Every time I’ve wandered into a department store in the past decade or so, I inevitably run into a display of sassy, glittering shirts emblazoned with aggressively empowering phrases — “FEMINIST,” “GIRL BOSS,” “THE FUTURE IS FEMALE” — aimed at teenagers and millennial women like me. Corporate feminism like this tends to smooth the edges off the movement’s radicalism by frantically waving pink pompoms in our faces, turning the idea of “girl power” into an aesthetic. It’s not overall a terrible thing to promote encouraging messages in the name of equality, or something like it. But one side effect of being so blatantly pandered to, with the endgame of getting us to buy what they’re selling, is a bone-deep, irritated exhaustion.
This is how I felt watching the Oscars this year. It was nice, in theory, for Steve Martin and Chris Rock to acknowledge the fact that women got shut out of the best director category yet again. It was nice, in theory, to bring out a trifecta of actors known for their action heroine characters — Brie Larson, Gal Gadot, and Sigourney Weaver — to introduce the first female conductor to lead the Oscars orchestra for the Best Original Score segment. It was…well, something, for them to say, “all women are superheroes” and get a lengthy cheer for the sentiment.
But watching it all unfold was more than a little infuriating. Recent years have seen the Oscars — and really, every awards show — make self-effacing comments about their own lackluster nominations as if the people in that room had nothing to do with them. If people want to tell jokes about how women should be nominated for best director instead of the usual male suspects, maybe they should go ahead and call out the systemic reasons for it, like the DGA having a membership that’s only 17 percent women directors and the Academy being just 32 percent female overall. And if the Oscars want to be congratulated for deigning to let a woman conduct its orchestra, the Academy should’ve let her conduct the actual show instead of minimizing her talents by limiting her to a single category.
What made the ceremony’s #girlboss platitudes stand out even more was the fact that there were some genuinely moving moments in which women got to take up space without the Oscars having to bend over backwards for them to do it. Winners like “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” production designers Nancy Haigh and Barbara Ling, “Hair Love” animation short producer Karen Rupert Toliver, and “Joker”composer Hildur Guðnadóttir earned the spotlight and used it to encourage others that they might do the same. One of the night’s most moving little moments came when documentary short subject winner Carol Dysinger choked up as she recounted the words of encouragement Frank Capra gave her in the ‘70s, when he presented her with a student-film award, and how much they did to get her through the next forty years of muscling her way through a tough business. The final speech of the night for the “Parasite” best-picture win belonged to producer Kwak Sin Ae and South Korean cinema titan Miky Lee. Seeing all these women get recognition for being at the top of their game was far more moving and significant than some offhand joke (from men!) about how the director’s category is missing “vaginas.”
Those moments distracted me from my irritation at the low-hanging “all women are superheroes” applause line. But my skin started to crawl again during the best-picture montage. As could’ve been expected, the “Little Women” clip included the scene in which Jo March (Saorise Ronan) passionately advocates for women having the right to be just as ambitious and messy as men. It’s a gorgeous speech that marketing and awards shows have used throughout the season as a triumphant feminist moment — but every time, it’s been cut off right before its bittersweet ending, when Jo admits that she’s still “so lonely.” Much of the power and nuance of that moment comes from Jo not just raging at the way she’s seen men simplify women’s desires over the years, but at herself for not being able to fully embrace the challenge of pushing back without feeling the unmistakable sting of loneliness in her chest. She, as she so eloquently puts it, has a mind as well as a soul, as well as a heart.
Women aren’t a monolith. Some of us might be better than others, but we’re also flawed and strange and petty and mean and all the rest of it, because that’s what makes us human beings. The next time someone wants to let us know that “all women are superheroes,” maybe they would be better off considering the fact that women are people who deserve acknowledgement for jobs well done, just like the men who have received such accolades for decades. No amount of lip service, no matter how loud and sparkly, could beat that.
More from the Oscars: