The Oscars’ woman problem

Despite Kathryn Bigelow and the "Bridesmaids'" breakthrough, the Oscars are still dominated by men. What gives? VIDEO

Topics: Oscars, Editor's Picks, Gender,

The Oscars' woman problemAlexander Payne, Michel Hazanavicius, Woody Allen, Terrence Malick and Martin Scorsese (Credit: AP)

Hollywood has long had a problem with women, but with Kathryn Bigelow’s historic best director Oscar in 2010 for “The Hurt Locker,” it looked like things might be slowly changing. And in 2011, the box-office success of “Bridesmaids,” a raunchy comedy written by and starring women, led to predictions that Hollywood was finally ready to recognize the reality that female-centric movies could be as profitable as man-centric movies. While no industry that employs Michael Bay can really be considered a safe space, more women in production positions might mean better depictions of women, more roles for older actresses, and more influence at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization that awards the Oscars.

That may end up being the case years down the line. But judging from the available evidence, it’s not going to happen any time soon. Bigelow’s movie was released in 2009, but in 2011, only 5 percent of the top-grossing movies were directed by women. And, astoundingly, the Oscars are even worse. None — zero — of the films in the best picture, best director, best adapted or original screenplay, best lead or supporting actor, and best supporting actress categories were directed by women. In the major categories, 98 percent of nominations went to movies directed by men, 84 percent went to movies written by men, and 70 percent went to movies starring men. The only female-centered movies that appear outside the best actress categories are “The Help” and “Bridesmaids.” In the best picture category, there are as many movies about women as there are movies about horses.

Getting beyond basic cast-and-crew details, Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist pop culture media critic and the editor of Feminist Frequency, has produced a video putting the 2012 best picture nominees to the so-called Bechdel test. This looks at whether a film has, at any point, female characters having an interaction with each other that’s not about a male character. Only two of the 10 pass. While it’s possible for male directors and writers to produce representative depictions of women (as Manohla Dargis said in a 2009 interview, “Flaubert wrote ‘Madame Bovary.’ That’s all we need to say about that”), they mostly don’t. Female characters aren’t given anything to do besides pine about their (heterosexual) romantic interests.

Besides Bigelow, only three other women have been nominated for the best director Oscar: Sofia Coppola for “Lost in Translation” in 2003, Jane Campion for “The Piano” in 1993, and Lina Wertmüller for “Seven Beauties” in 1976. In the years since Bigelow’s win, no women have been nominated. “Women in Hollywood are still largely excluded from prominent decision making and production roles,” Sarkeesian wrote in an email. “Bigelow’s win is definitely something to celebrate, but I don’t think it reflects on any substantial shift within the film industry as a whole.”

“Hollywood is very big on symbolism and mistaking symbolic breakthroughs for actual breakthroughs,” Richard Rushfield, a veteran entertainment journalist who blogs at, wrote me. “And then once they’ve had the symbolic breakthroughs and pat themselves on the back for a job well done, they forget to do the job.”

Nor were the 2010 Oscars an unalloyed triumph for feminism. As Rebecca Clark Mane, a feminist cultural critic from the University of Washington, pointed out, the dual wins for Sandra Bullock in “The Blind Side” and Mo’Nique in “Precious” sent a troubling message. “They managed to both celebrate regressive gender politics which locate women’s primary role as mothers while at the same time setting the ‘bad’ black mother against the ‘good’ white mother,” she wrote.

“Bridesmaids” has already had a positive effect on the fortunes of some women in the industry; “Who Invited Her?,” a comedy by Sascha Rothschild about a woman invited along on a bachelor party weekend, was quickly picked up after “Bridesmaids’” big numbers came out. But it’s troubling that the job prospects of an entire gender seem dependent on what’s likely to be a comedy fad, and it’s telling that every action movie of note released since “The Hurt Locker” has been directed by a man.

The source of women’s underrepresentation at the Oscars is not exactly a mystery. A recent study by the L.A. Times confirmed what we all pretty much suspected: The Academy is overwhelmingly white and male. Seventy-seven percent of Oscar voters are male, a population that is very much at odds with America but fairly representative of the people who make the decisions in Hollywood.

Hollywood’s sexism is so obvious that it’s become almost hard to get worked up about. But these numbers should be incredibly troubling. Few industries that aren’t explicitly men-only, like professional sports, are allowed to display such drastic gender bias. Hollywood movies are funded by men, made by men — and, usually, made for men, especially young men.

Awareness of that audience makes the Academy’s embrace of even the two female-centric movies problematic. While the commercial success of “Bridesmaids” is heartening, its Oscar nominations came only in the writing and supporting actress categories, not the prestige picture/director awards. And it’s notable that only a female comedy that was repeatedly, and pointedly, presented as a male “raunch comedy” with female leads could receive recognition. It’s like the supposedly anachronistic plot of another nominee, “Albert Nobbs“: Women can only succeed by acting like men. It’s not that “Bridesmaids” isn’t a great film that deserves a billion awards. It’s just that, standing up there by itself, you start to get suspicious why that film was singled out. It’s like Carrie suddenly getting picked as homecoming queen. Reasonable observers begin to suspect there’s an ulterior motive at work.

There’s a similar problem with “The Help” being the only female-centric best picture nominee. Its problems with race have been widely discussed (and, indeed, Sarkeesian does in her video). But its representation of women in general is problematic, too. In the best picture category, male leads get to be actors, landowners, adventurers, inventors, writers, executives, soldiers and architects. Female leads get to be … housewives or domestic servants. (Even the supporting female characters are largely wives and mothers.) It’s not that this doesn’t represent an aspect of women’s experiences. It’s just that it doesn’t represent anything close to the entirety of women’s experiences, and the recognition of a film that emphasizes gender stereotypes and not a movie that gives another kind of portrait (like “Young Adult,” say) is telling.

How to fix this? The industry isn’t going to deal with the problem by itself, or it would’ve done so already. It’s even in its self-interest to cater to female audiences (movies like “Twilight” show how much potential is there), but Hollywood still can’t manage to get its act together. Nor is the nature of the entertainment business holding movie executives back from employing more women. Television, while far from parity, at least offers better opportunities for female creators, from Tina Fey’s “30 Rock” and Jenji Kohan’s “Weeds” to all the female showrunners now working and the older actresses that have found a home on the small screen when the movies turned their back.

Maybe we need some affirmative action for Hollywood. If the government thinks it’s important to set standards for equality in workplace hiring, sports and college admissions, it might be time to recognize the importance of movies’ cultural and economic power. Hollywood is, after all, a multibillion-dollar industry, and one of America’s biggest exports. For women to have so few opportunities in the upper ranks of such an important industry is absurd, and exactly the kind of thing the government would want to get involved in — theoretically, anyway. In reality, of course, Hollywood has ingratiated itself so thoroughly with elected officials that it’s highly unlikely any such action will get taken soon.

Writing about these sorts of issues can sometimes be hard, especially when it comes to private organizations like movie studios. Unlike the government, Paramount Pictures never agreed to fairly represent their audience, and have the right to pursue profit however they please, even if it would be more profitable not to ignore half of your potential audience. And if Terrence Malick wants to make a movie so man-focused that it could fairly be retitled “Father Issues Across the Ages,” he should go right ahead, especially if it’s going to turn out as wonderfully as “Tree of Life” did. But award shows are dedicated to recognizing a large number of quality films regardless of commercial interest, and are decided by a small, defined elite. Though they are also, of course, four-hour smugfests of meaningless, self-congratulatory drivel, they offer an opportunity for a cultural industry to show what it values. And if the Oscars are anything to judge by, then Hollywood doesn’t value women very highly at all.

Michael Barthel is a PhD candidate in the communication department at the University of Washington. He has written about pop music for the Awl, Idolator, and the Village Voice.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>