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Book extract: ‘Every awards season is guided by voters who are mostly old, white men’

Helen O’Hara’s ‘Women versus Hollywood’ lays bare Oscar season’s uncomfortable truths

Helen O’Hara
Written by
Helen O’Hara

There’s a truth about award shows that often goes unsaid for fear of appearing to be a sore loser: the odds are stacked against films made by, with or for women. The people that awards shows acknowledge tend to be male, their subject matter tends to be male and their leads tend to be male. The rather self-conscious grasp that cinema makes at importance every awards season is guided by voters who are mostly old, white men.

For example, the Best Director nominations are chosen by the directing branch only, and that is, historically, overwhelmingly male. To be eligible to join you have to have directed two features, one within the past decade, a rate of work beyond the reach of many female directors until recently. Another factor is the kind of film that gets recognition. War movies, crime dramas, gangster stories, biopics of great men, portraits of damaged men, men’s struggles. Not just male stories, but stories about male anger and male violence. 

Films about female ambition (Little Women), men working towards some sort of grace or peace (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Honey Boy), or female anger (Hustlers) are not considered as important. We’ve been told that films about men doing things, possibly violently, are more important than stories about women, in any capacity. There’s a far greater overlap between Best Actor and Best Picture than between Best Actress and Best Picture as a result.

In the last twenty years, only two Best Picture winners have had female protagonists

In the last twenty years, only two Best Picture winners have had female protagonists, Chicago and The Shape of Water (some might argue for Million Dollar Baby, but that’s still his film). Only 35 Black women have ever been nominated for an acting Oscar out of over 900 nominees. Of those, Rotten Tomatoes editor Jacqueline Coley calculated that over half played slaves, maids or women living in abject poverty. That is not a representative view of Black women, let alone an inspiring one. 

Only seven Asian women or women of Asian descent have been nominated in the Acting categories, six of them as Supporting Actress. There have been only three women of Hispanic descent nominated in the Acting categories, though one, Hilary Swank, won Best Actress twice (her maternal grandmother is of Mexican descent, though she is perhaps not the most obviously Latina nominee). There have been only three indigenous nominees, including Whale Rider’s Keisha Castle-Hughes and Roma’s Yalitza Aparicio.

Lupita Nyong’o was overlooked by the Academy despite two stellar performances in 2019’s Us’

It all suggests that awards honour – consciously or not – a certain type of person rather than a certain quality of work. Partly it’s because awards provide a sketch of who’s getting the big roles, and there the picture is basically white. But the conversation about likely winners starts early, with critics who are more inclined to be sniffy about female-focused stories and awards pundits more likely to portray women of colour, for example, as long shots. That narrative afflicted Lupita Nyong’o [for Jordan Peele’s Us, pictured] in 2020. Despite having won Best Actress from six major critics’ groups, more than anyone else, the story was still that she was a long shot for an Oscar nomination – and the punditry’s poor assessment of her chances becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

To vote for Best Director you have to have directed two films, one in the past decade. It’s beyond the reach of many female directors

Of course, awards are not the ultimate arbiter of quality, or the best measure of accomplishment, and box-office success will be enough to keep you in work if you never even win Best Kiss at the MTV Awards. But look at the Best Director winners and you’ll see ninety-one men and one woman who are generally given the freedom and support to be auteurs (problematic as the term is), who are permitted to develop their own stories and presumed to be competent. A Best Director or Actor nomination is still, rightly or wrongly, a marker within the profession, and if it is not a blank cheque for future projects it is at the very least an increased chance of a meeting. Someone gave Tom Hooper the money to make Cats after he won Best Director. Presumably on purpose. 

At every stage of the process, the markers of ‘significant’ filmmaker status are held back from female filmmakers, by critics, festivals and finally awards. And still we’re assured that it’s all done on merit. The voters claim that any attempt to change the status quo smacks of forced diversity and quotas that do a disservice not only to the art form but also to the minority filmmakers thus allowed into the ranks of nominees. Never mind that every interview with an anonymous Oscar voter shows that voters don’t watch all the nominated films and do vote for their friends.

Steps are finally being taken to change this. One milestone was the #OscarsSoWhite debacle, where a social media outcry rose on the hashtag created by April Reign, a Black lawyer and pop-culture tweeter who was struck by 2015’s all-white acting nominees. She told the New York Times in 2020 that, ‘It could’ve been a bunch of different things – there were no women in the directors category, there were no visibly disabled people nominated – so #OscarsSoWhite has never just been about race. It’s about the under-representation of all marginalised groups.’

In response, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) that runs the Oscars started to widen its membership, inviting in a larger and more diverse pool in every year since 2016 in an attempt to bring down the average age, average maleness and average whiteness of its membership. BAFTA followed, and in 2018 brought in diversity standards too. They’re not onerous and can apply to onscreen as well as crew membership, but they require at least some thought. In June 2020 BAFTA announced that it was expanding that requirement to all categories. Also in June 2020 AMPAS announced similar standards that should foster more diverse hiring, and encourage unconscious bias training.

Someone gave Tom Hooper the money to make Cats after he won Best Director. Presumably on purpose

Both awards bodies trail the British Independent Film Awards, which introduced unconscious bias training for its already younger and more diverse membership in 2018. The response was almost entirely positive, especially when voters realised that the training did show up biases they all carried. It wasn’t just sexism and racism: the training may also show that you are more negative on films watched right before lunch.

The initiative isn’t just about making awards fairer. Voters for Oscars, BAFTAs, BIFAs and the like all work in the film industry, commissioning ideas or producing as well as voting once a year. So there’s a potential halo effect to this sort of policy. As BIFA head Amy Gustin says, ‘Not only would we be able to make a positive impact on the results of voting, and therefore platform diverse voices, which obviously has a beneficial impact on emerging filmmakers, but we would also be able to perhaps shift, a little bit, the kind of media that’s being made. The long-term impact might be that commissioners and script developers develop a broader range of stories, which in turn would hopefully make this training totally unnecessary because we’re all brought up surrounded by stories that are multicoloured and multicultural. So we’re hoping that we can change the world.’ Gustin laughs. ‘One step at a time.’

Every step forward matters. The recent Oscar wins for films like Parasite and Moonlight suggest that things are changing, that these wider and more diverse voting pools are making a difference and that the industry is looking beyond the traditional, stale old subjects. Now is a good time for people who want to change the world, and Hollywood, for ever.

Women vs Hollywood: The Fall and Rise of Women in Film, by Helen O’Hara (Little Brown). Available for £18.99 and from in the UK.

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