Congratulations to those men – I guess? Issa Rae summarised the mixed feelings of many when yet another all-male list of best director Oscar nominations was announced yesterday. It’s possible to note – entirely without snide – that it has been a bumper year for films about men by men. The frontrunners – Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, Sam Mendes’ 1917, and even Todd Phillips’ Joker – provided plentiful and pertinent insights into male power, male ego and male fallibility. But what about the rest of us?
We must content ourselves with Little Women, the lone female-directed film on the best picture list, for, as Aunt March would counsel, that is our lot in life. After decades of being mischaracterised as a cosy tale about sweet-natured sisters and their domestic trifles, Louisa May Alcott’s sardonically titled Little Women finally has a faithful adaptation. Under Greta Gerwig’s passionate direction, it rages righteously about the patriarchy’s narrow definition of artistic merit – amusingly embodied by Tracy Letts’ belittling publisher, Dashwood – and how it works to crush female creativity. How apt.
Does Oscars 2020 feel like a pendulum swing back to the bad old days before women were allowed creativity, or interiority, or speaking parts? Not even. In truth, female film-makers have never been properly acknowledged by the Academy. Only five women have been nominated for a best director award in the Academy Awards’s 92-year history and only one – Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker – has won. On the most recent occasion when a woman was nominated, it was the same woman: Gerwig again for Lady Bird in 2017. Is Hollywood operating a “one-in-one-out” policy for female film-makers?
These stats do obscure progress of a sort. In Oscar terms, Bigelow was the Gerwig of the 00s, and she had to explosively out-testosterone Hollywood’s big boys with films such as The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty just to get a look in. Gerwig has been nominated for pictures that emphatically tell women’s stories. And yet, is it too much to ask that the Oscars acknowledge not just one female story every few years, but a multiplicity, every year?
Because it’s not as if the films aren’t there. Female-directed films now come in more shapes and sizes than a body-positive catwalk show. This year’s could’ve-should’ve-been-contenders include Lulu Wang, Marielle Heller, Céline Sciamma, Lorena Scafaria, Mati Diop and Melina Matsoukas. Why don’t they count?
It’s not as if the Academy is ignoring calls to diversify. Intake numbers increased year-on-year between 2015 and 2018, and overall female membership went from 25% to 31% in the same period. Some genres such as documentary have achieved gender parity, and this is sometimes reflected in Academy Award nominees. This year, four out of five films on the best documentary list have a female director or co-director.
Sometimes, but not always. Oscars 2020 demonstrates that diversity drives will only get us so far. Industry types, critics and ordinary filmgoers still all have to interrogate our assumptions about what makes a film award-worthy. If Ford v Ferrari receives nominations, why not Hustlers? If Marriage Story, why not The Farewell? If Parasite, why not Portrait of a Lady on Fire? Internalised prejudice means everyone, male and female, has a Dashwood in their head, scoffing at the very notion that female experience might be just as valid as male experience. But Jo March didn’t let him get the better of her – and neither should we.