Beyond the Ball Gowns: Sexism at the Oscars

Oscar as woman

Oscar as womanLet’s talk about the Oscars. I love the Oscars. I love the jokes, the dresses, the sheer presence of Meryl Streep… I do not love the Academy’s penchant for gender discrimination. It’s no secret that Hollywood—just like many workplaces—favors white men. But I had no idea until I started doing research for this article that the inequalities run so deep.

Looking over the list of Best Picture winners from the past few decades, you notice a pattern. Many of the winning movies contain masculine words and male characters’ names: “The King’s Speech,” “No Country for Old Men,” “The Lord of the Rings,”  and “Shakespeare in Love,” to name a few. Female characters may pop in and out of these Best Picture winners as lovers, mothers, and sidekicks, but we see over and over again that male characters are the main characters in Oscar-winning movies.

The few Best Pictures about women drive this point home. Only two Best Picture movie titles from the past two decades contain “feminine” words: “Million Dollar Baby” and “American Beauty.” But even these female-centric stories put men first; the male actors in these movies received top billing on movie marquees! Clint Eastwood eclipsed Hilary Swank in advertisements for “Million Dollar Baby” and Kevin Spacey has become synonymous with “American Beauty.”

So why do stories about women rarely win Oscars? The New York Times reports that Oscar voters are 94 percent Caucasian, 77 percent male, and have a median age of 62. Meanwhile, women make up only 28 percent of speaking roles on screen. With statistics like these, I’m tempted to blame gender inequality on the white, male fogeys of Hollywood. But we, the viewers, have a large measure of control. We decide which movies make it or break it at the box-office. We decide what kind of stories we value.

For more women to win Oscars, we need to redefine what kind of stories we value. Amelia Showalter of Newsweek explains: “People will roll their eyes if I suggest that 1995’s ‘Sense and Sensibility’ is a better film than best picture winner ‘Braveheart,’ but how much of that eye roll is about quality and how much is a culturally absorbed feeling that Jane Austen is frivolous and war epics are important?” It’s not just the old fogeys of Hollywood that prefer “masculine” movies over “feminine” ones. Hollywood is a business; it supplies what the public demands. And so long as Americans think of “Braveheart” as epic and Jane Austen as frivolous, Hollywood will continue to prioritize stories about men.

We obviously have a long way to go before women achieve equal recognition in Hollywood—and maybe you and I have a bigger part to play in that process than we thought. You can take a pledge to call out sexism in movies and support media that empowers women and girls. In the meantime, I will catch myself next time I think “Sense and Sensibility” is frivolous.

Recropped headshot by Jason DailMikaela is a nonprofit professional, social activist, and theatre artist from Raleigh, NC. She graduated in 2012 from the College of William and Mary. 




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  1. Margaret

    I wonder what other movies people who are part of this organization recommend? The Iron Lady was amazing. So was The Queen. Incredible acting in both. I loved Judi Dench and Maggie Smith in the Best Marigold Hotel and in Quartet. (And just about anything else they’ve been in.

  2. Solomon Gibson III

    I would be even more specific; Hollywood prioritizes stories about Caucasian men (unless they’re slaves, socially struggling, or tragic in some way).


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