Sunday, March 8, 2009

And the Losers Are... (#1: Women)

Two weekends ago, I caught about a half hour of the Academy Awards telecast when I was eating dinner at my father's house. My stepmom, who is a big Oscar fan, was cooing over the show's every little flourish. My father was watching because he didn't really have anything else to do, and I was spending most of the time trying to keep myself from vomiting.

You see, I hate the Oscars. Back when I was a kid, I used to think that the Academy Awards show was one of the greatest things on television (and hence the world), but my fascination gradually transformed into boredom and then disgust with the bloated, self-congratulatory ceremony. At first, I mostly fumed at the show because crappy movies always seemed to beat less crappy ones. The more I've thought about it, though, the more I've come to realize that the show's awfulness involves much more than bad movies hauling home piles of gold statues. At its essence, the Academy Awards is a sham ceremony designed to validate the most conservative elements of Hollywood cinema by exaggerating the greatness of bland films and marginalizing, ignoring, or backhandedly attacking any threats to the establishment. The many sins of the Oscars could easily fill a book (and one day I might make that happen), but for now I plan on dedicating a few posts to some of the Academy Awards' most egregious problems. First up: rampant bias against women.

There is no award for Best Screenplay Written by a Woman, or for Best Score by a Female Composer, or for Best Director with Ovaries. However, oddly enough, the Academy still separates out male and female actors as if to suggest that there is something fundamentally different between the two. Male actors and female actors do the exact same job. Drama students aren't segregated by gender in order to teach the men "male-acting" and the women "lady-acting". Drama is drama, comedy is comedy, and masterful acting remains masterful regardless of the genitalia of the person delivering the performance.

Some people argue that it's appropriate to have separate award categories because different roles are written for men than for women. However, different roles are also written for blacks and whites, young and old, skinny and fat. Nonetheless, there is no Oscar presented for the Best Performance by a Mexican or for the Best Performance by a Tall Person in a Supporting Role. Furthermore, despite its ultra-liberal reputation, the Academy has yet to create separate categories for transgender or intersex actors.

In actuality, the segregated acting awards function as a smokescreen to keep people from noticing that women rarely win Oscars in categories that require them to compete with men. To date, no woman has ever won an Oscar for Best Director (only three have even been nominated) or for Best Cinematography (none have ever been nominated). Only two women have won awards for Best Foreign Language Film, and only six female producers have taken home trophies for Best Picture, though all of these were shared with men. Even editing, one of the few high profile jobs that has historically been open to women, has only produced a scant ten female Oscar winners.

If the acting categories were to become gender-nonspecific, women would undoubtedly lose out there, too. Many female actors struggle to find good roles, as so few are written for them. Big studio scripts, which are predominately penned by men, tend to feature dynamic male characters full of complexity and nuance. However, these fascinating men stand side by side with cookie-cutter females who either fill stock roles or function primarily as eye candy. As some have pointed out, these two trends- the preponderance of sex kittens and the dearth of good female roles- are not unrelated: because Hollywood so strongly prefers its leading ladies to be sexy and young, American films feature few complicated, older female characters with rich and compelling life stories. The result is that Tinseltown's' most experienced female actors (those old crones who have made it past 30) have nearly zero chance of appearing in major productions.

To this end, the actress awards serve as a form of affirmative action guaranteeing that at least two women walk home with Oscars every year, but this is just a device designed to create the illusion that men and women exist on equal footing. The rest of the show, meanwhile, constantly reinforces the Academy's unspoken mantra that women who excel at filmmaking do so with much less consistency than their male counterparts.

It's not like women don't make movies, either. Women have made some of the most powerful contributions to the cinematic arts. However, they have often been excluded from the Hollywood power structure, which means that many of the best female filmmakers (e.g. Maya Deren, Sadie Benning, Su Friedrich, Peggy Ahwesh, et al.) have worked entirely outside the realm of mainstream Hollywood cinema. To Academy voters, the work these women produce is "too independent" to be recognized at the Oscars. However, female filmmakers seldom "choose" to make indy films instead of big budget Hollywood ones. In fact, they have no choice in the matter whatsoever, as their double X-chromosomes exclude them from the Hollywood boys' club. Or, to put it another way, women don't win Oscars because they're simply not allowed to make Oscar-winning films.

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