Saturday, February 25, 2012

Oscar is an Old White Man: What Does that Mean for Women in Hollywood?

Originally composed for SPARK

The 84th annual Academy Awards are this Sunday, and if I had been asked a month ago what I would be doing this weekend, I would have happily said I’ll be enjoying my tenth annual day of vegging out in front of red carpet schmoozing and Best Original Song performances. But when the Oscar Nominations were announced in late January, I instantly knew I would not be tuning in. It was a surprisingly easy decision, considering how much I used to love watching the ceremony. The mini Mount Holyoke Oscar parties I threw over the past four years were lovely, and if I was still in college, I wouldn’t turn down a chance to procrastinate with my friends for three hours. But today I have no qualms with letting go of a tradition that I had loved ever since I awoke to my inner film geek in high school. It wasn’t that 2011 was a bad year for film, or even that the nominations were any more lackluster than normal. Some of the films were actually very good, and certainly deserving of some recognition. Others, like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, were not, but neither was The Blind Side (2009) or Crash (2006), the latter of which actually took home the gold. So what was it about this year that made me finally throw up my hands and walk away?

Over the years, my general film geek enthusiasm/naiveté has faded from a tendency to gobble up anything on a critic’s Top Ten list and transformed into a specific understanding of the types of movies I actually like. And it turns out my favorites, Action-Adventure, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Animation, Bollywood, tend to be ignored by the Academy. There is also the fact that the very idea of the Oscars, or really any award that attempts to narrow something so broad as an entire year of film down to one Best Picture, Actor, etc and claim some authority, is silly. But, most of all, it’s the fact that the Oscars serve as a perfect example of everything that is wrong with Hollywood, especially in terms of representation of women and people of color.

Photo of the first meeting of the Academy of the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Courtesy of the LA Times

A recent article from the Los Angeles Times shocked no one when it revealed that Academy Voters are 94% white and 77% male, with a median age of 62. This explains why the Academy keeps nominating the same sorts of films and performances over and over again. It explains why, as the latest installment of Feminist Frequency points out, only two of this year’s ten Best Picture nominees pass the Bechdel test for women in film. It explains why The Help was nominated, why Elizabeth Olsen was snubbed, why, back in 2008, Hollywood showered patronizing love on the British made Slumdog Millionaire while ignoring India’s deserving submission, a movie that actually came from the film industry that the Best Picture winner was referencing.  In short, these numbers explain a lot. And they make me wonder why we continue to allow the Oscars to hold so much sway?

The problem is that the demographics that make up the Academy are really the demographics that make up the film industry. Voter membership is gained after establishing oneself in a sphere of filmmaking, and the LA times found that the largest concentrations of women voters were in fields, like screenwriting, where women in Hollywood tend to work. Mainstream filmmaking continues to be a relatively immobile institution dominated by old white men. Women are making films, and that’s fantastic. But some serious change has to take place before we start seeing true equality behind and in front of the camera.  Today, many women directors can be found behind documentaries and small, independent dramas. The experimental and avant garde genres have always had a strong female presence. These areas of film are all well and good, but unless we start to see women gaining a greater presence in the big budget blockbuster sphere, we aren’t going to see much change. 

I’m no fan of mindless popcorn, but I actually like smart blockbusters, with most of my favorite films containing at least one explosion. I think it’s about time women burst into the mainstream of filmmaking, because getting more women in prominent media making roles is the first step towards greater gender equality in storytelling, and ultimately, a more diverse awards season. Kathryn Bigelow winning Best Director in 2010 was a nice step forward, but other recent female forays into the Hollywood director’s chair have taken some unfortunate hits.  Pixar fired Brenda Chapman, its first female director, from Brave, and PattyJenkins left Thor 2. It’s disappointing, because a major animated production and a Marvel sequel would have helped Hollywood envision women in different, less expected roles. In good news, 2011 also saw Jennifer Yuh Nelson become the highest grossing female director of all time, and the first woman to direct a major animated film. Her Kung Fu Panda 2 is, in fact, nominated for an Oscar. It’s a small step, but it’s a start.

The movie was awesome AND passed the Bechdel Test. 

Next week, I will deal with my disappointment with some Bollywood love. 

(Edit: I will cover Bollywood, extensively and soon. However, as you may have noticed, some other stuff came up. My first Bollywood post has been slightly delayed.) 

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