In Monday’s Washington Post, Daniel Drezner praises Chris Rock’s opening monologue at Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony as “genius.” In particular, he admires the way Rock made fun of and tamed the #OscarsSoWhite elephant in the room. But where Drezner sees the structure of Rock’s routine as a model for how politicians can criticize their own to appeal across party lines, I saw a counterexample of how clever attempts at ideological straddling often just serve to protect insiders against claims for greater equality.
What Drezner misses are the power dynamics at play. Rock, as host of the Oscars, is not analogous to George W. Bush or Barack Obama, a powerful elected official attempting to broaden his base. Rather, Rock is like a weak intermediary struggling to navigate between the conflicting demands of an insurgent subordinate group and a recalcitrant dominant group.
Rock did speak truth to power at points, cleverly drawing attention to systemic issues. He joked that if there had been a vote for Oscar host, the audience would have been stuck with Neil Patrick Harris as the emcee. He teased that Rocky’s narrative of white athletic supremacy in boxing was more like a sci-fi movie than reality. And he nailed the “In Memoriam” bit by suggesting that it would feature only black folks shot by cops on the way to the movies.
More seriously, Rock also plainly stated, “We want black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors.” With each of these jokes or comments, Rock spoke to the frustrations of those who see patterns of bias across Hollywood.
The problem with Drezner’s argument and the rest of Rock’s routine is that the heart of the monologue didn’t just poke fun at those frustrations; it actively delegitimized them. Instead of speaking more truth, Rock kowtowed to power.
Early in the monologue, Rock quoted folks suggesting, “Chris, you should boycott. Chris, you should quit.” His response?
“How come there’s only unemployed people that tell you to quit something, you know? No one with a job ever tells you to quit.”
It’s as if Rock were channeling Donald Trump to reassure the audience that only losers boycott.
Next, Rock asked: “Why are we protesting? The big question: Why this Oscars? Why this Oscars, you know? It’s the 88th Academy Awards. It’s the 88th Academy Awards, which means this whole no-black-nominees thing has happened at least 71 other times. OK?”
Rock’s answer: “Why? Because we had real things to protest at the time, you know? We had real things to protest. You know, we’re too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer.”
Setting aside Rock’s erasure of the long history of black resistance to Hollywood racism, what’s striking about this moment is the raucously enthusiastic response in the auditorium. With this joke, Rock simultaneously belittled the demands of contemporary black activists and absolved everyone in the audience of complicity in a deeply compromised system. Who needs to boycott or watch #JusticeForFlint if #OscarsSoWhite is just privileged whining?
Drezner favorably compares the joke to the “first world problems” meme, but that gets it backward. Every first world problem's punch line sticks it to those with power and privilege by making light of their nonsuffering. Rock, by contrast, mobilized the most gruesome of suffering to reassure those with power and privilege that they’re all right and to tell everyone else to simmer down.
Finally, Rock returned to the question “What happened this year?” and went after the most prominent critics:
“People went mad. Spike got mad—got mad, and Jada went mad, and Will went mad. Everybody went mad, you know?
“Jada got mad? Jada says she not coming, protesting. I’m like, ain’t she on a TV show? Jada is going to boycott the Oscars. Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited.”
Raw and sexist? Sure, but that’s par for the course with Chris Rock and the Oscars. More noteworthy is how Rock implied that Jada Pinkett Smith has no standing in the academy and, by extension, can’t possibly take a principled stand against it. Again, Rock’s routine wasn’t just “criticizing his own party” for mass appeal. He used his position as someone who travels between two worlds to appease those inside the halls of power with the message that the outsiders have no moral claims.
Each of these and other counterpunches worked to subvert critics of Hollywood and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Making jokes about race isn’t the same as poking fun at systems of inequality. Rock’s “In Memoriam” bit skewered police brutality (and drew extended applause). Louis C.K. had the whole auditorium laughing as he made fun of the stark wealth gap between the Hollywood royalty in front of him and most filmmakers, especially those who work on documentaries.
If Rock had done more humor tweaking systemic bias, he could have been both funny and fierce. He might have, as Drezner and New Yorker writer Michael Schulman suggest, held “the industry to account.” Instead, he aligned himself with the industry, called out critics as “mad” rather than “woke” and mostly used his platform to make safe jokes in which racial difference (e.g. lame Asian stereotypes) rather than racial hierarchy was the punch line. He opted to repeatedly undercut the #OscarsSoWhite campaign and, as a consequence, worked mainly to reinforce the status quo.
Omar Wasow is an assistant professor in Princeton’s Department of Politics. His research focuses on race and politics, protest movements and statistical methods. Before joining the academy, Omar served as a regular on-air technology analyst and was co-founder of BlackPlanet.com. Follow him on Twitter.