Jake Flanagin at Pacific Standard and Victoria Dawson Hoff at Elle recently floated an interesting idea: The Oscars should be entirely segregated by gender. Their proposal would create categories such as Best Female Director and Best Female Writer in addition to the already segregated acting awards.
Though this would lead to recognition of more women working in the field, it wouldn’t solve one of the Oscars’ main gender problems: the Academy Award for Best Picture. Most films are produced by teams of both men and women, making segregation in that category impossible. And yet, the Best Picture category is where we can see the clearest evidence of the Academy’s preference for male-driven films. Only three of the nine films nominated this year even have women in leading roles: American Hustle, Gravity and Philomena.
Perhaps as significant as the lack of women characters is the treatment in these films of women’s bodies. The main female character in Her is not even human, allowing the film and its central relationship to avoid dealing with the messy reality of women with bodies. In Dallas Buyer’s Club, one of the two female-gender-identified characters is played by a cisgender man, effectively replacing a body that would raise interesting questions about the difference between sex and gender with one that is much easier to understand. One cannot help but wonder, if a trans actor had played the role, in which category would she be eligible for a nomination?
Where women’s bodies are present in these films, they are almost always objectified through an emphasis on their sexuality. In The Wolf of Wall Street, one woman has sex on top of a pile of money (the actor says her back was covered with paper cuts after filming) and another woman literally wears money. One could argue that these moments are designed to reveal the callousness of the male characters, but in imagining and glamorizing a world without any female characters who aren’t objectified, the film ultimately endorses its characters’ worldview.
The main female character in 12 Years a Slave is literally a possession, and she is repeatedly raped. Unlike with The Wolf of Wall Street, which encourages the audience to identify with criminals, 12 Years a Slave invites us to sympathize with the victim rather than the perpetrator. In this way, the film does at least provide a critique of turning women into objects, rather than an endorsement.
American Hustle provides the clearest example of Hollywood’s inability to deal with women’s bodies without sexualizing them. Though most of the fashions in which the male characters adorn themselves—from the polyester to the conspicuous chest hair to the hairstyles—are quite unsexy, the women are dressed in ways that reveal their every curve. Though plunging necklines were popular for evening wear in the era portrayed in the movie, women also wore formal dresses that, by today’s standards, look like your grandmother’s nightgowns. During the day, women wore button-up shirts with large collars; the most popular woman’s outfit of the decade was the pantsuit, and hair was more commonly worn natural than elaborately styled.
It makes sense for Amy Adams’ character to wear a dress cut down to her belly button to the disco, but when her character impersonates a British aristocrat, it would have been more logical to have her button up. She would still have been sexy and her talent would have shone just as brightly without an outfit that invites the viewer to spend most of the scene staring at her boobs. Similarly, the notion that a troubled housewife would wear her hair in an updo all the time is incongruent both with Jennifer Lawrence’s character and with the style of the time.
The contrast between the body of Christian Bale’s character and those of his lovers is especially striking. Whereas Bale’s character has an outside that matches his inside—his corrupt, conniving character is manifest in his weight, physical health and unnatural hairpiece—Adams’ and Lawrence’s characters are gorgeous despite their twisted insides. I would love to see a version of this film in which the women’s bodies, the clothes they wear and the hairstyles they sport are as reflective of their unsavory inner selves as the men’s are.
Only two of the nine films nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars are genuinely about women, and the difference in how women’s bodies are treated in those films versus the other seven is telling. Sandra Bullock spends much of Gravity in shorts and a tank top, yet at no point is she sexualized. One might note that she looks strong and healthy, but one’s eyes are not deliberately focused on her breasts either by her costume or the camera. The unnecessary addition of [SPOILER ALERT!] a lost child to Gravity betrays Hollywood’s inability to portray women without reference to their biology, but even the final shot in which the camera slowly pans from Bullock’s feet to her head is much more about showing her strength than it is about showing her girl parts.
Philomena is a film centered around a woman’s reproductive past, yet it trounces the competition in its fully human representation of a woman character. Unlike Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle, Judi Dench is old enough to conceivably be the woman she portrays. Close-ups of her face make no attempt to hide signs of age, revealing a beautiful woman whose wrinkles only make her intense emotional experience all the more gripping.
Though the film is about the woman’s search for her lost child, the woman herself is far more than a mother on a mission. She loves her children, but she also loves sex. She’s a woman of faith, she’s openly accepting of gay people, she loves to read and she makes friends everywhere she goes. This is not to say that every female lead in every movie needs to be a saint; most real women are not. But is there any other female character in this year’s nominees for Best Picture about whom the audience learns so much and in whom they become so deeply invested because of whom she is instead of what?
You might question whether the absence/objectification of women’s bodies in this year’s Best Picture nominees reflects on the Oscars or the culture as a whole. None of these films would necessarily be problematic on its own—12 Years a Slave in particular performs the important function of detailing the violence under which female slaves really lived and showing slave owners to be as oppressive as they really were. What is telling is the presence of so many films that either elide or sexualize female bodies in the category that presumably represents the best of the best. The Academy clearly has a critical preference for movies about men, with women present primarily as wives and sex objects.
Though segregating awards by gender would up the profile of women working in Hollywood, it would also perpetuate the notion that there is something fundamentally different about work created by women and work created by men. And it would not solve the fundamental problem at the heart of Hollywood: Movies about men are more highly valued than those about women.