For Your Consideration: Women & The Oscars & Why Not!!

The time has come.

said Barbra Streisand, as she opened the envelope and said Kathryn Bigelow’s name. Finally, after 81 years, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences would bestow upon a woman the award for Best Director. A long time coming for Streisand, who once told Parade magazine that “Being a woman in music was fine, but when I wanted to direct, I was poking my head into a man’s world. ‘What do you mean you’re going to direct? Women are the actresses, they’re frivolous, not the ones responsible for finances.’ That really got me.”

etc_opener0913__02__inline405It gets me too, that in 2013, the gender gap persists in the making of the movies that I pay to see. We hear repeatedly that  Hollywood is a bastion of lefty progressivism. How can that be when 91% of the top 250 films at the box office in 2012 were made by male directors? As the graphic shows and as Lauren Sanders points out in Bloomberg’s “Why Women in Hollywood Can’t Get Film Financing” sexist attitudes prevail, with one of her sources saying that women just “cannot be trusted with money.” Rightly, this prompted Mary Jane Skalski who produced one of my favorite films, The Brothers McMullen in 1994, to ask, “Isn’t that the same thing they said during Suffrage?” Indeed.

It doesn’t help that  The Academy, those folks who will be thanked repeatedly at the 85th Oscar Awards, is comprised of mostly white, mostly male voting members with a median age of 62. The movie-going public looks a whole lot different with women buying 50% of the tickets as of 2010.

Can we movie-goers do anything about it? Sure we can. First, start paying attention to the representation of women in film, using an idea promoted by cartoonist Alison Bechdel almost thirty years ago in The Rule. Hardly revolutionary, Bechdel’s cartoon character asks three simple questions before deciding if she should see a movie. Essentially, it’s a reality check:

  1. Are there two or more women in it who have names?
  2. Do they talk to each other?
  3. Do they talk to each other about something other than a man?

34585797_d7fd14edfbAt first blush, what has become known as The Bechdel Test sets the bar rather low. Still, when you start to think about it, just how many of the 2013 Oscar nominees for Best Motion Picture would pass the test? How about Argo? Fail.  Zero Dark Thirty? Pass with distinction. The latter features strong female characters in a film directed by a woman, Kathryn Bigelow. Her name was not even included in the list of nominees for Best Director with the Academy and the Foreign Press continuing to overlook female directors.

Had a man been sitting in the director’s chair on the set of Zero Dark Thirty, would he have received a nomination and accolades for his unflinching expose of the torture and brutal interrogation of prisoners? We’ll never know. Bigelow has been widely criticized for emphasizing the role torture played in the search for bin Laden.Steve Coll writes that the film fails as journalism because it adopts shortcuts that most reporters would find illegitimate.” In an open letter to Bigelow, Naomi Wolf calls her “torture’s handmaiden.” And, Bigelow has had to defend her directorial choices in the film repeatedly, writing in the LA Times:

I support every American’s 1st Amendment right to create works of art and speak their conscience without government interference or harassment. As a lifelong pacifist, I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind.

But I do wonder if some of the sentiments alternately expressed about the film might be more appropriately directed at those who instituted and ordered these U.S. policies, as opposed to a motion picture that brings the story to the screen.

I wonder too. It appears that Bigelow can’t win for losing. On the one hand, her film is criticized for inaccuracies including its depiction of the main character; on the other, it is condemned for misleading viewers into believing that torture is effective as Senators McCain, Feinstein, and Levin write in an open letter to Sony Pictures. Then there was the apology from Bret Easton Ellis after he posted on Twitter that Bigelow has won Oscars for The Hurt Locker only because she was “a hot woman.” Mind you, it’s not much of an apology given his cop-out that she probably didn’t even notice or care about the Tweets because “her balls are bigger than that.”

When film-award season passes, I suspect much of the debate will as well. So why should we keep the conversation going? Because the movies can be so much more than diversions, with immense capacity to shape and reflect the human experience – all of it. As Megan Kearns writes,

We need to see women of different races, classes, sexualities and women with abled as well as disabled bodies. We must demand to see more films featuring strong, intelligent complex women living life on their own terms, whose lives don’t revolve around men. We also need to recognize films featuring women and created by women in awards shows.

In 1992, “the year of the woman” – yes, we got a whole year –  Barbra Streisand gave a speech about Women in Film. Acutely aware of how language provides insight into how women are viewed in a male-dominated world, she offered this:

“A man is commanding – a woman is demanding.
A man is forceful – a woman is pushy.
A man is uncompromising – a woman is a ballbreaker.
A man is a perfectionist – a woman’s a pain in the ass.
He’s assertive – she’s aggressive.
He strategizes – she manipulates.
He shows leadership – she’s controlling.
He’s committed – she’s obsessed.
He’s persevering – she’s relentless.
He sticks to his guns – she’s stubborn.
If a man wants to get it right, he’s looked up to and respected.
If a woman wants to get it right, she’s difficult and impossible.”

Twenty-one years later, do her words still resonate? As the mother of a daughter who longs for a world where masculine clichés are not foisted upon boys and men, where a woman as Best Director of a motion picture is not an anomaly, I think what Streisand said in 1992 still rings true. Considering women in film, I cannot help think back to 2008 and then-Senator Hillary Clinton’s concession to Barack Obama. To the millions who voted for her, she had this to say:

As we gather here today, the 50th woman to leave this Earth is orbiting overhead. If we can blast 50 women into space, we will someday launch a woman into the White House . . . Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it, and the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time.

I hope the path will be easier too.

Happy Oscars!

 

 

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