Ladies and Gentlemen: Thoughts on the Oscars’ Gender Gap

Movies Features The Oscars

If you’re one of the countless Americans filling out a personal Oscar ballot this year, you’ve had some tough choices to make. Unless you’re taking the advice of odds-crunching bookies—or, you know, scrambling last minute (no judgement here)—you probably did some careful deliberating: Who will win? Who should win? Will that Crazy Heart song clobber not one but two Randy Newman tracks? Will Food, Inc. triumph as Most Vomit Inducing Best Documentary? What period piece will snag the statue for best costume design? And which deserves the Best Picture nod, really—Avatar or The Blind Side? (Well, that one wasn’t so tough.) These are the same questions that the 5,777 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members asked themselves—or should have, at least—before submitting their own votes; there are different names and different movies every year, and sometimes whole new categories to consider, but the same basic conundrums have been puzzled over since the Oscars’ 1929 debut.

Still, there are a few questions you won’t have to worry about this year, and most likely for some time to come. You won’t, for example, need to concern yourself with whether Meryl Streep’s transformation into Julia Child for Julie & Julia deserves a statue over Jeff Bridges, riding high on the success of Crazy Heart. Did Mo’Nique’s turn as an abusive mother in Precious outdo the quiet cruelty of Stanley Tucci’s child murderer in The Lovely Bones? Ultimately, it won’t really matter: At the end of the night, we’ll have our winners—Actor in a Leading Role, Actress in a Leading Role, Actor in a Supporting Role, Actress in a Supporting Role—two ad hoc couples, a kind of very expensively-dressed Hollywood homecoming court. And unless the Academy choses to disclose its vote tallies—fat chance—we’ll be meant to assume, as always, that the two performances in each category were equally excellent, equally deserving of the highest honors the industry has to offer.

But that seems like a cop-out, doesn’t it? If the Academy can chose one best director, one best sound editor, one best original screenplay, then why doesn’t it chose the year’s two best performances—one leading, one supporting, regardless of gender? There’s a huge pool of talent, to be sure—but in the end, is narrowing the choices down to two really any easier than picking just one? More to the point: Will 2010’s Best Leading Actress have delivered the best performance of the year, or just the best for a woman?

The four acting honors have been given since the very earliest Academy Awards ceremonies, and other than the Juvenile Oscar (handed out haphazardly from 1934 to 1960), they’re the only awards to ever distinguish individual nominees beyond their basic professions. There’s a vast difference, of course, between what a film editor does and what a make-up artist does, what a sound mixer does and what a director does; individual awards for those make absolute sense. But is there any material difference between the job of an actor or the job of an actress?

Asking this question outside of the movie industry would smack of sexism; as with teachers or bankers or doctors or politicians, any difference in approach or philosophy or skill comes on a personal level, not gender. (And as Kim Elsesser points out in a New York Times op-ed that turned up just before this piece posted, “Suppose [the Academy] presented separate honors for best white actor and best non-white actor, and that [Morgan] Freeman was prohibited from competing against the likes of [George] Clooney and [Jeff] Bridges. Surely, the academy would be derided as intolerant and out of touch; public outcry would swiftly ensure that Oscar nominations never again fell along racial lines.”) But when it comes to the Oscars, the gender gap is flatly accepted—perhaps because “movie star” is one of the few modern professions for which there’s specifically gendered titles (“actress” lingers while, say, authoress has faded), or perhaps because it’s just always been like this. Meanwhile, the idea of introducing separate categories for Best Sound Editing By A Woman—or even Best Costume Design By A Man—seems pandering if not absolutely preposterous.

The Oscars are hardly alone in this, of course. Within the industry, the Golden Globes, the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and the Independent Spirit Awards all give awards for actors and actresses with no gender divide in any other category. (Notably, the relatively new Gotham Independent Film awards gives out its breakthrough actor honor to a performer of either gender, and women have won the past three years.) Most music awards dole out separate statues for male and female vocal performances in a number of genres, and most international sports competitions enforce a gender divide too—though that’s more easily rationalized by the generally vast physical differences between male and female athletes. (That’s always up for grabs, of course, and Sports Illustrated‘s recent declaration of Olympian Lindsey Vonn as “America’s best woman skier ever” certainly felt more than a little back-handed.)

Meanwhile, the biggest honors given in other industries, like the Pulitzer and the Nobel Prize, make no gender distinction whatsoever; when it comes to excellent reportage or important new discoveries in the field of biochemistry, apparently it’s every man and woman for themselves. Perhaps that’s because, much like moviemaking, those professions have been historically dominated by men; when those awards were first established, there was no need for a separate award for women because there were so few doing anything to merit one. Consider the state of American women in 1929, when the Academy Awards were first doled out: We were 43 years away from the Equal Rights Amendment’s introduction to Congress, and more than a decade away from World War II sending a deluge of women into the workforce. Hell, we’d only been able to vote for nine years. Is it not fair to assume that an awards program established at a time when American women were systematically discriminated against in almost every single aspect of life wouldn’t also consider (consciously or not) the work of female performers to be fundamentally different from—inferior to—those of men? And that’s to say nothing of the film crews of the time: For as relatively few women work behind the camera today, even fewer were doing those same jobs when the Academy codified its awards in the 1930s. There was simply no need for separately-gendered categories to exist. The titles seem gender-neutral, but they’ve almost always been male by default.

These days, the giant gender divide is just one more chink in the well-battered armor of the Oscars and just another for women working in the movie industry; bridging it won’t be as simple as reworking awards categories. (Not that even doing that would be simple; the Academy can create and retire categories at whim, but does so only rarely.) But even in some strange dreamworld where enough people inside or outside the Academy become bothered enough by the gap to make any kind of headway, how would we want it to change? Would it be better for the actor/actress categories get folded into one genderless blob, like all the rest? Or would all awards get split into male and female categories? Both of those options seem ridiculous (and, let’s be honest, absolute ratings poison).

Plus, as counter-intuitive as it may seem, having entirely separate male and female acting awards has actually done a lot of good. What has come out of the best actress category over the last 82 years is remarkable: awards given to Katharine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman Grace Kelly and so many other would become all-time greats; to the likes of Judi Dench and Meryl Streep, who have become legends in their own lifetimes. And in 1939, ten years after the first awards, Hattie McDaniel became the first African American of either gender to be given an Oscar (Best Supporting Actress for her role in Gone With the Wind); it would take the Academy more than three decades to award an African American man such an honor (Sidney Portier, who won Best Actor in a Leading Role for Lilies of the Field in 1963).

Having these separate categories perhaps could’ve made it easier for the female performers were to be out of hand of completely ghettoized, but instead, they’ve triumphed. The best actress categories have become a vital space in which great female performances have been recognized and celebrated on a grand scale. These are performances that, if pitted in a single category against against work by male actors, may not have won out (for various reasons, not the least of which is the massive gender divide among Academy itself; current estimates suggest that only one-third of the 5,777 voting members are female.)

And so think of what could be done if we prioritized and split up some other categories that women have been traditionally shut out of—like Best Director, for which only four women have ever been nominated, and zero have ever won. The tally includes Kathryn Bigelow (pictured above), nominated this year for The Hurt Locker; that her potentially history-making position on this year’s ballot has been nearly eclipsed by the fact that she’s in the running against her ex-husband, Avatar director James Cameron, is only further proof that we’ve lodged our female filmmakers in some kind of ridiculous cultural quagmire.

On one hand, establishing an award for Best Female Director does seem a bit patronizing (“Okay, here’s your little award, girls—now, you play nice!”) mostly because it’s not so hard to imagine that same sentiment informing the creation of the best actress categories to begin with. We want women to compete on the same level of men—because they should, because they can—and win or lose based on their own merits, not because of who they are but because of what they do. But it’s a known fact that the Academy, despite pretenses, isn’t always ultimately concerned with artistic purity. Recognizing that the whole process is a mess of allegiances and ratings and extenuating biases, it seems most helpful to consider what’s already been accomplished within the Oscars’ fundamentally-flawed parameters and apply those lessons to the big problems we’re facing now. Give female filmmakers that space—increase their mainstream visibility, celebrate their work and lend the heftiest sort of credibility to their talents—and they will raise the bar for everyone else around them, men and women both.

As fantastic and history-making as a Best Director win for Bigelow would be, establishing an distinct award category for female filmmakers might do even more good than the best actress awards have done for female performers. Actresses, after all, have a certain fundamental indispensability on their side; unless Hollywood suddenly takes an interest in Shakespearean-style drag, there will be jobs for actresses to take as long as there are female characters in movies. Meanwhile, female moviemakers can’t take anything for granted. (Manohla Dargis’ December 2009 New York Times piece on women in cinema pretty well lays out the immensely sticky challenges they face.) The quality of female roles is an issue even now, of course—and that’s to say nothing of roles for non-white folks, or the even trickier battle of trans-gendered performers. But there’s no such self-generating economy for women behind the camera. There are no screenwriters penning stories for them; they have to make their own.

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