There is a lot to look forward to on Oscar Sunday. While it has been a tumultuous period leading up to the ceremony, there's no denying that it is at least one of the more exciting, unpredictable years for the ceremony. Still, with most people focusing a lot of attention on the Oscars So White movement, there are those that don't even recognize that this year's nominees also features the first time that a transgender performer was nominated for Best Original Song. Anohni (of Antony and the Johnsons) was nominated for her song "Manta Ray" from Racing Extinction; a documentary highlighting the struggles of endangered species. The only catch is that you're not likely to see her at the ceremony because she's boycotting. She's doing so for reasons that make plenty of sense, though.
If there's one thing that is unfortunate about this year's Best Original Song category, it's a matter of how unfamiliar every song is likely to be to most people. With exception to Spectre's "Writing's on the Wall," there's not likely to be a familiar tune in the bunch. At most, the competitor is "That Lady GaGa campus rape song," which may have the best of intentions, but comes across more as as showy gimmick. To say the least, it's not a year with too many distinguished great songs from noteworthy movies. You'll be forgiven if you've never heard "Manta Ray," as the category seems full of obscure documentary tunes.
With most people boycotting The Oscars over a racial problem, there's another issue at hand that Anohni expressed in her open letter, published on her band's website titled "Why I Am Not Attending The Academy Awards." It's a lengthy letter, but one that explains in great detail how she feels about the ceremony. In her opening paragraph, she states that:
"I am the only transgendered performer ever to have been nominated for an Academy Award, and for that I thank the artists who nominated me. (There was a trans songwriter nominee named Angela Morley in the early 70’s who did some great work behind the scenes.) I was in Asia when I found out the news. I rushed home to prepare something, in case the music nominees would be asked to perform. Everyone was calling with excited congratulations. A week later, Sam Smith, Lady Gaga and the Weeknd were rolled out as the evening’s entertainment with more performers 'soon to be announced'. Confused, I sat and waited. Would someone be in touch? But as time bore on I heard nothing. I was besieged with people asking me if I was going to perform."
Later in the essay, she explains how she was unable to get onto the plane for Los Angeles. It is bad enough that someone wouldn't be allowed to perform because they weren't commercially viable. While Anohni doesn't use her transgender identity as the reason, she does mention feeling excluded from the music industry at various points of her career due to many telling her that she'll never make it. However, she did mention that the Oscars' homepage added a trivia fact about this shortly after the nomination. She eventually accepts that American culture is largely based around capitalism, and that is something that she doesn't care for.
The letter as a whole is definitely worth a read if you wish to understand an "outsider's" perspective on the matter. Of course, the relationship that The Academy has had with transgender artists in any field has usually been problematic. In Best Actor, Eddie Redmayne (cisgender) is nominated for The Danish Girl: a film about a transitioning woman that is very problematic for reasons beyond the casting decision. As Anohni explained, she is only the second transgender artist to ever be nominated (the first in 40 years). As much as The Academy has tried to be more embracing about LGBT culture, it still has trouble seeing them as allies instead of victims, as evident by villainous roles in The Silence of the Lambs and American Beauty; as well as tragic victims in Dallas Buyers Club or Milk. Anohni isn't wrong for feeling like The Academy doesn't reflect her values.
What's bad enough is that in a racially sensitive time for The Academy, she isn't the only non-white to get the boot in favor of a more recognizable face. Best Original Song nominee Sumi Jo for the song "Simple Song #3" from Youth was dropped awhile back for not being commercially viable. So while Anohni is the first to drop out on her own (though admittedly without any clarification that she would actually be performing), she joins a problematic narrative in which Asian and transgender artists will not be represented at the ceremony. So while Oscars So White is heavily still focusing on the issues regarding black artists, it's important to note that the issue involves everyone and that yes, to many it still is about what's going to get eyeballs and dollars. Who knows what would've happened if Anohni and Sumi Jo actually performed. It would've at least helped the progressive narrative a bit.