The politics of Viola Davis’ Oscar remark about ‘the only occupation that celebrates what it means to live a life’
Yesterday I rented Viola Davis’ Oscar speech for being memorable without being explicitly political – for simply talking about her work in a communicative and well-written way. Twitter quickly let me know that I missed something. On social media and conservative-leaning news sites, Davis’ speech actually sparked outrage.
After explaining that she felt her mission was “to unearth…the stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those desires come to fruition, the people who fell in love and lost,” Davis said:
I grew up to be an artist – and thank God I did – because we’re the only career that celebrates what it means to stay a life.
This statement became one of the right-wing web’s dialogue gimmicks after the Oscars. “The artwork is awesome; the work of art is enriching; works of art can unite us to each other”, writes Ben Shapiro at daily thread. “However, the utter conceit of declaring that artists are ‘the only career that celebrates what it means to stay a life’ is staggering. What about doctors? How about stay-at-home moms, who help shape lives rather What about pursuing their own professional pursuits? What about undertakers? What about almost all people in a free-market financial system, giving of themselves to others to better their lives?”
Variations of this sentiment have ricocheted online, with Davis generally being misquoted as if she only mentioned that “actors” have fun figuring out what it means to stay a life, or, worse, are those who “know” what means to stay a life.
Are individuals fit to be offended? Did she say that artists are superior to everyone else? Studying his sentences in fact, in the context of his speech, and augmenting him with any benefit of the doubt, it’s hard to see the backlash toward Davis as anything outside of a symptom of our over-the-top traditional wars.
Anyone could “enjoy what it means to stay a life” in their own private ways, but for whom is that a primary career task? Artists, positively. Clergy, perhaps. Doctors to register lives rather than celebrate them, and it does not denigrate them to say so. Stay-at-home mom and dad to help others, and Davis might even agree that it is more noble, essential and important than “celebrating” the meaning of life.
Her view was simply that artists occupy a new position in telling stories about the human experience, and that she is happy to be a part of it.
In fact, she may have edited herself to make a far less controversial, though arguably far less catchy, article., assertion. If she had simply said, “I became an artist — and thank God I did — because we learn what it means to stay a life,” the complaints might have been more enduring. The “only” highlights a special sense that artists are special, but it’s also a whistle for anyone with a strong resentment about Hollywood elitism and condescension. And there hasn’t always been a better time to express such resentment than right now.
Where appropriate, reflexive distaste for the leisure industry has taken on new fervor under Donald Trump. Throughout the fox and friends after the Oscarsthe snafu by which The Earth was mistakenly introduced as Finest Image was shot by Steve Doocy as, “Hollywood got the election by mistake, and last night Hollywood got the Oscars by mistake.” Visitor Tucker Carlson agreed but added that Moonlight “needed to win” because of the moralizing and politically appropriate institution that wanted it. Of course, the Oscars had been both an offline disaster and an insidiously rigged game.
Donald Trump gave his own interpretation of the Academy mess: “I believe they were so focused on politics that they failed to stick together,” he said. Breitbartas if the accountant of PricewaterhouseCoopers who gave the wrong envelope to Warren Beatty did it because he cackled too loudly at Kimmel Tweeter the president “are you up?”
Liberals might complain that Trump takes credit for his critics making a logistical error. However, in fact, on both sides, we see a lot of politics in leisure these days: see all sockets do like Doocy and rate the top Oscars until election night.
For many viewers on Sunday, Davis’ speech came across as notable for the way he virtually transcended the partisan melee and simply spoke passionately about appearing. But one phrase—”only”—was enough to make her a defining look at the culture wars. Maybe she wanted to choose a battle over the place of art in society, or maybe she was simply describing her career as she really saw it. Either way, it was a provocative transition at a time when artists are increasingly held to the same demands as job candidates: expecting to decide their phrases not for reality but for politics.