Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


The Big Screen

oscars-statues

(Photo: a katz/Shutterstock)

Why the Oscars Should Be Segregated by Gender

• December 31, 2013 • 10:00 AM

(Photo: a katz/Shutterstock)

Awards shows are great for women in Hollywood, but they can still do much more.

In an ideal world, there would be no Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. No Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress either. In this hypothetical Hollywood, recognition is bestowed for the most masterful performance of the year—gender regardless.

Obviously, we don’t live in that world. Despite all the Jennifer Lawrences and Melissa McCarthys, Hollywood is still dominated by a conspicuous gender bias. Swedish cinemas made news in November after several adopted the Bechdel test to identify gender bias in the material of various films—going so far as to exclude failing films from cinema lineups. It’s certainly a problem worth addressing, but perhaps the gravest examples of Hollywood gender bias lie behind the scenes. The New York Film Academy compiled this helpful infographic to illustrate some of the more shocking statistics. Among them:

  • In the top 500 films produced from 2007 to 2012, only 30.8 percent of speaking roles are filled by women.
  • Only 10.7 percent of those films featured a gender-balanced cast (half of the characters being female).
  • There are 2.25 working actors for every working actress in Hollywood today.
  • Ninety-one percent of working directors are male.
  • Eighty-five percent of working screenwriters are male.
  • Eighty-three percent of executive producers are male.
  • Ninety-eight percent of cinematographers are male.
  • Only 35 women were nominated for Academy Awards in 2013, as opposed to 140 men. There were no women nominated for directing, cinematography, film editing, original screenplays, or original scores.
  • Seventy-seven percent of voters in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are male. (Seventy-seven percent!)

Clearly, gender-based award categories are essential to maintaining even a tenuous presence for talented women in Hollywood. The award for Best Actress in a Leading Role forces that 77 percent of the Academy to recognize the wealth of female excellence in acting—the Meryl Streeps, the Annette Benings, the Viola Davises. It forces the overwhelmingly male Hollywood establishment to budge up and make room for equally talented women.

And yet, 28 percent of female Oscar nominees in 2013 were actresses. Only seven percent of male nominees were actors. It appears the best vehicle for female success in Hollywood is through acting. So while those awards shows are highly effective in elevating dramatic talent in a gender-egalitarian fashion, they do very little to improve the position of women behind the scenes. (Which is the only category outside of acting in which women dominate? You guessed it: costume design.)

Here’s another statistic: Only four women in the 85-year history of the Academy Awards have ever been nominated for Best Director. Lina Wertmüller (Seven Beauties, 1975), Jane Campion (The Piano, 1993), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, 2003), and Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, 2008). So far, Bigelow is the only woman to take home the golden statuette.

During that same 85-year span, only seven female producers have won the award for Best Picture. Julia Phillips (The Sting, 1973), Lili Fini Zanuck (Driving Miss Daisy, 1989), Wendy Finderman (Forrest Gump, 1994), Donna Gigliotti (Shakespeare in Love, 1998), Fran Walsh (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, 2003), Cathy Schulman (Crash, 2004), and Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, 2008). Fun footnote: each of those films was co-produced by at least one man.

In an industry dominated by one of the world’s most powerful boys’ clubs, forcibly creating a space for women might be the only option.

SHORT OF EJECTING ONE-THIRD of male voters from the Academy (which won’t do much to correct gender bias anyway, given that women voters won’t necessarily vote for female nominees—nor should they), the only viable option for elevating female directors, writers, producers, et al, is to gender-segregate all individual-achievement awards: acting, costume design, cinematography—all of them. Best Director, Male; Best Director, Female; and so on.

“Women in film don’t need charity,” wrote Dina Gachman for Forbes earlier this year. “Yes, the numbers suck. It just doesn’t seem like charity is what women in film need. How about celebrating the good things, like the Sundance statistics this year?” Yes, let’s. The only conceivable opposition to a gender-segregated Oscars is “there aren’t enough lady-directors.” But that’s simply untrue. In 2013, half of the narrative films at Sundance were directed by women.

Some might ask, will segregating award shows actually do anything to combat gender bias in Hollywood? The answer is yes. For example, women-only awards for acting (Best Actress in a Leading Role, etc.) force Hollywood, and by extension American audiences, to sit up and take notice of undeniable female talent. Why can’t the same be said for directing? Or screenwriting? Or cinematography? Yes, they’re vastly different in function, but ultimately, they’re all modes of artistic expression. Evidently the problem isn’t an existence of female talent behind-the-scenes, but rather exposure thereof. When you create more opportunities for women in Hollywood to earn recognition, you forge a marketable demand. And in an industry dominated by one of the world’s most powerful boys’ clubs, forcibly creating a space for women (i.e., gender-segregating award shows) might be the only option.

Example: Octavia Spencer, who up until 2011 enjoyed only small roles on television and in decidedly B-list movies. Then she was nominated for her supporting role in The Help, and now, two years later, she’s slated to star in NBC’s primetime reboot of Murder, She Wrote. Nora Ephron was nominated for writing Silkwood in 1983. Who’s to say whether When Harry Met Sally… or Sleepless in Seattle or You’ve Got Mail would have been greenlit without that initial recognition? Despite the endless bandwidth devoted to insisting otherwise, big-time awards like the Oscars are meaningful. They can skyrocket the careers of talented actresses, and if Ephron is any example, the equation applies to the minds behind the movies as well.

But why kowtow to Hollywood conventions? Why utilize an antiquated and sometimes exclusionary and demeaning institution to disrupt gender bias?

THE MOST EFFECTIVE WAY to change a large, complex establishment is from the inside out. Yes, a number of powerful Hollywood executives are “sexist bozos,” as Dina Gachman called them, but they speak another language beside boardroom misogyny.

The American higher education system underwent a similar kind of inside-out change. The co-education of major universities in the 1960s and ‘70s forcibly created a space for female students. Today, the (slim) majority of degree recipients are women—reflecting the (slim) popular majority of women over men in the U.S. today. Female college and university presidents, although still woefully underrepresented, have been growing in number at a steady pace for decades. According to a report from the American Council on Higher Education, from 2006 to 2011 alone, the number of female college presidents rose 3.4 percent. They formed only 9.5 percent of college presidents in 1986, but increased in number by 16.9 percent by 2011. That rate shows no signs of plateauing—elite colleges and universities are now actively seeking female leadership. Like Hollywood, academia is an incredibly powerful American establishment. And like Hollywood, it’s not a consolidated industry that can be changed by external factors. The most effective disrupters attack from within.

That’s not to say there aren’t economic reasons to increase female presence in commercial cinema. The studios behind Oscar-nominated films see an average margin of increase of 247.2 percent between production budgets and ultimate box-office revenues. In short, gender-segregated awards would require more categories. More categories entail more nominations. The more nominations in a given year, the more likely a given film will receive that fat 250 percent profit. Will more nominations simply dilute the amount of funds each nominated film receives? Possibly. But inarguably, a nomination increases viewership, which increases box-office profit.

Rob Hunter of Film School Rejects writes: “Per the studios’ profit agenda very few big budget films are handed to inexperienced directors as they instead chose names with a proven track record or at least a temporarily high profile.” What constitutes proven track record and high profile? Largely box-office sales, but also awards like an Oscar or a Golden Globe.

Widening the playing field would bring smaller (yet equally as artful) female-helmed projects under consideration. Sarah Polley, for example, who wrote and directed Take This Waltz, could have made an apt addition to the 2012 nominations for Best Director. A mere nomination might open up a number of doors for Polley, who is just as talented a filmmaker as male industry-favorites like Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. The Academy is still open to an element of low-budget filmmaking that studio executives are not—that’s how films like Beasts of the Southern Wild do so well. Oscar categories for female directors and writers are a way of shoehorning talented women into the seemingly impenetrable and endlessly cyclical boys’ club.

Here’s another fun fact courtesy of NYFA: Women purchase half of the movie tickets sold in America. Who’s better equipped to write, direct, and produce movies that will appeal to that demographic? Michael Bay? Hollywood may not be gender-blind, but never is it blind to dollar signs. When more women are nominated, everybody wins.

Jake Flanagin
Jake Flanagin is a researcher at The Atlantic. Follow him on Twitter @jakeflanagin.

More From Jake Flanagin

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.