A-lister celebrities sound tone-deaf in award speeches

Graphic by Juhi Karnalkar | Mercury Staff

The 2023 SAG Awards highlighted celebrities’ false relatability through speeches aiming to inspire struggling workers to just work hard to get what they want. But these celebrities failed to acknowledge their immense privilege.

Each year, America anticipates in award shows that celebrate outstanding movies and television shows. One award show in particular stands out as having people in the film industry, especially actors, vote for the winners — not some shady voting committee like in the Oscars. The Screen Actors Guild Awards, or SAG Awards, are a series of awards where members of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists union, known as SAG-AFTRA, vote for the individual, movie cast and television ensemble performances.

This year, the winners were predictable because they also won other significant awards. Let’s not discredit anyone’s win, since they all worked hard for their glorious moment of recognition. However, the internet has a different opinion. As with any award show with famous people, the speeches can get slightly out of touch.

Jamie Lee Curtis, the winner of the Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture, started her speech with a homage to her actor parents. She said her father was from Hungary, and her mother was from Denmark. They had nothing before becoming “monstrous” Hollywood stars. It was misleading since both her parents were born in America to immigrant parents.

It is irrefutable that Curtis’ parents grew up poor. But they were still attractive white Americans with better chances of making it in Hollywood than any other group. This was even more ironic to hear, considering Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan and James Hong spoke about discrimination against Asian actors in their acceptance speeches.

Curtis ended the speech by saying that although she was a nepotism baby, she still faced Hollywood’s bias against aging women. Therefore, her win was an astonishing feat that could inspire struggling actors. None of what Curtis said was false. However, it is fair to say that her privilege was worth more than she thought. It is off-putting to hear aspirational words from Curtis when she attempted to make her parents’ stories humbler and expressed disdain for the term “nepo baby” whenever she could. Jamie failed at fabricating relatability and failed to inspire.

This is not a problem only with Jamie Lee Curtis. Many of the SAG Awards winners, like Jessica Chastain, Yeoh and Quan gave encouragement to struggling actors watching the show, but along the lines of “look at me, I made it, so you can too.” This sentiment is tone deaf because so much goes into making any career, not just acting. Luck is a significant component. You must know the right people, attend the right school or enter the industry at the right time. Wealth is another component, because sometimes money is how you get the part. Even more complicated than that, your identity can be the factor that opens or closes doors. Many celebrities seem to downplay the luck and privilege that propel their wealth and fame. Despite that, they love to give a pep talk to the audience as if hard work alone will lead you anywhere you want. The self-made myth portrays a false standard of excellence.

Jessica Chastain graduated from Julliard and networked with industry people. Yeoh is an A-list actor in Asia. Quan thanked the Daniels for choosing him to be in “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once.” Yeoh and Quan’s success is undeniably profound because it helps pave the path for diversity in the film industry. However, it is not enough to tell aspiring young professionals to have a growth mindset and keep grinding until they make it, because not everyone will.

More importantly, it is uncomfortable to hear the “work hard” pep talk from people who come from fame and wealth. It’s even more uncomfortable when they minimize their privilege and upbringings to thousands of graduates trying to secure entry jobs with ridiculous qualification standards and struggling to network for coveted positions, and all without rich parents to open doors for them.

Successful people should be realistic with their advice. Stop telling us a fragmented version of how you achieved success, because we know hard work is not everything. Tell us how you navigated the system, applied your skills, and what you mean by “hard work.” More importantly, be honest about how you grew up.

Celebrities should reconsider attempting to look relatable because more often than not, they are not. Frankly, it is tiring listening to lucky people tell society to work hard and believe in themselves. They do not have to flaunt their wealth and fame, but at least they should acknowledge they owe much of their success to luck, privilege and — usually — money.

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