The 2019 Academy Awards are still without a host, after comedian Kevin Hart was named to host the ceremony, then withdrew after criticism emerged over old, homophobic tweets. On Jan. 4, Ellen DeGeneres interviewed Hart on her show, and said she had personally called the Academy to re-hire him for the Oscars gig. While I love DeGeneres, I have to step up and say: As a queer woman, I don't want Kevin Hart hosting the Oscars. Here's why.
First, a little bit of background: Hart originally responded to the backlash to the statements — which date from 2009 to 2011 — in an Instagram video on Dec. 6, which did not include an apology. On Dec. 7, he tweeted, "I have made the choice to step down from hosting this year's Oscar's [sic]....this is because I do not want to be a distraction on a night that should be celebrated by so many amazing talented artists. I sincerely apologize to the LGBTQ community for my insensitive words from my past." Ellen appeared to forgive Hart when he appeared on her show, saying, "You've already expressed that it's not being educated on the subject, not realizing how dangerous those words are."
Hollywood has always had a very complicated relationship with queerness, and the Oscars have been a showcase of those attitudes. The first film to win Best Picture at the Oscars, Wings (1927), featured a same-sex kiss between two men who were fighting over the same woman, flapper Clara Bow. By contrast, there was uproar when Ang Lee's drama Brokeback Mountain didn't win Best Picture in 2006; Entertainment Weekly wrote that it was "considered the victim of an injustice at the hands of a membership that skewed heavily old, male, and straight." Voters in 2006, it seemed, couldn't stomach a gay love story taking home the biggest prize in the game. Eleven years later, Barry Jenkins' Moonlight Best Picture win in 2017 was cast in the press as the "perfect antidote" to that perceived slight.
As society has shifted and changed, so have the Oscars. Like it or not, the awards are seen as a microcosm of cultural tides and ideas, both within and outside entertainment; in recent years, it's seen criticisms like #OscarsSoWhite and #TimesUp make a serious impact. This brings us back to the controversy around Hart — and why the Oscars stage is not the forum for him to resolve the controversy.
The tweets and statements that Hart made are pretty hurtful. A now-deleted tweet written in 2011 read, "Yo if my son comes home & try's 2 play with my daughters doll house I'm going 2 break it over his head & say n my voice 'stop that's gay'." And Hart famously joked in 2010: "One of my biggest fears is my son growing up and being gay. That’s a fear. Keep in mind, I’m not homophobic [...] Be happy. Do what you want to do. But me, as a heterosexual male, if I can prevent my son from being gay, I will."
Gay people hear these sentiments a lot. Our parents often express it as fear for us, not necessarily out of straight-up homophobia (though that can be a big factor) but because our status as non-straight can make our lives harder, riskier, more difficult, and more dangerous. My parents are like that. I get it.
Hart may have grown as a person since these comments were made, and we all have a chance for forgiveness and growth. However, his public statements, as Rachel Leah writes for Salon, have centered on "haters and trolls" rather than accepting responsibility. His apology in 2015 for his 2010 joke, Leah notes, was: "I wouldn’t tell that joke today, because when I said it, the times weren’t as sensitive as they are now. I think we love to make big deals out of things that aren’t necessarily big deals." That isn't an "I messed up" statement. That's a "stop being so sensitive" statement. There's a big difference between the two, and queer people know it.
DeGeneres has the right to forgive anything she chooses, both as an individual and as a pioneer for gay representation in media. She lost her popular sitcom after she came out in 1998, then later rose to become one of the most beloved and powerful figures in entertainment. A poll by Variety in 2015 found that she'd influenced American attitudes towards gay rights more than any other public figure. She is, for many people, the prime figurehead of queer visibility and power. I look up to her immensely and think she is a uniquely courageous, kind woman. I also think that, on this one, she is wrong.
Representation matters immensely for marginalized communities, and the LGBTQ community in particular. Films and TV can help us shape and understand our identities, particularly if we don't have access to much support or representation at home or school. (Start a conversation about The L Word with a group of queer women, and you'll rapidly see how influential storylines on TV can be.)
By contrast, negative representation can have immense real-world implications; '90s and 2000s sitcoms often used gayness and "gay panic" — when people are terrified of gay people or appearing gay — for cheap, depressing laughs at the expense of queer folks' lived experience. (For one example, the 2015 Will Ferrell-Kevin Hart vehicle Get Hard was labeled "the ugliest gay-panic humor to befoul a studio release in recent history" by Variety.) Legal experts note that "gay panic" has been used to defend or excuse the murder and assault of LGBTQ people in legal proceedings across 47 states in the U.S. Put together, this matters.
Now, however, media is enjoying a flourishing of progressive, honest, inclusive LGBTQ representation.The Assassination of Gianni Versace, The Favourite, and A Very English Scandal, all featuring queer relationships, just won big at the Golden Globes, Netflix's Queer Eye reboot was a major cultural touchstone of 2018, Ru Paul's Drag Race and Pose are wildly popular, and queer characters in shows like Black Lightning have outspoken fan bases. Putting Hart onstage would feel frankly out of touch with this wave of onscreen positivity and complexity.
It will take more than DeGeneres' support to remake Hart as an appropriate host, particularly at this charged moment when queer stories command so much attention and respect on the awards circuit. Giving statues to people who produce beautiful, nuanced art about LGBTQ lives becomes less meaningful when someone who has actively denigrated these stories holds the reins.