Oscars’ Terrible Track Record with Women
With the Hollywood conversation focused on the mistreatment of women behind the scenes, the topic of the onscreen representation of women has fallen by the wayside. A week ago, “The Shape of Water” became the first Best Picture winner without a male lead in 34 years (since 1983’s “Terms of Endearment”) and nobody seems to have noticed.
Throughout this awards season, the treatment of women in Hollywood was perhaps the dominant conversation. Stories about sexual assault, sexual harassment, and pay inequality dominated entertainment news nearly everyday. The issue was also front and center on the awards shows themselves, from the all-black ensembles in support of the #TimesUp movement at the Golden Globes in early January to the joint appearance by three of disgraced mogul Harvey Weinstein’s most notable accusers (Ashley Judd, Salma Hayek, and Annabella Sciorra) at the Academy Awards.
In recent months, many powerful figures in Hollywood have been quick to point out that the various milestones achieved by women in this year’s Oscar nominations underscored the Academy’s abysmal history of awarding women. Feats such as Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) becoming the fifth woman in history to be nominated for directing, Rachel Morrison (Mudbound) becoming the first woman ever nominated for cinematography, and Dee Rees (also Mudbound) becoming the first woman of color to receive a screenwriting nomination are undoubtedly historic — but it is also pathetic that women are still experiencing firsts at the Oscars 90 years in.
The focus of recent conversations has rightfully been focused on how women are treated behind the scenes. Nevertheless, the issue of women’s representation on-screen is a major one as well. Women make up 51% of the U.S. population and 52% of all moviegoers, yet comprised just 24% of protagonists in the top 100 films released in 2017 (down from 29% in 2016). The picture is even bleaker when you look at the movies honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
When Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water won Best Picture and Best Director at last week’s Oscar ceremony, the next days headlines focused on it being considered by some to be the first science fiction film to win Best Picture and it marking the fourth time in five years that a Mexican director had won the Best Director prize. But few mentioned how notable it was that it featured a woman in not only a lead role, but the lead role.
To find a Best Picture winner with a woman in a lead role, one has to go back to 2004 when Hilary Swank and Clint Eastwood co-starred in Million Dollar Baby. In fact, prior to The Shape of Water, there were only three Best Picture winners this century that had women as a major force in the cast. In addition to Million Dollar Baby, 2002’s Chicago had Richard Gere credited as lead alongside Renee Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones and 2005’s Crash had no real leads but an ensemble that was fairly equally divided between men and women (highlights of the ensemble included Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon, Thandie Newton, and Don Cheadle).
Shockingly, in order to find the last time a film with just a female lead (or female leads) and no male lead won the Best Picture Oscar you would have to go all the way back to 1983’s Terms of Endearment. In that James L. Brooks tearjerker, Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger portrayed a mother and daughter and the likes of Jack Nicholson, Jeff Daniels, John Lithgow, and Danny DeVito filled out the supporting cast. (One could make the arguments that based on screen time and plot line Jodie Foster and Meryl Streep were the sole leads of The Silence of the Lambs and Out of Africa, respectively, but co-stars Anthony Hopkins and Robert Redford were billed as co-leads and campaigned in the lead acting categories.)
After realizing this fact, I decided to examine the numbers and see just how poorly women have been represented in Best Picture nominees and winners in the 21st Century.
The Method: I developed a system to categorize the 126 nominees for Best Picture since 2000 based on the gender(s) of their lead character(s) and, for the few films featuring a large ensemble with no clearly defined leads (e.g., Traffic, Gosford Park, Dunkirk), based on the gender distribution of characters in the ensemble. The categories were as follows: (1) Men dominate all substantive roles, (2) Men only in the lead role(s)/men dominate the ensemble, (3) Men and women are co-leads/men and women are fairly equally represented in the ensemble, (4) Women only in the lead role(s)/women dominate the ensemble, and (5) Women dominate all substantive roles.
Most films were easy to categorize. Dunkirk was clearly a (1). I think an unnamed female nurse said 1–2 words in the male-dominated film. The Departed was undoubtedly a (2). Although Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon are undoubtedly the leads there was a substantive part for Vera Farmiga amid all of the testosterone. The Theory of Everything was a solid (3). The film is just as much about Jane Hawking as it is about Stephen Hawking and Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones were appropriately considered co-leads. Gravity was an easy (4). Sandra Bullock’s character dominates every scene of the film, but for a while she gets notable support from George Clooney. As for a (5), one could argue that there technically has been no film since 2000 that fit the bill. Nevertheless, I considered Precious to fit the criteria. Even though male musician Lenny Kravitz made his film debut as a nurse, I could not even recall where he fit in to the story despite vividly remembering the performances of Gabourey Sidibe, Mo’nique, Paula Patton, and Mariah Carey. That was as close to a woman-dominated film as Oscar has cited this century.
Since 2000, 60% of Best Picture nominees have featured men only in lead roles, whereas 17.5% have featured women only in the lead roles. The remaining 22.5% had fairly equivalent gender representation. Thus, while 82.5% of Best Picture nominees had a man in a lead role or men as an equal force in the ensemble, only 40% had a woman in a lead role or women as an equal force in the ensemble. At the extremes, 7% of nominees didn’t feature a single substantive role for a woman while less than 1% didn’t feature a single substantive role for a man.
The numbers are even bleaker when you look at the 18 winners of the top prize. 78% of winners featured men only in lead roles, whereas around 5.5% featured women only in lead roles (accounted for entirely by the most recent winner). The remaining 16.5% were evenly split between males and females. Thus, whereas 94.5% of winners had a male lead or equivalent gender representation in the ensemble, only 22% of winners had a female lead or equivalent gender representation in the ensemble. In the remainder of winning films, women were only found in supporting roles (67%) or were not featured in any meaningful way (11%).
The Take Home Message: The statistics regarding gender representation among Best Picture nominees is depressing, but may be accounted for in part by how few films feature female protagonists in general (see the sad statistic I provided earlier). But the exceedingly worse numbers for gender representation among Best Picture winners may suggest a larger problem with the Academy. It just may be that with the Best Picture category having expanded from its traditional 5 to up to 10 nominees and there being significant pressure to increased inclusivity, voters are becoming more willing to nominate films featuring female characters in prominent roles, but are not inclined to vote for them when it comes time to pick the winners. (Of note: Lady Bird, the most woman-dominated film of this year’s lineup, scored 5 nominations in top categories but went home empty-handed.)
One could easily see these results and jump to sexism as an explanation. People are justified in suspecting that films starring women are taken less seriously as art in general. I’m certain this bias exists among many voters. But it must be noted that despite increased inclusivity in recent years, the 7,000-plus Academy membership is still only 28% women and 13% people of color. Thus, the vast majority of Academy members are white men and, based on the fact that Academy membership is granted upon establishing oneself as a serious creative talent, likely to be old white men. Sure, many of these voters may hold sexist beliefs, but even those that do not are still likely to vote for the movies that have lead characters they empathize with in stories they relate to in settings that are familiar to them. For example, which film is more likely to resonate with Clint Eastwood: Precious or Dunkirk? Thus, although I was initially skeptical, I now believe that the Academy’s dramatic attempt to diversify its membership is the only thing that is going to improve the Best Picture category’s abysmal track record with honoring films that represent women and people of color.
To end on a hopeful note, it should be noted that while few recent Best Picture nominees and winners adequately represent women, racial and ethnic minorities, and sexual and gender minorities, there has been a great deal of increasing diversity in the behind the scenes talent of rewarded films over the past decade. For the first 81 years of the Oscars, every single Best Picture winner was directed by a white, non-Hispanic man. In the last 9 years we have seen Best Picture winners directed by a woman (2009’s The Hurt Locker), black men (2013’s 12 Years a Slave and 2016’s Moonlight), and Hispanic men (2014’s Birdman and 2017’s The Shape of Water.) That’s a striking change in a short period of time and it is plausible that as more voters embrace talents of diverse backgrounds, they will be increasingly likely to reward films with more diverse characters and inclusive storylines.
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Author’s Note: I feel compelled to acknowledge that this article utilizes traditional conceptualizations of gender (e.g., gender as a binary construct, conflation of gender and biological sex). In my initial draft, I tried to be more careful with my language but it ended up just being confusing and repetitive in light of how little gender diversity there has been in Oscar nominees this century. Only one of the 126 films nominated for Best Picture this century featured a substantive transgender or gender nonbinary character and none had an openly transgender or gender nonbinary star in a major role. (The sole transgender character was Rayon in the 2013 film Dallas Buyers Club, a transgender woman portrayed by cisgender male actor Jared Leto.) There is still a very long way to go in this area, but there is a sliver of hope for progress given the fact that Moonlight became the first Best Picture winner with an gay protagonist in 2016 and this year A Fantastic Woman became the first Best Foreign Language Film winner to feature a transgender actress playing a transgender character in the lead role.