Oscars still so male: Untangling the same-old, same-old pattern of the Academy Awards

2020-02-04 08:29
 
'Little Women' director Greta Gerwig

Cape Town - Critics have hailed it "masterful" and "refreshing if not radical," lavishing Greta Gerwig’s adaption of Little Women with the highest praise. So much so that an Oscar nomination for Gerwig as director seemed inevitable.

That is, of course, until actors Issa Rae and John Cho announced the full slate of nominations last month. As the list of all-male nominations for best director concludes, Rae looks straight at the camera and with a deadpan face says, "Congratulations to those men."

Yes, indeed. Congratulations on, once again, congratulating yourself.

#OSCARSSTILLSOMALE

Gerwig’s exclusion is not the only reason #OscarsStillSoMale started trending on social media shortly after ­– in 2019 female filmmakers told some of the most critically acclaimed stories of the year.

Lulu Wang’s honest tragi-comedy The Farewell, Melina Matsoukas’ politically-charged Queen & Slim, Joanna Hogg’s universally real and relevant The Souvenir, and Marielle Heller’s sincere gaze in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood include some of the darling female-driven stories snubbed by the Academy’s voting body.

A majority male, majority white, majority old voting body that has nominated a bill of contenders made up of Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), Martin Scorsese (The Irishman), Todd Phillips (Joker), Sam Mendes (1917) and Bong Joon-ho (Parasite).

This is not to say that the director nominees are undeserving of acknowledgement. This is to say that Gerwig, Wang and other female directors of quite momentous films over the past year, are undeserving of being so utterly, glaringly ignored. 

While Gerwig did receive a nomination in 2018 for Lady Bird, it was also the only nomination for a female director in the last ten years. On the whole, only one woman, Kathryn Bigelow, has won for best director (for The Hurt Locker) and only five other women have been nominated in the category over the course of the Oscars’ 92-year history.

As an annoying aside, much of the buzz around Bigelow’s win had nothing to do with The Hurt Locker. Instead, many headlines harped on about how she bested her ex-husband James Cameron (Avatar was also nominated that year) to win the award.

Gerwig’s omission in this year’s race, however, may be somewhat more incongruous than that of her colleagues. How is it that Little Women is nominated in six major categories, including best picture, best actress in a leading and supporting role, and cinematography, yet not in the category where the job description literally entails making all these other (nominated) parts happen?

Following the announcement, comedian Trevor Noah lamented the ridiculousness of it all – and pulled together a few focal, disquieting elements of a much deeper-seated issue with storytelling in film.

In a clip from The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, he throws down: "Those aren’t just four male directors. Those are four very male movies. Like, if you take out Parasite, women probably have ten minutes of dialogue in all the other films combined. There’s no reason that women shouldn’t have bigger roles in these movies. Where’s Little Women?... It’s really weird. It was nominated for best picture, best screenplay, two acting nominations, but somehow Greta Gerwig wasn’t nominated for best director. How the hell does that happen? Was it just two people that went, "What an amazing movie." "Yeah, and did you know the movie directed itself?"

SAME-OLD, SAME-OLD

How does it happen? One could argue that the reasons for this are particularly complex, and yet, it isn’t. It is, however, worth understanding how the nomination process works in order to untangle what has become a regressive pattern of same-old, same-old.

While all members of the Academy eventually vote for a category winner, the nominees are determined only by the applicable branch – the actor branch will decide on the actor nominees, the writer branch on the writers, and so forth.

Membership currently stands at more than 9000, but the demographics of the different branches are not public knowledge. Women, however, only make up 32% of the overall membership, while people of colour tally up to 16%, meaning there are less women and fewer people of colour both nominating and voting. The numbers don’t lie: Even if all the women were to nominate or vote for female filmmakers, men would still outnumber them. It follows, unfortunately, that women aren’t being nominated or winning because men are forever favouring stories by people like them.

They also favour stories that are about them. Tied to the demographic structure of the Oscars’ voting body, are the stories. For the better part of the almost century-long history of the awards, the stories have and continue to be male-centric. This year is no different.

There are films about war and violence (1917), feuding men (Ford v. Ferrari) and the mafia (The Irishman) – all tinged with nostalgia, an overzealous indulgence in the past and testosterone, and women on the sidelines with fewer than 20 words in the entire film (Anna Paquin, The Irishman). In stark contrast, many of the female-led snubbed films have women at their centre and explore themes such as relationships between women – friends, family or otherwise. Here we begin to unravel a problematic knot that far precedes film or TV; a much broader and far-reaching societal judgement: Whose stories are important? Whose voices are valid? Who deserves to be heard?

The historical and continuous undermining of the minority voice, the silencing of the non-male, the non-white, the non-establishment, the non-legacy, the poor, the underrepresented, or any other has long since spread to film, where this garish tradition has flourished. Replay Noah’s comments on how this invalidation plays out in Oscars 2020: "Those aren’t just four male directors. Those are four very male movies."

Stories in film about men have been the norm because historically, more men have made movies. Anything outside of this homogenous default undergoes a pop culture othering, propelled forth by an ingrained stance that stories about women are of lesser value. Female stories by female filmmakers just don’t matter as much – at least not for the ageing, glossy white, male voting bodies of the Oscars, the Golden Globes, the Baftas et al. (The situation is, unsurprisingly, even worse for filmmakers of colour.)

Even if moviegoers disagree, and the box office numbers show that they indeed do, industry recognition improves a filmmaker’s chances of making a second, third or fourth film. Excluding deserving female filmmakers doesn’t (just) mean they’re losing out on an acceptance speech and meeting Tom Hanks; it means they’re losing out on major professional opportunities to tell stories, and to tell stories about women. Exclusion, therefore, perpetuates more exclusion.

According to new research from the Annenberg Foundation, there have been 57 films with female directors between 2007 and 2019 compared to 1391 male directors during the same time period. Put differently; there have been more than a thousand films about men, by men, in comparison to less than 100 films about women, by women.

With those numbers, the odds are forever in favour of those men. 

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