On February 9th, the 92nd Academy Awards will recognize the best in a year full of interesting, boundary-pushing films that molded the zeitgeist in 2019. Sadly, few of those heralded movies are actually reflective of the audiences that flocked to theaters this year, and none are helmed by women.
In fact, just four women over the course of 92 years have been recognized for outstanding achievement in directing. The temptation is to meet these dismal statistics with indifference, or worse, to downplay just how terrible the Academy’s track-record is when it comes to diversity and inclusion. For every scathing dress-down of the Oscar’s most recent gaffe, there are tweets and essays about the value of awards shows, the sanctity of merit-based nominating systems, and, at the lowest rung of social significance, the suggestion that perhaps few women or minorities were recognized because their contributions just didn’t measure up.
Maybe that argument carries weight one year, two, but the 92nd Academy Awards marks ten years since a woman produced a piece of art deemed worthy of winning an Oscar for directing. It’s been ten years since Kathryn Bigelow gave an acceptance speech for helming the tense, frenetic war drama that was The Hurt Locker. Ten years since Barbra Streisand presented that award, opening the envelope and uttering a relieved “the time has come” before greeting the first Oscar-winning female director on stage.
It’s a strange thing to look back on the past decade in film, to consider movies like Ava DuVernay’s Selma, Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, or Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here — a Joaquin Phoenix performance that deserves more attention than any clown dance he does in The Joker — and think none of these stories were compelling enough to warrant love from the Academy. It’s an even worse thing to look back on the Oscar’s depressing track record and think none of these films were nominated, not because they weren’t good enough, but because they didn’t fit the age-old formula of an Oscar-worthy film, because they didn’t resonate with a narrow voting body dominated by older white men who couldn’t see themselves in those stories and so, believed them irrelevant.
We can speculate and theorize about why female-fronted films tend to do so poorly during awards season, but to do that we need to establish just how poorly they do perform.
When Bigelow took home the Oscar 10 years ago, it was hailed as a revolutionary moment for women in Hollywood. The New York Times said it felt “damn good.” The Guardian suggested it meant voters would be “unself-conscious about picking a woman next year, or the year after that.” Hell, the orchestra played Bigelow off to a rendition of Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman.” Even though the lead-up to the awards was overly-concerned with the director’s supposed rivalry with ex-husband James Cameron (also nominated that year), filled with thinkpieces like this one from the Daily Beast wondering if she’d win simply because she was a woman who made “a man’s movie,” and obsessed with arguing over Bigelow’s “hotness,” an advantage in the race according to Los Angeles Times blogger Tim O’Neil who explained that fascination by claiming “Oscar voters are old guys who tend to vote for women they want to sleep with.”
Bigelow endured the eye-rolling racket with grace, took home her trophies, and got back to the business of making movies. And Hollywood got back to the business of nominating male directors helming male-centric stories. Though, to be fair, one of those men was Asian, four were Black, and five were Latin American. Diversity! Huzzah!
In the decade since Bigelow assumedly paved the way for her fellow women, only one has been nominated in the directing category: Greta Gerwig. Gerwig was recognized for her 2017 coming-of-age film, Lady Bird, before being honored again for her modern adaptation of Little Women this year. One woman, a white woman, in a sea of diverse, talented directors who happen to have ovaries is not progress, it’s not inclusive, and it certainly isn’t some token archaic Hollywood gatekeepers can point to when defending their sexism.
Sure, there’s more at play than simply undervaluing women’s stories. TV producer and writer Glen Mazzara took to Twitter recently to outline everything wrong with how the Academy’s voting body fields prospective nominees. Mazzara called out the confidential ballot system, the perceived lack of jobs for white men in the industry, and the imagined attacks on white male culture as reasons for the lack of diverse nominees this year.
Call me crazy but I believe that white men, feeling threatened by recent pushes to hire more women & POC, are not voting for films made by those people because that would validate those films & create a shift in the market place.
— Glen Mazzara (@glenmazzara) January 14, 2020
There’s also the fact that a film’s chances of getting noticed often hinges on the money a studio puts towards backing it. Oscar campaigning — those precious few months that consist of swanky lunches, tastemaker screenings, celebrities rubbing shoulders with voters, and tons of mailer swag — has only gotten more cutthroat (and expensive) in recent years. If you’re a studio like Netflix or Warner Bros., dropping $20 million on an Oscar campaign is no problem. But for films with indie labels, like Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, keeping up can be difficult. So then how do things change? If Oscars are pay-to-play, if grandfathered-in voters are wrestling with the diminished value of their own experiences, how do we make space for directors like Melina Matsoukas, Lorene Scafaria, and Alma Har’el, and how do we draw attention to universal stories told by a cast of diverse characters, from fresh points of view?
The anarchist in me would like to burn it all down. It’s cleaner and quicker that way. Plus, I’m a closeted pyromaniac. But the more practical answer is that the Academy needs to find new ways of recognizing groundbreaking storytelling. It needs to push itself to fight against its own archetype, to resist the pull to favor stories about white men who struggle for more imaginative fare. It needs to stop fangirling over warhorse directors with recognizable names who keep churning out mob dramas and war epics by elevating the work of visionaries with smaller platforms who dare to take risks and are rarely rewarded for it. It needs to cut its own fat, to limit the voting power of some of its long-term members, to examine its biased voting system, and shockingly enough, start watching more films, films outside its own wheelhouse.
And it needs to do this, not because women or people of color expect a helping hand or because special consideration is the only way they can win, but because they’re handicapping not only the promising creatives, but the communities their storytelling represents. If the Oscars represent the best in the movie-making business, if they’re supposed to represent the highest echelon of talent, if they’re meant to be reflective of our culture then what does it say to women and minorities watching when stories that mirror their own aren’t recognized?
And what does it say that after a decade of incredible strides in equality in front of and behind the camera, that we’re still writing pieces like this one?