There’s no greater bellwether of the mood in Hollywood than the Hollywood Foreign Press, and this year, its members are saying it’s time to make way for women. It was likely to be a woman-centric year anyway, following Hillary Clinton’s loss in the presidential election and the installment of President Trump. But with the rolling wave of sexual harassment and assault allegations cresting through Hollywood, the media and Congress, the gender dynamics of the nominees seem more pointed than ever.
For Emmy-winning series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” in which women are marked possessions, the patriarchal dystopia of Offred’s (Elisabeth Moss) world seemed to anticipate the horror we have all felt upon learning about Harvey Weinstein’s chokehold on the women around him in the entertainment industry. But maybe more importantly, that dystopia isn’t just happening in that one specific area; it is all around us. The past few months have been those of reckoning for Hollywood, which often — especially in awards season — holds itself up as a beacon of progressivism and inclusion. But with more and more stories appearing of long-hidden misconduct coinciding with awards season, it’s not surprising that the noms feel like they are compensating for bad news; as if Hollywood is trying to assert that despite the headlines, there are good people comprising a good industry that makes good, forward-thinking, accepting works of art.
So, the nominations are flooded with women, in what is almost a parody of Netflix’s infamous recommendation for more stories with “strong female leads.” Several of the nommed stories showcase violence against women, whether that is in the privileged enclaves of HBO’s “Big Little Lies” or the widespread regime of Hulu’s “Handmaid’s Tale.” Both present women at very different levels of privilege, but with intimate challenges and victories that surround children, family and the domestic sphere. Offred and Celeste (Nicole Kidman), both Emmy winners, are abused survivors — both chained to brutally violent men who pursue them sexually, both trying to find a way to press that precarious position to their advantage.
Showtime’s “Twin Peaks: The Return,” from auteur David Lynch, is a show founded on the murder of one woman, whose haunting scream in the final seconds cracks through the firmament of the show’s more superficial appeal. Stories such as FX’s “Feud: Bette and Joan” and USA’s “The Sinner” emphasize systemic disadvantages against women, while also showcasing meaty performances by Susan Sarandon, Jessica Lange, and Jessica Biel, playing suffering, flawed women.
Then there are the Clinton surrogates — the stories about women in leadership positions being thwarted by existing power structures, including Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy) in “The Crown.” Even, arguably, the film nominee “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” about a disliked middle-age woman trying to effect change in her community, has traces of grappling with the Clinton phenomenon: Frances McDormand’s character is unlikeable, and “likability,” as a construct, has proven to be an enormously gendered one in 2017.
And perhaps most relevant, there are several nominated stories about women who present themselves as figures of consumption for an audience — whether that is the sex workers of HBO’s “The Deuce,” who strut on 42nd Street, or the costumed wrestlers of Jenji Kohan’s “GLOW,” on Netflix. “GLOW,” like film nominee “I, Tonya” and the aforementioned “Feud,” examine media representation of female rivalries — exploring not just the real-life dynamics of these easily dramatized relationships, but also why the viewing audience so desperately wants to witness such a competitive dynamic. Even “Battle of the Sexes,” for which Steve Carell was nominated for comedy actor and Emma Stone for comedy actress, examines the dynamics of gender rivalry, albeit from the perspective of pitting men directly against women.
The focus on gender inequality is so pronounced that even seemingly such unrelated films as “The Post” are, in fact, saturated with observations about gender dynamics. Those that aren’t focused on gender, including film nominees “Dunkirk” and “The Greatest Showman” and TV nominees “This Is Us” and “Stranger Things,” seem like tales from a different era.
But the focus on gender representation does come at the expense of what had until recently been the focus of the big Hollywood award shows — racial representation, as popularized in the hashtagged movement #OscarsSoWhite. A few years ago, the racial dynamics of awards shows were front-and-center; now that conversation has taken a backseat to the revelation that misogyny is alive and well in Hollywood. As a result, women may dominate the stories, but they are mostly white women — whether that is Saoirse Ronan’s charming misfit lead in Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” or the leads of Jane Campion’s moody second installment of “Top of the Lake: China Girl.” Only one TV nominee (“Insecure’s” Issa Rae) is a woman of color, though things are slightly more inclusive when looking at film’s supporting actress category: Octavia Spencer, Mary J. Blige and Hong Chau take three of the five spots.
It’s strange: Performances from such actresses as Foy, Moss, Kidman, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Margot Robbie have captivated Hollywood this year, marking the female performers more captivating and projecting a sense of more timely significance than their male counterparts. But these performers are all white, and though it is wonderful to embrace talented female performers, it is difficult to reconcile their homogeneity with the desperate need for representation across the board in Hollywood. Trailblazing white women are a great place to start, but one hopes that the Hollywood Foreign Press will not stop here.