The politics of merit
How the Brit Awards let us down
The 2018 Brit Awards took place in London last week. It was the 38th iteration of the event, which has been held annually since 1982.
Like most institutions with a mature tenure, the Brit Awards have long been rebuked for overlooking the work of minorities, so I imagine the organisers felt vindicated by the outcome of this year’s ceremony, which culminated in grime-scene rapper Stormzy taking home not only the Best British Male award, but also the coveted Best British Album award.This development was unquestionably significant, for a multitude of reasons: the cultural import of British rap has been slighted by the British establishment for far too long; Stormzy is only the fifth black artist ever to win the Best Album award in the 40-year history of the event; and it was a refreshing deviation from the systematic veneration of Ed Sheeran, which seems bound sometimes to endure in perpetuity. But while this could have been the occasion of tentative hope, people were distracted by a small contingent that seems to have been overlooked.
What happened to all the women?
Before you balk at the unpleasant intrusion of gender politics here – or start murmuring to yourself about pedantic latter-day feminists – consider the following: This year, women won in only three of the 12 categories that comprise the Brit Awards, excluding those awards that are explicitly designated for women. But victory is fickle – as far as I’m concerned, it’s more disturbing that, relative to the men, women were hardly nominated at all. Of the five artists eligible for the Best Album of the Year award – which is tacitly regarded as the most prestigious – only one was a woman.
The issue of representation tends to irk people, particularly in relation to the distribution of awards. Our natural impulse, even as women, is to wonder: “What if, this year, the women simply weren’t as good?”The problem with this line of reasoning is that women’s exclusion is hardly an isolated phenomenon in the context of the entertainment industry.
The Academy Awards, for instance, habitually overlook women behind the camera, which speaks volumes about the relationship of our physicality to our perceived worth. And simply including categories for women – Best Actress and its correlates – doesn’t ameliorate this imbalance. Women aren’t just actresses, after all. We’re also directors, screenwriters and sound technicians, but we’re rarely recognised in any of these capacities.Relying on gendered categories to remedy inequality is a little archaic, and somehow insulting, too – it’s a nominal compensation that echoes the old sports sophism: women can’t compete with men, because men are inherently stronger. And this is to say nothing of the fact that gendered categories that refer only to “men” and “women” enforce a hurtful, artificial and, frankly, outdated binary, anyway. I am prepared to believe that, one year, a cohort of white, male artists outdid the competition. But this phenomenon isn’t incidental; it’s a pattern, rooted in a system; there is no better luck next year.
There is a popular misconception that merit and reform are mutually exclusive; that, in enforcing the representation and recognition of historically disenfranchised groups, the relative quality of the art itself will be overlooked. But the idea of “merit” is fundamentally gendered and racialised, anyway – what is regarded as “good”, and by whom, is never as objective as we’d like to imagine. Our personal tastes aren’t incidental, either, but a compound of what we are exposed to, and what we are led to believe about the criteria of excellence as a consequence.