Congratulations! You suck! The awards no one wants to win

Failure, the key to all success?
Failure, the key to all success?
Image: CC0 Public Domain
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People love to celebrate accomplishments. There are Olympics for athletes, Pulitzers for journalists, Academy Awards for films, Michelin stars for restaurants, and the rarified club of Nobel Prize winners, to which we added five members this week.

But there is another world of awards—the kind people aren’t so excited to win. Just as we love to revel in our highest achievements, we also love to revel in the lowest of lows. Let’s call them the Un-awards.

Just as awards for achievement exist in just about every category of human endeavor, so do the Un-awards. Billed as an antidote to bloated Oscar ceremonies, the Golden Raspberry Awards (aka the Razzies) recognize the worst actors, directors, and films of the year. Buildings in Britain may find themselves the unwelcome recipient of a Carbuncle Cup for the year’s worst new structure. There have been awards for the worst academic writing, the worst advertising, and the worst book trailers. The Nobels have even inspired their own shadow awards: the Ig Nobel Prize, which celebrate scientific achievements that “make people laugh, and then think.” (Although the Ig Nobel’s are subversively celebratory,  sometimes winners are clear losers, such as in 1999 when The Kansas and Colorado boards of education received awards for Science Education after “mandating that children should not believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution”.)

The motives behind our love for accolades seem clear enough. But what drives the desire to hand out Un-awards? “Part of it is the little guy getting his revenge,” says Razzie founder John Wilson. “Part of it is that I don’t think we’ve ever picked on anything that didn’t at least on some level deserve it.” Our deep-seated primal impulses may also play a role: disliking the same things can make us closer as a community.

A 2011 study by University of Florida researchers mused that anecdotal evidence suggests “there is something especially delicious about sharing negative attitudes toward others.” The researchers conducted a pair of studies that revealed people who expressed negative feelings for another felt closer than two people sharing positive feelings. “Because of the potential social repercussions and relative rarity of revealing negative attitudes, perceivers view negative attitudes as especially informative,” they write. “The person who expresses the negative attitude is thereby perceived as more familiar. If the attitude is also shared by the perceiver, then closeness is especially likely to occur.” In other words, agreeing that Titanic is a terrible movie may make you a friend more swiftly than agreeing it is fantastic.

Then there is old-fashioned schadenfreude—pleasure derived from another’s misfortune. In his book Joy of Pain, psychologist Richard H. Smith writes that people report more schadenfreude over deserved than underserved misfortunes. “Part of this pleasure is aesthetic,” he writes. “The righting of the balance achieved when bad behavior leads to a bad outcome produces a kind of poetic justice.” And who could be more deserving of a bad outcome than a sexist politician, a rich movie star, or an over-funded and under-designed building blight?

By bringing awareness to the underside of endeavor, organizations that hand out Un-awards can encourage the “winners” to stop losing. In the case of the Carbuncle Cup, its administrators have declared it “a forthright call to arms against bad architecture and bad planning” intended to spark public discourse. Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award is intended to discourage “poorly written, perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction.” (For a good time, peruse their catalog of winners and nominees.)

Other Un-awards satirically shine a light on bad behavior, such as Australia’s Ernies for Sexist Remarks. Named after Ernie Ecob, a former union official who told the Sydney Morning Herald that female sheep shearers were job-stealing sexpots and drug users, Ernies are bestowed on those who display the most sexist behavior of the year. Ernie founder Meredith Burgmann told ABC she detected impact: “I’ve often heard men say to each other, ‘Oh, hold it there, mate—you’ll get an Ernie for that.’ They are aware that women will pick them up for it.”

Wilson, the founder of the Razzies, was inspired to create his Un-awards 36 years ago after taking in a double feature of Xanadu and the Village People vehicle, Can’t Stop the Music. While accolades abounded for films that were deemed brilliant, Wilson felt the trash of Hollywood was getting a pass.

“We’re the little guys sitting in the balcony saying, ‘Wait a minute, you spent 150 million dollars. You cast multimillion-dollar actors, your director won an Oscar, your source material was a bestseller,” Wilson says. “How did this happen?” The Razzies are a poke in the eye, but they have also helped elevate films to so-good-it’s-bad cult status and provided stars an opportunity to prove their humility by accepting their dishonor in person.

There is also another emotion that is almost certainly bonded to the practice of “rewarding” bad work: catharsis. When it comes to influencing the behavior of, say, a multi-billionaire dollar film industry, we have few avenues. But we can always elbow each other and agree that we know garbage when we see it. “Part of the fun of it,” says Wilson, “is that we consider ourselves the kid at the back of the class with the pea shooter.”

Whether it’s the Academies, Nobels, or Pulitzers, most awards are a case of Goliath giving Goliath a prize. When it comes to Un-awards, however, the givers are typically David, and that makes them very appealing.