Last at Recess, Shunned at Lunch

January 25th, 2012 § 3 comments

I have just used Google News to see how many times the odd little word ‘snub’ has been used in the past 24 hours. I came up with 2,020 articles that fit the bill (I wish I’d checked a week earlier as well, for comparison; this number will surely grow for several more hours). The articles are, based on my cursory review, almost all about the Oscars. If I were to read each of these articles, I am fairly certain they would annoy me equally in their use of this word. I believe this vocabulary choice would hold true for radio and TV coverage as well.

I have a particular disdain of ‘snub.’ My antipathy to it was honed to a fine point during my eight-year tenure as executive director of the American Theatre Wing, where my responsibilities included shared oversight of The Tony Awards. Every May and June, I was deluged with press clippings about the awards and, just as with the Oscars (and the Grammys, and the Emmys, and the Globes, and, and, and), ‘snub’ would appear with startling regularity in press coverage of every possible stripe, from before nominations until after the awards were handed out. I took it pretty personally, because while I was not a Tony nominator and only one voter among hundreds, I was one of the public faces of the Tonys. I was uncomfortable with the fact that a process meant to honor people was being subverted into one in which people were supposedly being rebuffed or insulted, as ‘snub’ implies. In some cases, friends of mine were among the ostensibly snubbed.

‘Snub’ does not mean simply to leave out, as some might have it. Let me quote two dictionaries on the word, as both my beloved Reader’s Digest Great Encyclopedic Dictionary and Dictionary.com offer the same definition: “1. To treat with contempt or disdain, especially by ignoring; slight. 2. To rebuke or check with a cutting remark.” It is, first, a verb; it can also be a noun, but there is foremost an action indicated. When you snub, it is with hurtful intent.

Now we can all list the many flaws we might find in awards processes, and surely none is perfect; you may even wish to rail against their existence. But for the purpose of this post, please accept them as a given, since I am not examining awards themselves today, but how this particular word has become so insidiously ingrained in discourse about them.

To my knowledge, all cultural awards are affirmative, in the sense that at each level, there is a process of selecting the top or best examples of the category or genre being awarded. There is no organized effort to explicitly blackball anyone or anything; by dint of rules which limit nominees and winners to certain numbers, not all in contention can pass each threshold (this is not nursery school where everyone gets a ribbon for showing up). But at no time does any group, like grown-up versions of high school jocks or mean girls, develop a consensus about who to exclude or berate. The process is about favorites to be sure; even the Golden Raspberry Awards choose films that are the best exemplars of bad films; they don’t, I suspect, spend time saying, “The Descendants? Nah, it’s a bad example of a bad film, so it’s out.”

Consequently, why is ‘snub’ so prevalent? I believe it’s because in both popular and high culture, feuds and insults are infinitely more interesting to report on than praise and achievement. We have long heard that local news broadcasts tend towards the “if it bleeds, it leads” strategy; when it comes to reporting on awards and prizes, the operant methodology appears to be, “those who lose are news.” Awards prognostication is almost its own industry, and so those who cover this aspect of the entertainment world opt to hyperbolize their reportage in order to add to the drama, essentially creating conflict for a better story. Select current examples: in The New York Times’ main story on this year’s Oscar nominations, ‘snub’ appears four times, and a separate story on their Carpetbagger blog has it in a headline.  The Hollywood Reporter headlined, “Oscar Snubs for Michael Fassbender and Tilda Swinton Spark British Frenzy” (was there rioting?). Hollywood news maven Nikki Finke headlined an article, “OSCARS – Who Got Snubbed By The Academy.” Snub is the go-to weapon of choice and it was deployed in every direction, seemingly by reporters firing on automatic.

I can’t possibly think that my little blog post is going to change the ingrained habits of the cultural media. But if you’re reading this, I urge you when you consume information about awards, substitute the correct words in place of snub: “left out,” “didn’t make the cut,” “missed their chance.” They are perhaps only marginally less negative about those who aren’t nominees or winners, but they are facts, not commentary (or representative of invented affronts). Don’t buy in to the not-so-subtle sense of insult that is deployed so often around awards, not because the awards are so pristine or perfect, but because the people who give awards aren’t doing it to demean people in the fields they recognize, only to elevate and reward through whatever means they have.

Am I naive? No. I just wish the press would do better. I was a kid who grew up being picked last at recess, eventually finding comfort, affirmation and purpose through performance. I’d like to think that those who entertain us (and those who follow their careers) shouldn’t have salt rubbed in their psychic wounds, in public, when they – fairly or unfairly – aren’t picked for the all-star team.

  • martha steketee

    Yes.  I ruminated (well, at least noted) this provocative and powerful word in dialogue quoting Susan Sontage journal musings in “Sontag: Reborn” during this year’s Under the Radar festival: “A snub is a device for establishing social distance.”

    At minimum.  Yes.

  • jonmon

    Excellent Mr. Sherman. I write a cine-blog for an on line publication and have been guilty of abusing that four letter word.  Since I probably would not like to be snubbed, I shouldn’t snub. Thanks… and for the record, some of the greatest players in history were picked last.

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