Oscars and the Problem with All Male Directors

Despite seeming progress in the opportunities afforded women directors, the Oscars still only see through a male gaze.

Greta Gerwig directing Little Women

As a woman, reading about gender in Hollywood often feels like having a severe case of Stockholm syndrome. There was an apparent litany of successes this year for female writers and directors that seemed to bode well for the winter awards season. Ten percent of the top films in 2019 were directed by a woman; Greta Gerwig made waves for her critically acclaimed second feature film, Little Women, and for appearing with her new baby on the cover of Vogue; Lulu Wang’s The Farewell more than quadrupled its budget at the box office, garnering rave reviews for the performances of Awkwafina and Zhao Shuzhen, as well as its touching story about family loyalty and tradition.

Several films touted star-studded, all-female led casts including Bombshell with Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, and Margo Robbie; Booksmart with Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein; Hustlers with Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu; and Little Woods with Tessa Thompson and Lily James. Only one of these films was directed by a man. The end of the decade finally seemed to usher in the year of the woman with actresses, directors, and writers like Jennifer Lopez, Olivia Wilde, Kasi Lemmons, Awkwafina, Laura Dern, Lorene Scafaria, and Saoirse Ronan accepting accolades that seemed destined to culminate at the biggest award show of the year.

So how to explain, yet again, the complete lack of female directors among the Academy Award nominations, as well as the near total whitewashing of the acting nominees? Reading the 2020 Oscar nominations felt like emotional whiplash and deja vu. For several years now, our culture has been in the thick of conversations regarding #MeToo, #TimesUp, and #BlackLivesMatter. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seemed to listen, initially, announcing a concerted effort to double female and minority membership by the end of 2020. It was easy to assume that the tides were changing when it came to equity and parity in the workplace, and that Hollywood would start to not only acknowledge, but also to award women, particularly women of color, for the work that they do.

Yet, as it currently stands, the Academy’s organization is 68 percent male and 84 percent white. In the Oscars’ 92-year history, only five women have ever been nominated for the Best Director category. Only one woman, Kathryn Bigelow, has won for her war film The Hurt Locker in 2010.

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This gender inequity in the Academy disproportionately affects women of color, a phenomenon that is not unique to the Oscars, but reflects a continued stasis in how movies and the culture at large are made (and celebrated). Consider activist and actress Gabrielle Union being fired from America’s Got Talent for criticizing openly racist remarks on set; Ava DuVernay’s painfully pertinent miniseries When They See Us being completely shut out of the 2020 Golden Globes nominations; and, as with Awkwafina, the Academy Awards ignored Lupita Nyong’o’s transfixing performances in Jordan Peele’s Us. A recent article entitled “#OscarsSoMale” points out that, “In the last five years, more than half of film slates distributed across the largest companies did not have a single woman of color on them.” 

Todd Phillips, meanwhile, whined to Vanity Fair about the inability to make comedies in our current “woke culture.” Sadly for Phillips and filmmakers like him, jokes that rely on gay and racial stereotyping are blessedly no longer in vogue. So instead of making some variation on The Hangover 4, Phillips gave us Joker: a movie that leads the Oscars with 11 nominations. It is highly stylized, unrelenting in its momentum, and thus excellently paced; yet it is ultimately a film that champions hyper-masculine violence, retreading worn narrative ground. Arthur Fleck is just another Travis Bickle, ready once more “for a real rain to come and wash all this scum off the streets.” The downtrodden white man-turned-killer takes power into his own hands, which is to say Phillips myopically posits violence, havoc, and anarchy are the answers to a broken system. Have we really never left square one?

If what the Academy still finds most appealing is a male hero’s journey spiced with violence galore, then Gerwig’s Little Women screenplay becomes, in some ways, a meta-commentary for our own moment. Like Gerwig’s Jo March being dismissed by her male publishers, Gerwig’s own story about young women is dismissed by a mostly male Academy. It is telling that the only woman to win for Best Director did so by crafting a narrative about an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit in Iraq.

“There’s a concerted effort,” Nyong’o said in a recent Hollywood Reporter roundtable, “to consider diversity and inclusion. What I really want is for it not to be a fad, not to be a trend. The moment of maturity in the industry is when it is just the norm.” Yet how else can we explain a culture that flaunts all-female casts and applauds more women in the workplace, but recurrently refuses to match that enthusiasm when it comes to awards that have the ability to fundamentally and irrevocably change the conversation surrounding gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity on screen? It is trendy right now to address issues of representation, but the addressal remains superficial: a splashy headline, with little to no systematic, institutional follow-through.

For those who might accuse me of trying to turn an ant hill into a mole hill, let me say this: My expectations do match the stipulations put forth by the Academy’s precedence. I never would expect stellar films like The Kindergarten Teacher or The Rider or The Souvenir to be nominated for Best Picture or Best Director. These are quieter films of the Sundance ilk, which the Academy typically leaves to the indie circuit rather than inviting to the table.

The Academy favors the grandiose and the gravitas of period films as evidenced by the nominations for Sam Mendes’s 1917 and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. They also favor genre films and biopics, as evidenced by Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. The Academy likewise prefers the over-the-top, flashy performances that attract attention and hype like Heath Ledger’s posthumous award as the Joker in The Dark Knight and now again with Joaquin Phoenix poised to (deservedly) win his first Oscar for also playing the Joker.

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Thus it seems only natural that films like Harriet, Hustlers, and The Farewell would be recognized in the Best Picture and/or Best Director category, as they fit the trends and tendencies of previous nominees in years past. The fact that they are directed by supremely talented women is both besides, as well as, the point. While Little Women rightly received a Best Picture nomination, it is equal to, if not better, than Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird, a film for which Gerwig did receive a Best Director nomination last year. It seemed clear that Gerwig was in the big leagues after enchanting audiences with her erudite wit and pathos. So why the sudden snub now?

Little Women is on par with The Irishman in terms of set design and costumes, of making a certain historical period come to light and sparkle. It also features some of the most dazzling performances by Hollywood heavy hitters such as a delightfully acerbic Meryl Streep, Laura Dern, and an incredibly moving turn by Chris Cooper (why he was never nominated for a single supporting actor award is also beyond me). While Joe Pesci definitely deserves a Best Supporting Actor nod, I’m unsure why Jennifer Lopez was not afforded the same recognition for a film that brushes shoulders with a similar gangster genre and where her dexterity lay not just in her acting chops but in her essential physicality, as displayed in her pole dancing.

To reject these films and their creators is to make a mockery of ongoing discussions surrounding representation on screen in the 21st century. Sure, we need to see women on screen, but we also need to recognize the talent who brings these stories and female characters to life with a vital sense of authenticity and insight. And sure, “we will persist,” as Molly says to her principal in Booksmart as he closes the office door in her face, but we’re also tired of being left out in the hallway. It’s time to invite us to the roundtable: there’s room for everyone.