And the winner is … conflicted

Because watching a steady stream of mostly mediocre DVDs for review purposes crowded out my TV viewing this season, making House the only show I watched regularly, I’ve got no intelligent commentary on the recent Emmy nominations (PDF). Which won’t stop me from trying to say something about the love-hate relationship many of us have with the whole concept of awards and external validation.

House did better than I dared hope for at Thursday’s nomination unveiling, but worse than it probably deserved, given some of the other multiple nominees. The brilliant Hugh Laurie is up for best actor in a drama, and the equally brilliant David Shore for best writing, for the magnificent “Three Stories” episode. I was ecstatic rather than disappointed at two major nominations, since my expectations were low.

Awards are always about more than just who is most deserving, and “most deserving” is too subjective to inspire much indignation in me. (But really, The West Wing and Six Feet Under were among the top five best dramas on the air? I used to love them, but objectively speaking – no.) The Emmys are part popularity contest, part nostalgia, part truly acknowledging quality, and that doesn’t change from year to year, and raging against the injustice is as futile as hoping reality television will disappear.

But then, awards in general have an odd place in our culture. We dismiss their importance with rants about clueless Emmy or Oscar voters, but still revel in their cachet when our favourites earn the right to call themselves nominees or, better yet, winners. And why is an Emmy nomination enough to make notoriously self-deprecating Hugh Laurie feel validated, if the overwhelming critical and popular acclaim for his performance aren’t?

Katharine Hepburn said: “I think most of the people involved in any art always secretly wonder whether they are really there because they’re good or there because they’re lucky.” And awards are an imperfect way of determining whether luck or skill are at play. If a critic says you’re good, maybe that’s luck. If a large body of your peers says it, maybe you’re good.

I don’t think that sentiment is limited to creative types. Most professionals I know have a fear of being “found out” – that somehow they are faking their way through, that everyone else knows the secret handshake, and some day a colleague or boss will discover their complete and utter incompetence. Or maybe that’s just me.

My boss values awards highly, and encourages us peons to enter communications projects into competitions. I, however, feel more embarrassment than validation from the process. Just the act of entering feels like a giant act of hubris, in part because I’m exposing my belief that I’m worthy of the honour, in part because I’m sure of the fact that I’m not. And if I win, well, that could be luck, and it could seem like I’m lording it over my colleagues.

We live in a culture where we celebrate individual achievement, but knock people down for taking too much pride in their achievements. Awards are far from being the win-win that the rosy “it’s an honour just to be nominated” cliche would have us believe. Because while it certainly is, it also sucks to lose. Yet even winning requires appropriate humility … or the fortitude to withstand years of ridicule after admitting what the external validation really means: “you like me, you really like me.”

“Emotion has nothing to do with appropriateness. It matters only that it shall be sincere. I happened to feel deeply. I showed it. It doesn’t matter whether I ought to have felt deeply or not.”
E.M. Forster, Notes on the English Character

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