Amplify
 

January 19, 2020

 
Amplify: JLo’s Oscars snub isn’t the point. Who’s telling women’s stories is what matters
 

Kate Taylor

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Photo illustration The Globe and Mail. Source photos: VALERIE MACON/AFP via Getty Images, Emma McIntyre/Getty Images, Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images
 
Well, clearly JLo was robbed. And, of course, Greta Gerwig too.

 
In the days after the Oscar nominations are announced, there is always some lively second-guessing by media and fans. In recent years, the complaints have tended to focus on gender and race: #OscarsSoMale followed #OscarsSoWhite. This year, critics pointed out there was once again no woman nominated for best director – even though Gerwig’s Little Women was nominated for best picture – and only one of the 20 acting nominees unveiled Tuesday (Cynthia Erivo for Harriet) isn’t white.

 
I’m Kate Taylor, the visual art critic at The Globe and a veteran on the Arts team who also writes about film and cultural policy. I’m no big fan of the Oscars – a popularity contest among sentimental choices – but I’m interested in tracking women’s place in the screen industries and associated issues surrounding diversity. It can be a disheartening file: The rate of improvement has been glacial in the five years that I have followed the numbers (although 2019 does seem to show some gains).

 
Take that notorious directing category, for starters. Only one woman has ever won it: Kathryn Bigelow in 2009 for The Hurt Locker; the other 70 have been men or male teams. This reflects the directing profession itself. Under Dr. Martha Lauzen, the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University compiles annual statistics on women’s jobs in the industry: For 20 years, it has found that the number of each year’s 100 top-grossing Hollywood films directed by women hovers around four. That was the figure in 2017 and 2018; it jumped to 12 in 2019, which may be a sign that the industry, if not the Oscars, is finally responding to the shaming.

 
 
 
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Still, that leaves us with 88 per cent male directors: To most Hollywood studios, a director looks like a man (and usually a white one). In 2019, women also remained under-represented as writers, taking credit for only 20 per cent of the scripts on the top-100 movies, and are barely visible as cinematographers (2 per cent) or sound designers (3 per cent).

 
You and I can argue whether Jennifer Lopez’s performance in Hustlers was really worthy of a nomination – it’s a subjective judgment – but the stats reveal systemic discrimination, which is why I rely on them when it comes time to write about the role of women and the lack of diversity in Hollywood.

 
You might think this is a question of fairness and employment equity, and it is. These are high-profile, high-paying jobs and people should advance in them according to their talents, not their gender or race. But who gets to make movies is a more far-reaching issue than who gets to be an engineer or a banker.

 
Whether rightly or wrongly, Hollywood provides the world with its most powerful storytellers, people who can shape the imaginations of millions. Think of the cultural reach of a Star Wars or a Titanic. Imagine the ubiquity of a Buzz Lightyear, a Joker or any of Martin Scorsese’s many mobsters (to name characters from several of this year’s nominated movies) and you get some idea of the potential social impact. And, yes, the gender and the race of creators does affect what stories they choose to tell and characters they create.

 
The stats bear that out. In 2019, the top-grossing movies with a least one female director or writer were twice as likely to feature a female protagonist. Women make up half the population but perform only a third of the speaking parts in the top movies, and their roles often remain stereotypical: They are far less likely to be shown as leaders than men are, and are more often defined by relationships (mother, girlfriend) than by profession (doctor, police officer.)

 
These figures include information about the whiteness of Hollywood too: About 70 per cent of male and female speaking roles are played by white actors. My favourite finding was the year the researchers determined you were more likely to see an alien character in a Hollywood movie than a Latina one!

 
This year, Little Women is a textbook example of how female directors and writers make more room for women’s stories: Gerwig’s script and direction stress the feminist themes in the original book and call into question conventional romantic endings. There had been some encouraging signs that millennials were finally bucking the marketing wisdom that men will not go to female-centered movies – 2017’s Wonder Woman did well at the box office – but apparently something called Little Women is a bridge too far.

 
Oh well, I enjoyed that “chick flick” as did several of the men in my family. Now we are looking forward to catching up with another nominee, Ford v Ferrari. The BBC just coined the term “male tale” to describe it, but I’m not going to dismiss a film simply because it’s about guys and cars.

 

What else we’re watching:

I hadn’t heard of Angela Schanelec when she took the best director prize at the Berlin International Film Festival last year for I Was at Home, But… but that film is now coming to TIFF. It’s playing in February as the Toronto festival’s year-round cinematheque mounts the first-ever North American retrospective devoted to the German director’s work. She’s described as placing elliptical and emotional family stories in precisely observed contemporary urban settings: In I Was at Home, But…, a 13-year-old boy returns from a week-long disappearance that has caused his mother intense anxiety. Yet, the film also follows secondary characters in unrelated stories, an example of how Schanelec breaks from traditional cinematic realism and linear narrative. So, a new female director to discover.

 
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