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Friday, November 22, 2013
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Race, Gender, and Sexuality at the Oscars, Part II

By Mark Pinkert

This is the second article in a three-part series.

Earlier this month, the acclaimed writer/producer/director Joss Whedon spoke at an Equality Now benefit dinner and suggested that the word “feminism” be removed from the English lexicon. According to Mr. Whedon, the word is problematic because it assumes that gender equality is not the “natural state” but something that needs to be achieved. Though several self-purported feminist bloggers have criticized this idea, Whedon’s speech does raise some interesting questions about how prejudice can hide away in the depths of language and rhetoric.

Thankfully, we have reached a point where shouting sexist comments is socially unacceptable and utterly disgraceful; anyone who does becomes ostracized by civil people. But that does not mean gender prejudices have been cured. The most corrosive type of sexism, and the one Whedon was getting at, is the kind embedded in words and institutions, and veiled by our cultural predispositions. For example, many employers (excluding the guy from Lululemon) are not ostensibly sexist, yet they pay their female employees less on average than they do males with the same job description. This is a pervasive problem, but because it’s not always tangled in violence or audacious chauvinism, it doesn’t get the media attention it deserves. It is a problem deeply rooted in our social infrastructure and, thus, very hard to fix.

Like other American institutions, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has done a lot to promote gender equality, while also inadvertently pushing stereotypes. Is it a sexist establishment? That depends on where “ism” ends and “cultural norm” begins–it’s a gray area and ultimately up to the reader to decide. Nevertheless, I’ll take a closer look at trends in Academy history to see if there are any latent biases at work. After all, if sexism can hide in the word “feminist,” it can hide anywhere.


Milestones for Women in Academy History

(1929) – At the 1st Academy Awards, Janet Gaynor becomes the first Best Actress for her roles in three films: Seventh Heaven (1927), Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) and Street Angel (1928).

(1941) – Bette Davis becomes the first female president of the Academy, but resigns after two months of service.

(1973) – Julia Phillips becomes the first female producer to win Best Picture for The Sting (1973).

(1979) – Fay Kanin becomes the second female president of the Academy; she holds this post for four years until 1983.

(1989) – At the age of 80, Jessica Tandy becomes the oldest woman to win Best Actress for Driving Miss Daisy. This record has yet to be broken.

(2009) – Kathryn Bigelow becomes the first female to win the Oscar for Best Director for The Hurt Locker (2008).

(2012) – At the age of 9, Quvenzhane Wallis, of Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), becomes the youngest woman to be nominated for a Best Actress award.

(2013) – Cheryl Boone Isaacs becomes the third female president of the Academy.



Edith Head holds the record for Oscar awards among women; she has eight for Best Costume Design. Katherine Hepburn has four Best Actress awards, more than any other man or woman in Oscar history. Meryl Streep has fourteen Best Actress nominations, more than any other man or woman in Oscar history. Only four women have been nominated for Best Director and, to date, only Kathrine Bigelow has won the award.



The most notable gender-related trend in Oscar history is that most Best Picture winners are about men. On the other hand, a film about a female central character is less likely to win Best Picture, even if its leading lady wins the Oscar for Best Actress. Of all the Best Picture winners since 2000, only one film, Million Dollar Baby (2004), also claimed the Best Actress winner (Hilary Swank) the same year and only one other film, Chicago (2002), claimed a Best Actress nominee (Rene Zellweger). Only one Best Picture winner since 2000 simultaneously claimed the Best Supporting Actress and only three others had nominees in that category. Conversely, from this collection of thirteen Best Picture winners since 2000, four had Best Actor winners and two others had nominees. From these films, there were three Best Supporting Actors and eight total nominees.

Looking back further to 1990, a total of eleven out of twenty-three Best Actress winners were from films not even nominated for Best Picture. In the same time span, this happened to only six out of twenty three Best Actors.

This trend has been prevalent throughout Oscar history with most Best Picture winners—like Gladiator (2000), Braveheart (1995), Forrest Gump (1994), Rain Man (1988), The Godfather (1972), On the Waterfront (1954), just to name only a few—about heroes rather than heroines. Best Picture winners with female leads–Million Dollar Baby (2004), Silence of the Lambs (1991)–do exist, but are rare and often have Oscar nominated male roles to complement that of the leading lady (Clint Eastwood was nominated for Best Actor for Million Dollar Baby and Anthony Hopkins won best Actor for Silence of the Lambs). None of the former six movies about men needed Oscar winning actresses to win Best Picture, save On the Waterfront, which claimed the Best Supporting Actress (Eva Marie Saint).

The common “brand” of Academy Award winning actresses is also suggestive about how our society views women and how we subconsciously define gender roles. Lead Actress winners are by and large younger than their male counterparts, who tend to be middle aged or older. Of the eighty-six Best Actress winners, only twenty-two were over the age of forty upon receiving the award. Thirty out of the eighty-six Best Actresses (slightly more than one third of them) were in their twenties when they received the Best Actress award.

These statistics are drastically different for men. Fifty-five out of eighty-six Best Actor winners were over the age of forty upon receiving the award and ONLY ONE male, Adrien Brody from The Pianist (2002), was younger than thirty upon receiving the Best Actor award. He was twenty-nine. The Academy, perhaps like the rest of society, has always awarded youth and beauty in women, while awarding experience and prestige in men.


Where We Are Today

Despite these historical trends, the Academy has recently recognized older, stately actresses like Helen Mirren and Meryl Streep, and not just women in their early twenties. In fact, according the Feinberg Forecast, all five of the front-runners this year for Best Actress are over the age of forty and the entire pool of potential nominees seems to be, on average, older than it has been in previous years. Indeed this is a reflection of social progress and the fact that real women occupy important, professional positions more than they ever have throughout American history. Unlike the early days of film, when women mostly played the damsel in distress or the pretty young widow, leading ladies today often play powerful and defiant, career women.

This does not mean, of course, that feminine beauty is no longer relevant in Hollywood. These women over forty in the Oscar hunt certainly are not hard to look at. And even though the Academy is beginning to award intelligence, industriousness, and gravitas in leading ladies, sex appeal still seems inextricably linked success for women in the movie business. It helps for Hollywood men to be strikingly handsome, t00, but isn’t entirely necessary if their aim is a Best Actor award. Sexism or just-the-way-it-is? Too tough to tell, but at least gender stereotypes have been blurred at the edges.

Finally, with the Best Picture category having been extended in 2009 to ten nominees, there is more room for films about women–like Blue Jasimine (2013) and Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013)–which might have otherwise been marginalized by the Academy. And of course there is Gravity (2013), which is in a prime position to win Best Picture altogether. This would be the first film since Million Dollar Baby in 2004 to win Best Picture with a woman as the singular, main character. Fifty years ago, the leading roles from these two films–a boxer and an astronaut–would have undoubtedly been played by men. Hopefully this is an ongoing trend in which heroines get the Oscar recognition they deserve.

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