Oscar Noms Should Be Gender Neutral. But They Can't Be, As Long As #OscarsSoMale
This week, as we do every year, film and entertainment obsessives pored over the announcement of the 2019 Oscar nominees, looking for snubs, surprises and shut-outs in all the major categories.
And, as we do every year, we noticed a significant lack of non-male names in all the major mixed-gender categories. In the nominations for direction, cinematography, screenwriting et al, there’s really a glut of Toms, Dicks and Adam McKays.
As we move (albeit slowly and with great pains) beyond the notion that gender is binary, split-gender categories for awards seem like a nonsensical throwback to a more retrogressive time. Where do non-binary and genderqueer actors fit in the nominations for major awards like the Emmys, the BAFTAs and the Oscars if they are neither male nor female?
I would love to see us do away with the split-gender categories for acting entirely -- if for no other reason than because the term “actress” is so thoroughly reductive. But while I watch as non-male candidates are shut out of the major mixed categories at major awards every year, I know we’re not yet ready to let men compete on talent alone -- without the distinct privilege of being male.
The fact that the Oscars, a prestige institution that upholds the power structures reflected in our society, locks out minority candidates for nomination is not new. For the past few years, a campaign identifying a major problem with the lack of culturally and ethnically diverse nominees up for major awards, #OscarsSoWhite, has been highly successful in reminding audiences that the vastly white faces of the Academy nominees does not reflect the highly intersectional film talent deserving of recognition at a major awards ceremony.
That problem is by no means solved, but it has led to the Academy broadening its membership to include younger and more culturally diverse members, who have since nominated their first Indigenous actress for an award (Roma’s Yalitza Aparicio) -- a bit of excitement.
It takes more than a couple of years, or indeed a few historic nominations, to fix a major imbalance like #OscarsSoWhite, but awareness of the problem is perhaps the first step toward addressing it.
Similarly, the lack of gender diversity in award show categories where gender is mixed (ie the non-acting categories) has been a cause for concern for those in the industry who feel deserving candidates often miss out because they are not male.
At last year’s Golden Globes ceremony, presenter Natalie Portman caused a minor stir onstage when she announced the Outstanding Direction nominations as: “here are the all male nominees” -- taking a swipe at the lack of female representation and the surprising snub of lauded directors Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird), Dee Rees (Mudbound) and Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman).
This year, once again, the Oscars race for Best Director is all-male, shutting out critically acclaimed directors such as Josie Rourke (Mary, Queen of Scots), Karyn Kasuma (Destroyer) and Marielle Heller -- whose film Can You Ever Forgive Me? has scored three major nods (for actress, supporting actor and screenplay), but has been snubbed in the director and best picture races.
Other categories are similarly bleak: the cinematography race is also all-male, though Rachel Morrison, the DP on Best Picture-nominee Black Panther, has form as a previous nominee in the category -- for last year’s Mudbound.
Considering one of the major contenders in last year’s Oscar race was the Gerwig-helmed Lady Bird, it’s hard not to feel like the Oscars are going backwards. But, though Lady Bird generated a good deal of chatter in the lead up to the 2018 awards, it went home empty-handed.
So it seems clear the Academy is not yet ready to reward women handsomely for their work behind the camera. As it stands, only one woman has ever one for Best Director at the Oscars: Kathryn Bigelow, for the adrenaline-fuelled war movie The Hurt Locker.
In some of the gender-neutral categories, it’s far easier for non-male candidates to triumph. This year, veteran costume designer Sandy Powell, who already has three Oscars to her name, is nominated against herself for her work on The Favourite and Mary Poppins Returns. Costume design, an art that’s adjacent to “feminine” traditions such as sewing and fashion design, is apparently an area where the Academy is happy to reward the hard work of women.
While the nominations of less mainstream male directors could be seen as a step in the right direction in terms of diversity of candidates -- Yorgos Lanthimos, director of spiky period film The Favourite, is an acquired directorial taste; Cold War’s Paweł Pawlikowski is an international director -- and a relatively little-known one, who pushed out favourites Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born) and Peter Farrelly (Green Book) -- time will tell if they'll walk away with a prize.
Still, it seems far easier for a wildcard male director to make it into the race than a wildcard (or even an established) female director.
So, with such a bleak landscape in the existing mixed-gender categories, it seems foolish to imagine that we’ll soon see a more inclusive future, where actors can compete across gender-neutral categories.
As we can see in major races like Best Director, the privilege of being male means these candidates will almost always dominate -- whether or not their talent is the most deserving.