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Category: Art and Entertainment, Media Monitoring

Oscars, Hollywood, Sexism and Women

| February 25, 2013

It was apparent that sexism at the Oscars was going to be a huge morning-after conversation when, less than two hours into the broadcast, Buzzfeed posted a list of “6 Sexist Things That Have Already Happened At The Oscars” (later amended to “9 Sexist Things”). Shortly thereafter, New York Magazine’s The Cut offered “Seth MacFarlane's Sexist Jokes, Transcribed.

Slate’s movie critic Dana Stevens, in her review of the show, wrote that despite the show’s theme—“a defensive anxiety about the ascendant power of women”— it “was a night dominated by a trio of powerful, glittering, seemingly indomitable women.”

But the key word there is seemingly.

It’s clear it was the women who rocked the broadcast awards, from Adele to Jennifer Hudson to Michelle Obama. But when the time came to hand out statuettes, it was still the men who took home all the prizes.

Across 19 categories, 140 men were nominated for awards versus 35 women. In the end, just seven women took home non-acting Oscars. (Women won in categories for Animated Feature Film, Documentary Short, Costume Design, Makeup and Hairstyling, Sound Editing and Music, Original Song.)

It would have been great if all 35 women nominated had taken home prizes, but even that still wouldn’t have fixed the huge imbalance in the nominations. For that, we have to look deeper at the structure of Hollywood, of which the Academy Awards are really just a snapshot.

As we noted in our newly released Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2013 report, exactly how women’s voices are missing in nearly all the behind-the-scenes positions in Hollywood feature films – as writers, as editors, as cinematographers. Women were only nine percent of directors of the 250 top-grossing domestic films of 2012. Says Martha M. Lauzen, executive director of Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film, which releases an annual “Celluloid Ceiling” report, “[the] director role is traditionally the most male role. With narrative films, whether they are independently produced or produced by a studio, there is still that celluloid ceiling women have to overcome.”

Women do represent a larger share of directors when it comes to independent films particularly on documentaries where, according to a study of high-profile film festivals, women made up 39 percent of documentary directors.

But when it comes to narrative films – which where most of Hollywood’s attention lies – there is still a gap for women directors. According to the same study of film festivals women accounted for only 18 percent of directors of narrative films.

Is it simply a lack of experience that is keeping women out of the director’s chair? It’s not as if resumes keep men from being given keys to big budget films. As Women’s Media Center Co-Founder Jane Fonda recently remarked on Women’s Media Center Live with Robin Morgan, director Marc Webb made a low-budget film, (500) Days of Summer, and then was given a budget of $230 million to make The Amazing Spiderman, while Rupert Sanders had no prior feature film experience before directing the $170-million Snow White and the Huntsman.

As Robin Morgan says, the “director's chair is perceived as a place of command and control”—and studios seem to mostly perceive that role as reserved for men.

But what’s interesting is that female directors bring more women into behind-the-scenes positions. Sundance Institute and Women in Film commissioned Stacy Smith, Ph.D. and University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism for a report, Exploring the Barriers and Opportunities for Independent Women Filmmakers. They found female directors facilitate behind-the-camera equality. When compared to films directed by men, those directed by women feature more women content creators (writers, producers, cinematographers, editors) behind the camera. This is true in both narratives and documentaries.

So when we finally get to the Oscar night and find seven categories (including Directing, Cinematography, and Writing, original screenplay) that have no women nominated and five with exactly one woman nominated, we’ve come to the culmination of a long process of women’s voices being squeezed out, ignored, or entirely missing from production of some of our most influential cultural products.

This could be why the Academy Awards sees nothing wrong with picking a host who starts off the night with a joke about actresses’ breasts, makes an 9-year-old in the audience the subject of sexual innuendo, and tags a movie about a dedicated female CIA officer with an eye-roll-inducing joke direct from 1950 about how women “never let anything go.”

Normally, sexism in Hollywood hides beneath the surface, but during last’s night Oscars we got to see it on full display—a solid reminder how our sexist media culture works. Hollywood is organized by power, and the Academy Awards are a reflection of that: white men on top, women and people of color at the bottom.

It’s telling that the Academy might not even think a lack of viewpoint diversity is a problem for them. During last year’s Oscars season, the Los Angeles Times quoted the now-late Frank Pierson, a governor and former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as stating, “I don’t see any reason why the academy should represent the entire American population . . . We represent the professional filmmakers, and if that doesn’t reflect the general population, so be it.”

Still, it seems that drumbeat about the lack of women behind the camera is getting louder. Reports like The Status of the Women in the U.S. Media, Celluloid Ceiling and Exploring the Barriers and Opportunities for Independent Women Filmmakers have been making more and more people aware of the lack of women’s voices in Hollywood films. Meanwhile, during the Oscars, many other people joined our conversation at #OscarWomen on Twitter, or started their own talk about sexism, racism, and homophobia in Hollywood and in the Oscars broadcast itself. The almost instantaneous critique of sexist and other offensive commentary during the broadcast from all quarters is a good sign that change is on its way.

When the audience speaks up, Hollywood will listen. The 2014 Academy Awards show can have a less sexist host (and here, at last, we agree with Seth MacFarlane: why can’t Tina and Amy host everything?) but we’re also hoping the 2014 awards will have more women overall.