In the 90-year history of the Oscars, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has failed to nominate even a single woman in the best director category 85 times. The Academy is not alone. The Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. has excluded women from this category in 69 of its 76 years of awarding Golden Globes, and did not nominate a single woman in 2018. We are squarely mired in another year of #GoldenGlobesSoMale and may be on the brink of yet another year of #OscarsSoMale.
When questioned about their exclusively male choices in years past, spokespeople for these groups have typically noted that the nominations are a reflection, not a cause, of the wildly skewed gender ratios in the mainstream film industry. This response is only partially accurate.
While women do remain underemployed, accounting for just 11% of all directors working on the 250 top grossing films of 2017, and 18% of those working on the 500 top films, according to the latest Celluloid Ceiling report by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, the fact is that awards season provides an avalanche of intense publicity for the nominees. If organizations such as the HFPA and the Academy fail to nominate the worthy contributions of women, their choices add to the suppression of women’s visibility within and outside the industry.
In the coming weeks, the entertainment trades and popular press will highlight the accomplishments of the nominees, transforming established directors into brand names and new directors into bankable commodities. Reporters will talk at length about the helmers’ filmographies, determination to realize a vision and mastery of filmmaking techniques.
When film writers detail a director’s filmography, they connect the dots in the nominee’s films, identifying themes and stylistic preferences. This year, we will hear about how Adam McKay’s films, such as “The Big Short” and “Vice,” focus on master manipulators of largely invisible systems of influence and power. Because Karyn Kusama was overlooked by the HFPA, we are less likely to hear about her command of the thriller and horror genres in films such as “Jennifer’s Body,” “The Invitation” and “Destroyer.”
Reporters will also effuse about a director’s resolve, recounting the unexpected challenges that were overcome in making the film. This year, we will hear about how Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” came to be regarded as one of 2018’s best films, despite its cast of unknown actors and use of black-and-white photography. Because Lynne Ramsay was not nominated for a Golden Globe, we are less likely to hear how she juggled Joaquin Phoenix’s busy schedule and a looming premiere date at Cannes when shooting her tense thriller, “You Were Never Really Here,” in just eight short weeks.
Finally, media accounts will elaborate on a nominated director’s mastery of filmmaking techniques, discussing the wisdom and elegance of the choice of lenses, lighting, shots and camera movements. We will read about how Damien Chazelle captured the look of NASA footage from the 1960s in “First Man,” but are less likely to learn how Chloé Zhao created the naturalistic style achieved in “The Rider,” the devastating tale of how a rodeo cowboy copes with life after suffering a head injury.
We don’t notice every awards slight and snub of a deserving director who happens to be female, at least in part because the history of these awards has socialized us to assume that great directors come in only one sex. The awards promote and maintain the make-believe meritocracy that is Hollywood.
Recently, New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis mused, “Maybe it’s time for women to burn down the old movie industry, then build a new one.” Part of that reinvention would include a close examination of the mythmaking machinery that has installed men at the top of the directing hierarchy for decades. Just as many film festivals are now reevaluating the gender makeup of their selection committees and criteria, it makes sense for award-granting organizations to undergo a similar reassessment. Another part of the reconfiguration would involve calling out these institutions when they continually fail to recognize women’s worthy contributions, as Natalie Portman did at last year’s Globes when she pointedly noted the “all-male nominees” in the directing category. It’s time to recognize that being left out of the nominations means undercutting women’s visibility as film directors, and ultimately short-changing their careers.
Dr. Martha M. Lauzen is the executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film and a professor at San Diego State University.