Congratulations to those men – I guess? Issa Rae summarized the mixed feelings of many when another all-male Oscar nomination list for best director was announced yesterday. It is possible to note – entirely without too many senses – that it has been an exceptional year for films on men by men. The protagonists – Once upon a time in Hollywood by Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese’s Irishman, Sam Mendes’ The Irishman, Sam Mendes’ 1917 and even Todd Phillips’ Joker – provided abundant and relevant insights into male power, ego male and male fallibility. What about the rest of us?
We have to settle for Little Women, the solitary film directed by women in the best list of images, because, as Aunt March would recommend, it is our fate in life. After decades of being mistakenly considered a welcoming tale of sisters with a sweet nature and their domestic nonsense, the Little Women sardonically titled Louisa May Alcott finally have a faithful adaptation. Under the passionate direction of Greta Gerwig, she rightly rages at the narrow definition of patriarchy’s artistic merit – amusingly embodied by the incredible Dashwood publisher of Tracy Letts – and how it works to crush female creativity. How appropriate it is.
Does Oscar 2020 feel like a pendulum going back to the bad old days before women were allowed creativity, interiority or speaking parts? Not even. In truth, filmmakers have never been properly recognized by the Academy. Only five women were nominated for an award for best director in the 92-year history of the Academy Awards and only one – Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker – won. On the last occasion a woman was nominated, it was the same woman: Gerwig again for Lady Bird in 2017. Is Hollywood implementing a “one-in-one-out” policy for filmmakers?
These statistics obscure progress of some sort. In terms of Oscars, Bigelow was Gerwig of the ’00s, and she had to explosively overcome the big Hollywood boys with films like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty just to take a look. Gerwig was nominated for photos that emphatically tell stories of women. Still, is it too much to ask that the Oscars recognize not only a female story every few years, but a multiplicity, every year?
Because it’s not as if the movies weren’t there. Women’s films now have more shapes and sizes than a body-positive catwalk show. This year he could have been contenders, including Lulu Wang, Marielle Heller, Céline Sciamma, Lorena Scafaria, Mati Diop and Melina Matsoukas. Why don’t they count?
It is not as if the Academy ignored the calls to diversify. The number of hires increased year by year between 2015 and 2018 and the overall female membership rose from 25% to 31% in the same period. Some genres such as the documentary have achieved gender equality, and this is sometimes reflected in Oscar nominees. This year, four out of five films on the list of best documentaries have a director or co-director.
Sometimes, but not always. The 2020 Oscars show that diversity records will only bring us so far. Types of industry, critics and simple filmmakers have yet to question our assumptions about what makes a film worthy. If Ford v Ferrari receives nominations, why not Hustlers? If the wedding story, why not goodbye? If parasitic, why not Portrait of a Lady on Fire? Internalized prejudice means that everyone, male and female, has a Dashwood in mind, deriding the very idea that the female experience could be as valid as the male experience. But Jo March didn’t let him get the better of her – and neither should we.