The Oscars 90 years on: where are all the women?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Dr. Martha Lauzen’s 2017 study found that representation of women in key production roles has not increased over the course of the study. Lauzen has linked this under-representation of women behind the scenes, with ‘a toxic culture that supported the recent sexual harassment scandals and truncates so many women’s careers’.”  

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On 4 March, the 90th version of the Academy Awards will be broadcast across the world. Last year the focus was on representation and diversity with the #Oscarssowhite campaign. This year, it is all about women. Following the momentum behind the #MeToo movement and TimesUp campaign, this year’s focus is on issues of gender, representation and power in the film industry.

The Golden Globes started the trend of using the spotlight to increase awareness on gender parity and tackling issues of gender based social justice.  To focus attention, women shunned colourful gowns and wore black, many walked the red carpet with social activists and took time to highlight abuse that women in all walks of life face. The BAFTAs followed this trend shifting the red carpet focus from what they were wearing to what they were saying as noted by Jess Cartner- Morley. The red carpet is typically the main point of focus for women attending award ceremonies as they are usually underrepresented in the nominations and ultimate awards.  

The lack of representation of women in the film industry is not something that has escaped the attention of academic researchers.  In the US, the Celluloid Ceiling project, has collected data on women’s participation in film for the past 20 years, and Dr. Martha Lauzen’s 2017 study found that representation of women in key production roles has not increased over the course of the study. Lauzen has linked this under-representation of women behind the scenes, with ‘a toxic culture that supported the recent sexual harassment scandals and truncates so many women’s careers’. 

A study conducted by Stacy L. Smith and the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, moved beyond examining gender alone, taking an intersectional approach to the power dynamics in the industry. In the eleven years that the study covered, it revealed only 7 women of colour directed the top 1,100 top grossing films. Smith’s study looked behind the camera and examined the roles that women play on screen. The emphasis on the most financially successful films in the Celluloid Ceiling and Annenberg studies is important, as this represents the films selected by the power players in the industry as most likely to have a broad audience appeal, which are backed with significant marketing budgets.

Such films will influence popular imagination the most, as audiences are most likely to have seen them. Smith’s study further examined the involvement of women within key executive positions, again finding a lack of representation, particularly when it came to women of colour. A report Calling the Shots, by Dr Shelley Cobb, Professor Ruth Williams and Dr Natalie Wreyford, found that between 2003 and 2015, women were significantly under represented in key roles in the film industry, particularly black, Asian and minority ethnic women. This brings us to the Oscars, which is seen as the highlight of the film year. As I have discussed in my recent book, Film Marketing, a vast amount of academic research has examined the impact of being nominated for and winning an Oscar. Whilst findings are mixed with regard to the financial impact of various nominations and consequent awards, it is recognised that the increased attention award nominations bring to films has been shown to increase audience interest.

Nominees for the major awards, such as Best Film, Original Screenplay, Director and Acting Awards garner the most attention and in the non-acting award categories, women, particularly women of colour are rarely seen. Despite the increased attention on women this year, the 2018 nominees have shown little change. This year, Mudbound paves the way for female nominations, Rachel Morrison’s nomination for cinematography is the first ever for a woman, and Dee Rees’ nomination for adapted screenplay represents the first nomination for a black woman. Mary J. Blige is also nominated for Mudbound, both for her acting as well as for best song. Greta Gerwig who wrote and directed Ladybird is the 5th woman nominated in 90 years. Of course, if Greta Gerwig follows Kathryn Bigelow to be the second women to ever win a best directing Oscar, this may well be written off as ‘one for the women’.

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