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Achievements in Inclusiveness

In all the post-show analysis of this year’s Oscars, someone has finally noticed that the traditional gender-segregation of awards is not, well, natural. Sarah Churchwell writes in the Guardian, “Although supposedly we no longer believe that separate is the same as equal, we still segregate entertainment awards along gender lines. Imagine the uproar if we had Oscars for best performance by a black man in a supporting role, or best leading performance by a Jew.”

Of course, the trouble doesn’t stop there. As Churchwell notes, the alternative to gender segregation isn’t too appealing, either, since “awards which do not segregate on the basis of gender tend to overlook women altogether.” Case in point? The Nobel Prize in literature, which women have won only 10 times in 107 years. If there were only one Oscar category for “Achievement in a Leading Role,” it’s a good bet that women would be underrepresented.

The University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication released a study last week evaluating the gender balance in Oscar-nominated films of the past thirty years. Overall, it found that for every speaking female character in a movie, there were about three speaking males, and for every non-white speaking character, there were roughly four white speaking characters. The factor that had the most impact on these numbers? “With a female director, the amount of female speaking characters jumped from 27 percent to 41 percent.” Only three women directors have ever been nominated for an Oscar, and none has ever won the award.

This has been a pretty crappy time for women and film in general (and no, the wild success of Juno, and Diablo Cody’s shiny new Oscar, do not make up for it). It only adds to my love of Helen Mirren that she said as much to the intolerable Regis Philbin during their brief tete-a-tete on the red carpet. The roles being written for women are not as rich and interesting as those being written for men (see the forthcoming The Other Boleyn Girl, which may star two bankable actresses, but is all about them competing for a man). I loved (loved) No Country for Old Men, and greatly admired There Will Be Blood, but those are only two of the most obvious examples of prestige films that imagined worlds that were basically devoid of women. These are legitimate visions, to be sure, but let’s look at the flip side. A movie that focused so relentlessly on women would be read as a deliberately feminist statement; it would be about women. These movies that hone in on men’s lives and experiences are understood to just be about people.

Really, it sort of blows my mind when I think about the odd stab at gender parity represented by having awards for Best Actor and Best Actress. I’m actually less interested in what this says about equality than in the very basic idea that, apart from “leading” versus “supporting,” there are two kinds of people who act in movies: men, and women. I’m certainly not advocating the creation of acting (or any other) awards based solely on identity, and I’m not in favor of abolishing gendered categories at the Oscars (not yet, anyway). But I do like when the lines start to get a little blurry. Consider Cate Blanchett’s “Best Supporting Actress” nomination for her portrayal of Bob Dylan. How do you begin to categorize it in these terms? And really, what’s the point in trying?

– Eryn Loeb

© 2011 Lilith Magazine