If you stayed up extra-late flipping through Twitter after last night’s Oscars telecast, your commitment to the social conversation was rewarded with one of the greatest clapbacks in recent Oscar memory. "Hey @SamSmithWorld, if you have no idea who I am, it may be time to stop texting my fiancé. Here’s a start:"
The tweeter in question is Dustin Lance Black, the openly gay winner of the 2008 Oscar for best original screenplay for Milk. The fiancé is Tom Daley, the studly British Olympic diver who’s dated Black for roughly three years. The recipient is Sam Smith, the young crooner who had a rough night last night despite adding his first Oscar (for best original song) to his packed mantlepiece.
Smith’s victory in best original song (for his maudlin Bond theme "Writing’s on the Wall") was a mild surprise given the presence of other heavyweights like The Weeknd and Lady Gaga, and his resulting speech is now a cautionary tale regarding the dangers of haphazard social activism. He dedicated his victory to the LGBT community, a touching sentiment unfortunately stained by the fact that it was based on a misquotation of Sir Ian McKellen. "No openly gay man has ever won the Oscar," said McKellen to The Guardian in January. "I wonder if that is prejudice or chance." He was speaking specifically about the award for Best Actor, which has been given to several straight actors playing LGBT characters in the last few decades.
Smith thought the statement applied to all categories, which is demonstrably untrue; Black’s win for Milk stands alongside Elton John and Stephen Sondheim’s past wins for Best Original Song, to say nothing of the many technical winners and non-public figures who may have picked up Oscars while being out in their private lives. Adding insult to injury, Smith failed to acknowledge the groundbreaking nomination in his category for ANOHNI, the transgender performer nominated for Racing Extinction’s "Manta Ray." (She chose not to attend the ceremony, writing, "I will not be lulled into submission with a few more well-manufactured, feel-good ballads and a bit of good old-fashioned T. and A.")
Smith has a checkered history of LGBT representation
If the consternation regarding Smith’s factual flop feels somewhat disproportionate to its impact — what’s a little erasure between friends, right? — then it’s worth considering his checkered history as a representative for LGBT people. His use of gender-neutral pronouns throughout his 2014 debut In the Lonely Hour felt less like a social statement than a canny commercial move, and Smith admitted as much. "I’ve tried to be clever with this album, because it’s also important to me that my music reaches everybody," said Smith to The Fader that year. "I’ve made my music so that it could be about anything and everybody — whether it’s a guy, a female, or a goat — and everybody can relate to that."
Smith also expressed his disinterest in dating apps like Tinder and Grindr later that year. "No offense to people who go on Tinder but I just feel like it’s ruining romance," said Smith. "From my experience, the most beautiful people I’ve been on dates with are the dumbest, so why would I swipe people who are ‘unattractive’ when I could potentially fall in love with them? Stop Tinder and Grindr!" This rightfully earned the ire of writers like Gawker’s Rich Juzwiak, who dove into what he called Smith’s "fucked-up gay conservatism" later that year. "Smith distances himself from certain stereotypes that small-minded, under-sexed people might negatively associate with young gay men who enjoy multiple partners and the ease at which modern technology can deliver them to your door," wrote Juzwiak. "If I’m being realistic and surveying his entire way of conducting himself as an out gay man, I’d say that what he’s suggesting is that you have to behave in a certain, non-deviant way to be considered equal, and that’s bullshit."
To many LGBT people, Smith is the embodiment of relative privilege: he’s a cisgender, white gay man, the kind of person who’s benefited the most from the larger societal push for gay rights. He can afford to be cavalier with his activism because he has a lot less ground to make up; he can offer vague platitudes and factual inaccuracies when ANOHNI isn’t even invited to perform in the first place.
It’s possible to draw a line separating the problems with Smith’s speech and the good it may have done. Millions of people watch the Oscars, and many of them are decidedly unwoke; there’s still value in watching an out, proud gay man discuss his sexuality on one of the planet’s biggest stages. Smith is also still just 23, and he’s evolving as a public figure the way everyone else is evolving in their private lives. Holding people to some ideal of perfect activism can be counterproductive in some cases.
We're holding social advocates to a higher standard in 2016
With that said, his muddled message and failure to complete even basic research made his speech stick out like a sore thumb during a telecast full of comparatively clear, grounded activism. Chris Rock stung Hollywood and the Academy again and again for their failure to facilitate a diverse community and group of nominees; Leonardo DiCaprio stumped for climate change like he’d been waiting 20 years to do so; The Big Short director Adam McKay encouraged viewers to take down economic crooks with their voting habits with a quick, impassioned speech. There’s nothing wrong with speaking on behalf of a cause that’s close to your heart on the Oscar stage, but it’s 2016, and everyone’s being held to a higher standard. If Smith feels stung this morning, I hope he takes that lesson away and recommits to his role as an advocate instead of shrinking away.