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Stephen King’s confusing tweets about diversity missed a larger point about the Oscars

Stephen King said diversity didn’t matter to art. Then he said it did.

Celebrities Visit SiriusXM - September 26, 2017
Author Stephen King visits the SiriusXM Studios on September 26, 2017 in New York City.
Photo by Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Horror maestro Stephen King has chimed in on the subject of diversifying the arts, in response to backlash against the all-too-familiar whiteness of the 2020 Oscar nominations slate.

In a tweet Tuesday morning, King suggested that the only thing that matters when judging art is the quality of the art, and that diversity should not be a factor. The tweets coincided with significant social media discussion about the omission of women and people of color from major Oscars categories like acting and directing — and many people interpreted King’s tweet as a tacit dismissal of those concerns.

King noted that as a member of the writing branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he is only permitted to vote in three categories: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Original Screenplay. “For me, the diversity issue — as it applies to individual actors and directors, anyway — did not come up,” King said. “That said I would never consider diversity in matters of art. Only quality.”

Like so many others, King presumably had the Oscars on his mind because Monday’s nominations seemed to offer a strikingly clear example of diverse creative teams producing art of very high quality, yet being maddeningly shut out of the Oscar race in favor of lauding established Hollywood insiders.

The nominations include only one actor of color in all four acting categories, Cynthia Erivo (for Harriet). Meanwhile, Awkwafina, fresh off winning a Golden Globe for her acclaimed performance in The Farewell, was not nominated in Lead Actress category for the Oscars. And while Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite is nominated for Best Picture, Best International Feature Film, and Best Director — earning historic recognition for South Korea — the film’s stellar ensemble cast was not nominated in the acting categories.

Additionally, Greta Gerwig, a 2018 Best Director nominee, and only the fifth woman ever to be nominated in the category, was denied a second nomination for directing Little Women, despite the film being nominated for Best Picture and several other awards, and despite its having won a staggering amount of critical acclaim compared to some of its more controversial Best Picture fellows.

The categories in which King was eligible to vote showed some diversity, but were largely dominated by white male directors who wrote or co-wrote their own screenplays. Gerwig received a nomination for Adapted Screenplay. Bong (along with his Parasite co-writer Han Jin-won) and JoJo Rabbit director Taika Waiti were nominated for their films’ screenplays, and World War I film 1917 earned a nod for its co-writers, director Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns.

Many people who responded to King’s surprising statement were quick to point out that all too frequently, the systems that produce art are designed to shut out minority artists — meaning that many of them never even get the chance to be judged by the quality of their work.

Eventually — around two hours after his tweet — King qualified his statement with two follow-up thoughts that seemed to acknowledge the viewpoints of the many, many people who replied to disagree with him.

It’s worth noting that the most recent round of predominantly white Oscar nominees — a persistent problem for the Academy — has come after several years in which the Academy rapidly and dramatically increased its number of new memberships to meaningfully diversify its voting body. Apparently, there’s still a lot more work to be done to shift the institutional apparatus that keeps many diverse films from finding broader awards recognition.

Without more clarification, however, what seemed to some fans to be King’s abrupt about-face left them confused:

But unlike many of King’s fictional must-reads, his Twitter musings might be best left un-scrutinized. King might be in many ways a typical privileged white dude (never forget that his wife Tabitha King put his career ahead of her own and pushed him to keep writing), but he’s often tried to pay his success forward and look out for the underdog.

“Young writers and filmmakers need a hand up, because it’s a hard world out there,” he told EW in 2008. Of course, it’s frequently an even harder world out there for writers and filmmakers from marginalized groups, who often don’t have the same advantages and opportunities afforded to them.

Keep heading in that direction, Stephen, and you’ll understand why so many people were taken aback by your tweet.

Correction: An earlier version of this story said it was not clear whether King was commenting on the Oscar nominations. It has been corrected to clarify that he was, via an additional tweet in which he directly referenced the nominations.