When I was a little girl, the Oscars were my favorite night of the whole year. Every time, I sat weeping, heart swollen, as I watched the winners accept their little gold men triumphantly, often tearfully, and the losers smiled and applauded. Those sparkly people in their glittering gowns were the closest thing I had to gods and, as an aspiring actress myself, I longed fervently to one day get up on that stage with them. Even into my twenties, after I joined the film industry professionally and came to understand that the Oscars were ultimately fake and silly, I couldn’t turn away.
This year, however, for the first time since the age of seven, I am not going to watch the Oscars. I would encourage you to join me.
In the fall of 2017, the Weinstein stories broke, and powerful man after seemingly untouchable powerful man was felled by histories and abuse. Women and men who had suffered in private, cleaved open by the scale of it all, picked up on Tarana Burke’s #MeToo hashtag and painted the Internet with rage and indignation. It was a moment of deep cultural reckoning. As Forbes boldly heralded the end of the patriarchy , it seemed to many that true and lasting change must finally be afoot for women, both inside and outside the golden gates of Hollywood.
Two years have passed now. The studios and networks have plastered our eyes with press releases touting how they’ve fixed their woman problem, but those announcements have proven largely gestural rather than substantive. As I discovered conducting hundreds of interviews for an upcoming book, sexual harassment and assault continues rampant. Increasingly now, the white men who overwhelmingly still occupy the gatekeeper positions in the entertainment industry are grumbling about how tired they are of this whole inclusion conversation and we find ourselves at a genuine danger point for the movement. We all feel like things must be different now. Except that they aren’t. Not really.
If you have, over the last two years, not heard about the state of women in the film industry, historically and well into the present, allow me to tell you that it is bleak.
From 1945 to 1979, women were hired to direct one half of one percent (0.5%) of studio films. After a brief and modest uptick in the eighties, thanks to a lawsuit by a group of six brave female directors for discriminatory hiring practices, that percentage leveled off and now limply wiggles year-to-year: 4 percent in 1990, 7 percent in 2010, 4 percent in 2016, 8 percent in 2017 and a truly depressing 4 percent in 2018.
On screen, things are looking slightly brighter of late, as the historically miserable percentages of roles for women, people of color and characters from other historically underrepresented populations have risen slightly over the last two years. Yet, consider that upward of 55 percent of the time that you have seen a female character on screen in an American movie in your lifetime, she was naked or scantily clad; that 95 percent of all the U.S. films that you have ever seen were directed by men—mostly white, mostly straight, mostly cis and mostly able-bodied; that somewhere between 80 to 90 percent of all of the leading characters that you have ever seen on a screen have been male—mostly white, mostly straight, mostly cis and mostly able-bodied.
Hollywood, despite applauding itself as a bastion of liberal thinking, has a significant distance to travel before it can truly be considered anything like progressive. And nowhere is that backward-looking, entrenched, white, male monolithic perspective so blazingly and unabashedly on display as it is at the Oscars.
In the 91 years of the Academy Awards’ existence, precisely five women have been nominated for Best Director. Only one, Kathryn Bigelow, has won—for The Hurt Locker, in 2010. In that same 91-year span, the most-prestigious Best Picture Award has only been given to a film with a female lead character on seventeen occasions, and only two of the 91 Best Picture winners had female directors. Just to reconnect us to reality for a moment, women are 51 percent of the U.S. population, 52 percent of movie ticket purchasers and, as of now, reliably close to 50 percent of film school graduates .
The 2019 Oscar ceremony felt to me like a perfect metaphor for Hollywood’s response to its inclusion problem in general: make some moves that will result in good PR stories, a handful of “historic” firsts in the less prestigious categories, put lots of people of color onstage in various insubstantial roles so that the photos will look super diverse—and then, at the end of the night, give all of your most prestigious awards to the same old white dudes.
And one year later, when the 2020 Oscar nominations were announced, not a single woman was nominated for Best Director; of the nine Best Picture nominees, only one was directed by a woman (Little Women, Greta Gerwig) or centers on a female protagonist (the same); only one actor of color was nominated (Cynthia Erivo for Harriet); and only one woman received a solo screenwriting nomination (Little Women, Greta Gerwig), with one other woman sharing a nomination with a man (Krysty Wilson-Cairns sharing with Sam Mendes for 1917) out of the ten nominations.
As bad as all that is, perhaps most disheartening of all is that the four films to receive 10 or more nominations—The Joker, 1917, The Irishman and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood—are each like the punchline to a bad joke about the most stereotypical white dude movies of all time.
This isn’t cute anymore. It isn’t weird or inexplicable. It is isn’t the result of the Academy voters simply being oblivious to their own biases. It is that they know and actually don’t care—or they maybe sort of care, but also their buddy Marty finally got to direct the film he’s wanted to all his life, and isn’t important to consider the feelings of super lonely white, male crazies seeking revenge, and how could a film about relationships between women actually be as Big, Important or Universal as a film about Men Going to War?
This year’s nominations, just like the appalling percentages for women up and down the film industry, are the not-at-all-accidental results of a set of humans possessing a phenomenal amount of prestige, power, fame and money and not really wanting to share that. Never mind that audiences are demonstrably interested in seeing women’s stories and the rich array of stories by and about everyone who isn’t a white, straight, cis, able-bodied man. Never mind that films by and about women actually make more money, dollar for dollar, than films by and about men.
This is very simply about the powerful staying powerful—so I have to stop watching the Oscars, at least until the Academy voters pull their heads out of their armpits and actually begin to recognize the full, beautiful diversity of human experience as holding the potential for greatness in storytelling.
You might join me instead that evening in partaking of the dizzyingly wonderful feast of films that could have been nominated this year, but weren’t—films that wrenched me open, moved me to tears, made me weep with laughter, inspired me, quickened my pulse and made me more hopeful about the future of the film industry than everything else that’s happened since 2017 put together.
My nominees for films to watch instead of the Oscars are (in alphabetical order): A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Marielle Heller), Atlantiques (Mati Diop), Booksmart (Olivia Wilde), Harriet (Kasi Lemmons), Honey Boy (Alma Har’el), Little Women (Greta Gerwig), Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma), The Farewell (Lulu Wang) and Queen & Slim (Melina Matsoukas). I guarantee you that every last one of them will make for a more interesting evening than watching Hollywood’s elite clutch little gold men while perpetuating the white, male, straight, cis, able-bodied domination of our cultural narrative.
I am no longer willing to give industry leaders that ad money, prestige and attention. I am most particularly unwilling to lend that support to an industry that has been scientifically demonstrated to influence everything from our hobbies to our career choices to our sense of identity to our judgments of other people to our relationships to our mental health and even, quite literally, our brain chemistry with the stories it chooses to tell and yet does so almost entirely excluding the voices of an entire gender.
I am exhausted by their always-promised incremental, presentational, we-gave-you-one-now-shut-up evasions of actual change. I’m ready for a revolution.