond the Bubble: Looking Outside the Oscars

by Andrea Nease | 2/23/15 6:10pm

What did tens of millions of people do on Sunday night? According to Vulture, an average of 36.6 million people tuned in to watch the Oscars awards ceremony Sunday. The Oscars successfully capture an audience of millions for nothing more than what I personally deem a glorified popularity contest.

Where’s the logic that allows an internationally impactful awards ceremony such as The Nobel Prize to be overshadowed by the banal, superficial Oscars? Why is it easier for me to tell you which film won best picture than for me to tell you who won the Nobel Peace Prize this past year?

The realization that I could tell someone more about Neil Patrick Harris’s performance as the Oscars’ host Sunday night than I could ever say about the entire Nobel Prize ceremony this past year was eye opening and a tad disheartening. I am embarrassed by the ease at which my attention was glued to hearing who won Best Actress when I didn’t even give a thought to who won the Nobel Prize in chemistry or physics or literature or anything for that matter.

My heart aches at the thought of tens of millions of Americans spending their Sunday night, eyes glazed and staring at their television screens for what, as Marc Peyser of Newsweek said, is “one pretty awful excuse for A-list entertainment.”

There’s a science behind the Oscars’ mass spectatorship — a psychological reasoning for why we’re drawn to celebrity news and more specifically to Hollywood award shows.

The simple answer, as I gathered from a Huffington Post article, is that humans are “social animals.” California State University psychology professor Stuart Fischoff, explains that “these are people who we pay attention to because, in one way or another, they influence our lives...How they dress, how they speak, what they like, what roles they play — they are profoundly influential ... These people are really so much a part of our cultural layers of who is important and who is less important.”

Remember how in middle school the “popular” kids dictated social status? How Susie so-and-so wore those shoes and she was popular so you went out and bought the same pair? That middle school mentality is the basic reasoning behind our need to watch the Oscars and similar celebrity-centric broadcasts. Awards shows are a way for us to look at the “popular kids,” is it not? We look at their fashion, we listen to their speeches and we have a desire to know who they’re dating.

The bottom line is that we want to know it all because, even as adults, we still rely on the idea of popularity to help determine our social structure.

It’s an unfortunate reality that the human hunger for social importance and popularity has manifested its achievement in watching our quasi-heroes strut the red carpet and receive impractical awards that are much less vital to our growth as intelligent life forms than something that does have as large of an impact as the Nobel prizes. I understand why we crave it, but something about watching the Oscars with little intention other than vicariously experiencing an actor’s victory and gossiping about fashion faux pas makes my stomach churn.

Even at Dartmouth we feel the urge to watch this popularity contest unfold. Sunday night, our Programming Board hosted an Oscars “gala” in Occom Commons. The event attracted a sizeable group of students, and I know there were many others streaming the annual awards from their bedrooms. Few people are exempt from this social phenomenon, and its existence is only reinforced by our overwhelmingly important American film culture.

There is an intimacy that accompanies our celebrity obsession, rooted in the films in which we once saw these Oscar attendees. We feel like we know these Hollywood favorites because of the movies we watch, but this simply adds fuel to the fire. The human drive to dictate a social hierarchy is universal, but American film culture induces illusions of pseudo-intimacy with these popular kids, the vast majority of whom none of us will ever have the remotest chance of meeting.

As much as I want to step away from the Oscars and, more broadly, celebrity news, reality shows and tabloid magazines, I honestly don’t know the feasibility of this goal. The best we social animals can do is roll with the inevitable popularity construct of the film industry and just try our best to keep our entertainment indulgences in check with actively significant world achievements.

So maybe, if you can remember what Khloe Kardashian wore on Sunday but not who Malala Yousafzai or Kailash Satyarthi is, you should evaluate your balance of celebrity spice and the presence of worldly awareness in your life.