Feminism / Films / TV

Viola Davis Rules the Night: Women, Race & Gender at the 2012 SAG Awards

Originally published at Bitch Flicks.

Lately, it seems awards shows vacillate between moments of cringe-inducing sexism and feminist clarity. And the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards were no different. Stripped of pomp and circumstance, with no host, the SAG Awards focus strictly on acting in TV and films. As with most media I consume, some parts pissed me off while others delighted me.

When Christopher Plummer won Outstanding Male in a Supporting Role for his performance as a gay man coming out to his son in Beginners, he began his acceptance speech by saying he’s “had such fun in the world’s 2nd oldest profession.” Ah, a sex work joke. Then Plummer called the film’s female producers “girls.” Oh Christopher Plummer. Yeah, calling female producers “girls,” even if they are way younger than you, not cool. But he almost redeemed himself when he again thanked his wife of 43 years who “came to his rescue and saved his life.” Swoon!

Dick Van Dyke presented icon Mary Tyler Moore with a Lifetime Achievement Award. I’ll start with what I liked. I LOOOVE that Van Dyke mentioned that Mary Tyler Moore is an animal rights advocate!!! The vegan in me cheered with delight. Ah, but the feminist in me shook my head at this:

“She’s one of the few performers, women, who can do a flat out comedy scene, slapstick and still be beautiful, feminine and adorable.”

Sigh. I so wanted to like his touching speech but it pissed me off. What does her appearance or femininity matter? Who cares what the hell a woman looks like, Dick Van Dyke? And who the fuck cares if she’s “feminine?!” Ugh.

Now, I realize he’s old and comes from another era. Don’t care. When discussing someone’s work or talent, male or female, their looks shouldn’t be mentioned. Society focuses too much on women’s appearances. People often assume women can only embody one quality: smart or sexy, funny or beautiful. As if a talented woman isn’t a success unless she’s pretty and feminine too.

Luckily, the rest of the evening contained inspirational and humorous moments through a feminist lens.

When Octavia Spencer won Outstanding Female in a Supporting Role for The Help, she honored civil rights activist Medgar Evers in her poignant acceptance speech. She also said,

“Thank you for putting me in a category with so many beautiful women…It was really a privilege to work on a film that gave a voice to so many women…By honoring me, you honor them…

“I want to thank all the people out there who went to support this movie and, after watching it, felt something. You felt compelled to make a change in your lives. So I’m going to dedicate this to the downtrodden, the underserved, the underprivileged, the overtaxed, whether emotionally, physically or financially.”

I absolutely adore Spencer mentioned women’s voices as well as class. And I love that she’s getting all this attention. Just wish it wasn’t for The Help. Ugh. Regardless of my opinions of The Help, I hope this catalyzes Spencer’s career and she gets lots and lots and lots of roles. She deserves them.

Other great moments included winner Alec Baldwin giving a shout-out to Tina Fey for her witty writing on 30 Rock (damn straight) and winner Betty White thanking her 3 female co-stars, Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick, on Hot in Cleveland. Loving the female camaraderie!

And speaking of female camaraderie…love, love, LOVE Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy as presenters!!! The comical trio sauntered on stage to present the clip of Bridesmaids, one of my favorite 2011 films, nominated for Outstanding Ensemble. In describing the film, Maya Rudolph said,

“Our cast tells the story of strong female friendships.”

Yes, yes it does. Hilarious, raunchy, bittersweet and touching, Bridesmaids depicted a group of women as friends and one woman trying to find her way in the world. It’s rare for a movie to feature a female protagonist. It’s even rarer for a film to contain multiple female characters where women aren’t portrayed as catty and competitive but actually like and respect each other. In the funniest part of the evening, the women alerted the audience to a Scorsese Drinking Game where you drink each and every time you hear Martin Scorsese’s name uttered. Kristen Wiig said,

“Do you think Scorsese saw Bridesmaids??”

If he’s smart, he sure as hell has.

When presenters Tina Fey and John Krazinski discussed advice given to actors, Fey hilariously said,

“And I believe it was the TODAY show’s fourth hour co-host Kathie Lee Gifford who said, ‘If drag queens love you, you’ll have the longest career in the world. They know phony and they know real.’”

Ha! One of the best quotes of the night. But the SAG Awards belonged to Viola Davis who completely stole the night.

When Viola Davis won Outstanding Female Actor in a Lead Role, the audience gave her a standing ovation. Davis is a phenomenal actor who makes the most of any role she plays. Whether on-screen for hours (The Help) or mere moments (Doubt), her quiet strength mesmerizes and enthralls. Christ she almost made Nights in Rodanthe watchable (almost). Davis shared how she decided to become an actress at 8 years old. Cicely Tyson inspired her, and she was thrilled she could see her idol sitting in the audience as she won her award. Davis said,

“What is there but a dream? You can’t trade in your dream for another dream…Dream big and dream fierce.”

While I wish awards shows weren’t based on a binary gender divide, I often worry and lament that if they weren’t, women might never win. However this year, 2 of the 5 films nominated for Outstanding Performance by a Cast, Bridesmaids and The Help, both boasted predominantly female casts. It’s a huge step in the right direction.

Bolstered by a female ensemble, The Help was the big winner of the evening. Not only did it win the two female acting awards. And I have to say that I’m ecstatic two unbelievably talented African-American women won. But it also won Outstanding Performance by a Cast. At first, I was pissed Bridesmaids didn’t win. Then I was even more pissed that The Help won; a film touted as showcasing black women’s experiences but actually revolving around a white woman “saving” black women. But then I let Davis’ eloquent and inspiring words wash over me.

After calling working on The Help “a labor of love,” Davis articulated:

“The stain of racism and sexism is not just for people of color or women. It’s all of our burden. It’s all of us. I don’t care how ordinary you may feel. We all of us can inspire change. Every single one of us.”

I sat in my living room and applauded. And cried. Davis’ speech contained THE best, most feminist declaration I’ve ever heard on any awards show. Period. Davis blew me away with her poise, grace and intelligence. I’m thrilled she addressed racism and sexism on a national platform. And she’s absolutely right.

Racism and sexism affect us all. More people must realize racism and sexism still exist, stripping people of equality. We need white allies and male allies working with people of color and women towards eradicating racial and gender discrimination. We must speak out whenever we see or hear prejudice or injustice if we ever hope to combat it. But all is not lost. We can all make a difference.

People often go to the movies for entertainment, to escape their mundane lives. But films can also inspire you to act boldly and dream big. And sometimes, awards shows can too.

One thought on “Viola Davis Rules the Night: Women, Race & Gender at the 2012 SAG Awards

  1. As i’m looking at that picture of the cast of “The Help”, out on the big stage, i couldn’t help but
    envision some cruel prankster dumping pig’s blood on Sissy Spacek, as she stood stage right.

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