“It’s really shiny. [...] Oh, yeah, you should enjoy it forever, Elaine, but it’s where you display it– that’s the key. See, if you put it on the mantelpiece and it says to the world this is who or what you are and… You’re way more than this. Now, you stick it in a drawer… it says this is something you’ve done, accomplished, and in a drawer it doesn’t tarnish so easily. I mean, keep it, Elaine, it’s yours. You won it. Just don’t hold yourself up to it.” ~ Larry Paul (Ally McBeal)
I tend to think that prizes are more gratifying for supporters than for winners themselves. When I was a 10-year-old girl scout, I used to refuse all the badges I was given, first because well– I was a rebel, and second I didn’t see any interest other than the possibility of bragging before the kids who didn’t get anything. [Call me Care Bear] Eventually, the only persons who were concerned about my rejecting all outward signs of recognition were my parents, but what they didn’t understand back then was that refusing badges was my very own way to get noticed and not fit in with the crowd… [Seems like I wasn’t a Care Bear, after all!]
For sure, awards and medals can be career enhancers, life changers, fame-boosters, money makers, ego flatterers. But I don’t believe they genuinely reflect the quality of the performances. I’m not questioning the pain, the efforts and the obstination behind trophies, but I think they’re also based on good luck: being there at the right moment, doing well when others are doing bad, getting noticed when someone important is watching, being drawn by lot. Whatever. Aside from work and talent, awards are mostly a combination of accidental events.
So what does that mean for an athlete to get a medal? What does it feel for an artist to win an award? Are people limited to being number ones, twos or threes just because they have gold, silver or bronze around their necks? Do winners feel they’re the best, even for a brief moment, because a piece of paper in an envelope said so? And do losers get hurt for not being put in the spotlight?
Is life a competition?
I have an anecdote from the time when I was teaching in a British school. One of my students used to fail most of her tests because she didn’t have an ounce of self-confidence. Actually, she was even among the brightest students I ever had but she was so panicked during exams that she couldn’t manage to think and answer questions properly. We worked on that for 2 years and she eventually got the highest grade in French at her A-Level. And yet, another girl – who had been used to get trophies of all kinds since a very young age – was awarded with the highest distinction for French at the graduating ceremony although her final grade (the one that was really important!) was lower than my student’s grade. Darn, this was so unfair! My student deserved that prize not only because of her grade but also because of the stress and fear she had to defeat.*
I do believe the real winners out there are often the most underrated, unawarded and humble performers. And I do believe that talent cannot be quantified by how many nominations or prizes that you get. I am not denying that awards are often well-deserved and I’m happy they can sometimes put things in perspective, highlight extraordinary skills and performances, or promote honorable causes. I’m just saying that prizes are random and temporary acts of recognition offered by a bunch of critics, a jury who think they know better [the "professionals of the profession", as French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard once said] or a tiny part of a fanbase made of crazies who clicked hundreds of times on a name so that their favorite star could win a stupid popularity contest on the Internet. [Am I really referring to the People's Choice Awards?] [Am I?] [Oh wait, I think I am!]
Besides, what do winners usually do when they get awards? A thank-you speech. And why that? Because awards are not just the distinction of one individual over thousands of others. All the thank-yous are proof that hard work and passion – when they go hand in hand – are linked to a whole lot of well-intentioned, caring and loving personalities. Passion is pain. Passion is sacrifice. Passion is commitment. Passion can be a curse for the friends and relatives of those who are driven by it. That’s why the “Awardeds” are given time for their acceptance speeches: to thank the people who made it possible for them to do their best job despite the self-sacrificing and renunciation of living a normal life that it implied.
Getting an award might be a consecration for those who invest part of their time to supporting and promoting the talent of someone else. They might even be milestones in the lives of those who get them – although I doubt that all the Michael Phelps and Meryl Streeps of this world actually consider every trophy as a milestone! [I'm pretty sure that during nights of insomnia, they count trophies instead of sheep] Awards might be something to be proud of but I think they’re just the confirmation that the path was worth being taken, not that it ought to be exposed to the public eye.
I enjoy watching sports on TV. There’s so much to learn from sports and athletes. But I also see how stressful, brutal and pitiless sports competitions can be. On the other hand, I also love watching award ceremonies like the Oscars, the Emmys, the Golden Globes and the Grammies. I applaud artists from my couch. I want my favorite actors or singers to win. I yell at the TV. I grin, smile, laugh and even cry sometimes when the acceptance speeches get emotional. But in the end it doesn’t make any sense. I mean, it’s pretty cool for athletes to get medals but what about the many others who spend hours and hours practicing, sweating, pushing the limits of what their bodies can endure? It’s pretty cool too for actors to win awards, but what about those who are running from audition to audition, or spending hours on set, memorizing lines, rehearsing, promoting their films or shows, not knowing if they’re gonna have another job after that one? And yes, what about the millions of people doing other types of time-consuming and/or physically-demanding jobs who will never get trophies though their work is much more impacting on the well-being of our society?
So no, trophies are never the answer to the pending question “Who deserves what?” because the right answer is “Support”. Some, like Meryl, will keep getting awards in the next 20 years and still look surprised every time, while others will keep being ignored from the award-giving clique. But it doesn’t matter as long as passion and honesty make them want to continue the journey. Let’s just keep encouraging people who are passionate about their work because trophies are not achievements. At best, they’re like bonus points – or marks of “gentle reassurance” to quote Colin Firth – in the never-ending game of entertaining the world and making people dream.
* Turns out my student became an actress and radio host after she majored in Economics, I’m so proud of her!