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Sexism in films not confined to Oscars

Nina Hagen
March 12, 2013 • 1,561 views

At last Sunday’s Academy Awards, the awards for Best Actor and Actress respectively went to Daniel Day-Lewis for “Lincoln” and Jennifer Lawrence for “Silver Linings Playbook.” Imagine, however, if these two actors had been asked to compete for the same Oscar.

This scenario has been proposed a number of times over the past few years, including in a 2010 opinions piece by New York Times writer Kim Elsesser. In her article, Elsesser argues for a gender-neutral Oscars – a ceremony in which the four Best Actor/Actress and Best Supporting Actor/Actress awards would be condensed into two, with both genders competing in each category.

Elsesser argues that the Oscars’ gender-separated categories “merely insult women, because they suggest that women would not be victorious if the categories were combined.” Further, she reasons that the rise in women’s social status over the past few decades makes the need for such an attempt at maintaining equality unnecessary and irrelevant.

What Elsesser has failed to consider is the current status of women in Hollywood; due to the lack of substantive roles for women that the Academy would consider “Oscar-worthy,” it is clear that Hollywood is not ready for a gender-neutral Oscars.

While recent films have seen a rise in strong female roles – Maya of “Zero Dark Thirty,” Aibileen of “The Help” and Lisbeth of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” among others – roles for Hollywood actresses are mainly restricted to the damsel in distress, the romantic comedy lead or the nagging girlfriend. Until the playing field is leveled to ensure that actors of both genders are given equally deep and compelling roles, combining the acting categories would virtually ensure a category dominated by male nominations.

Happily, this unfortunate trend has not gone unnoticed; feminist author and cartoonist Alison Bechdel created a test that investigates gender bias and inequity in film and other media. To pass the Bechdel test, a film must feature at least two women who at some point talk to each other about something other than a man. Few popular movies today are able to pass this test, whether they feature plots driven by male action stars killing each other or women obsessively attempting to find a suitable male partner.

Through her test, Bechdel hopes to expose Hollywood’s rampant sexism and, as a result, both ensure an increase in substantive roles for today’s multitude of talented female actors and inspire the creation of deeper and more intellectually-stimulating films. Hopefully, future film directors will look to the Bechdel test as a way of determining the quality of their work.

Indeed, another way the film industry can create a more diverse array of female roles is to encourage the innovation of female directors and screenwriters, many of whom would love to showcase actresses in meaningful stories. A great example of this is Director Kathryn Bigelow’s work in the aforementioned “Zero Dark Thirty,” which features a woman succeeding in a classically masculine line of work. Bigelow’s Maya is far from perfect – she is much too invested in her desire to capture Osama Bin Laden and, as a result, neglects other aspects of her life – but her imperfections and complexity as a character make her all the more intriguing.

While the idea of a gender-neutral Oscars ceremony is appealing in theory, it would actually be a step backward for gender equality unless the film industry made concerted efforts to level the playing field and give actresses the opportunity to shine in “Oscar-worthy” movie roles. It has been exciting to watch a recent rise in such roles, and it will certainly be interesting to see what the coming years bring in this regard.


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