The Sexist

How The Sex-Segregated Oscars Were Good For Film

Yesterday, City Paper colleague and NPR commentator Bob Mondello floated a solution that would trim the bloated Academy Awards telecast "and strike a blow against sexism"—unsex the Oscars. Mondello:

Nobody separates Best Director from Best Directress (directrix?), or Best Editor from Best Editress, so why Best Actor and Best Actress? Combine them, and let the best "performer" win.

Seriously. Colin Firth vs. George Clooney isn't half as intriguing a matchup as the brawl-of-the-drawls you'd get if The Blind Side's Sandra Bullock were allowed to compete with Crazy Heart's Jeff Bridges. Imagine Meryl Streep's Julia Child going up against Morgan Freeman's Nelson Mandela—now that'd be a contest.

It seems a bit odd that Mondello's solution for eliminating sexism in the Academy would be to cut one of the few Oscar categories that reliably awards women for their achievements in film. The Academy has never separated Best Director from Best Directrix—and in 82 years, a woman has never won in that category. But Mondello anticipated this criticism:

Yeah, yeah, I can just hear the objections to combining categories: Men get all the roles; they're higher paid; their pictures have bigger budgets. Well, let me concede most of that, but also let me note that these are new developments.

The academy's original logic for separating the acting awards by gender was probably that if they hadn't done so in Oscar's early years—the 1920s and '30s—the men would've watched as Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo walked off with all the trophies.

That's a fun fact: The olde tyme Oscars were so scared that men might not sweep every single category that they made a special one just for the women, thereby situating female actors as complements instead of competitors. And despite the sex-based segregation, from Mondello's view, women are still on top of the acting game:

. . . Yes, of course the game has changed since then, but it's changed in a way that could actually work against men at Oscar time. The blockbusters and crime dramas that men have dominated since the studios' heyday rarely win acting awards any more. Performers wanting to place that neutered gold statue on their mantels these days have to play in something more touchy-feely—what used to be called, um, women's pictures.

Except that a real "women's picture"—like, one directed by a woman—has never won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. The films Mondello is talking about are, for the most part, films written by men, directed by men, and produced by men; real "women's pictures" have been consistently boxed out of Oscar, and all the money that comes with it. Only four women have ever been nominated for Best Director, including this year's great female hope, Kathryn Bigelow; several more women have had their films nominated for Best Picture without a corresponding Best Director nod for the woman at the helm. Men have dominated every type of film since forever—especially the type of films adored by the Academy—so the idea that male actors have to confine themselves to a feminine filmmaking tradition in order to score a Best Actor nod is bunk.

Still, it's worth examining Mondello's central argument, which is that if the sex-segregated acting categories were combined, women would reliably kick some ass:

I mean no disrespect to Matt Damon's rugby playing in Invictus, Woody Harrelson's crying in The Messenger, Christopher Plummer's erudite dithering in The Last Station, or the respective killing styles of Stanley Tucci in The Lovely Bones and Christoph Waltz in Inglourious Basterds. But would even one of those guys stand a chance in a gender-neutral supporting performer category, competing with the ferociously manipulative mom Mo'Nique plays in Precious?

I'm guessing no. The academy will almost certainly reward Mo'Nique on Oscar night — and that would be no less true if she were competing with the boys.

The Academy has, for almost a century now, specifically lent support to the work of women in that one category—acting. I suspect it is not entirely a coincidence that, given this historical support, women would continue to bring home the statuette even if they were forced to compete with male actors.

I can't say how deep an effect the existence of "Best Actress" and "Best Supporting Actress" categories has had on the film industry, but I know this: These categories reward filmmakers who write strong female characters. And even today, the existence of good stories about women can hardly be taken for granted in Hollywood. Like Mondello, I bristle at the unnecessarily sexist distinction between great male actors and great female actors. But as onerous as a "Best Female Director" category would be, I know that if that category had existed 80 years ago, Hollywood would have actually been forced to support real "women's pictures" all the way down the line, and today's great female filmmakers would not be staring down an 80-year legacy of being left out of the show.

  • kza

    Forty percent of the best picture hopefulls have a woman as a writer, co-writer, or director. The Hurt Locker was directed by a woman and that has 9 nominations. I think we're ok to make it one category for acting.

  • Amanda Hess


    This is the first year that the academy has decided to expand its Best Picture noms to a roster of ten, and I think that move will open up the playing field for films that haven't traditionally been honored by the academy. Some of these films will be films by women.

    However, I'm not sure your calculation is particularly significant. A woman co-wrote District 9; women directed An Education and The Hurt Locker; I'm not sure where you're getting the fourth out of the ten---maybe Sapphire, who wrote the novel Precious was based on? If I'm missing a lady in here, let me know.

    So, you've listed four women out of what is (at least!) 20 positions, which is not a very strong showing.

    Furthermore, half of these women were not nominated in their respective categories: Bigelow was nominated as Director, but Lone Scherfig wasn't. Terri Tatchell, who was nominated alongside Neill Blomkamp for District 9 for adapted screenplay, was the only woman to be nominated in either of the screenwriting categories. If Precious wins, only Geoffrey Fletcher will win the award, as Sapphire won't be awarded for writing the source material.

    Obviously, Kathryn Bigelow's film garnering nine nominations is a great step forward (although, going back to Mondello's thesis, this is one "women's picture) that inspired ZERO acting nominations). But women filmmakers are far from out of the woods as far as Hollywood support is concerned.

  • Monjaloca

    Jeremy Renner was nominated for his performance in "The Hurt Locker."

  • Manos Torgo

    I read Mondello's article and don't see where this fear of women sweeping categories is a "fun fact." How does he know this was a motivating factor?
    While there is certainly tons of sexism in entertainment and other businesses, the idea that men were afraid women would win awards is downright laughable. I have no doubt that the men in Hollywood have big egos and consider some awards or fields belong to them, like directing. But Mondello and others assume that the original Academy regarded an Oscar for directing to be on par with an Oscar for acting. This assumption ignores the traditional and still held differences in how the business views those in front of the camera with those behind it.
    Most of the early "technical" jobs in film were held by men and therefore needed no category based on gender. The first awards made no room for costume, makeup, etc. But because since day one of films, people, especially men wanted to see gorgeous women on screen, so actresses were in demand.
    Look at how our society placed huge importance on Miss America you see men worrying about Mr. America or Mr. Universe pageants? Are those televised?

    If in 1929 there was just a single award for Best Actor, men would not have cared that Janet Gaynor beat Emil Jannings. It wouldn't be some type of blow against patriarchy. At that time and as now, there is a difference between being in front of and behind the camera. Just as in fishing there is a difference between the fisherman and the bait. So I reject Mondello's assumption of "facts" without evidence.

    As far as current proposal, that's up to the Academy. Its their award and makes little difference to me. But if there were only one category, you can bet that nominations would look very differently, so I wouldn't compare current nom's against each other. 2001 would have had Denzel Washington against Halle Berry...So if we want to talk gender, great...but let's also not forget about Hollywood and race too.

  • Amanda Hess

    @Monjaloca Thanks for the correction, I'm sorry I overlooked Renner!

  • tracey

    feminists are always trying to get their grubby man-fingers into everything. As a woman I find their hate-mongering and rabble-rousing quite offensive. There are real problems in this world to combat, and to make an issue of something as asinine and wasteful as the Academy Awards is probably the stupidest thing that I have ever heard of.

    And as for that quote about Mo'nique (seriously? Is that little apostrophe necessary? Monique is a perfectly nice name, why ruin it with unnecessary punctuation?) why should anybody reward her for portraying a role that my stepmother had perfected in less than six months? There's nothing new about a manipulative terrifying sea monster of a woman. That's been going on since prehistory. All Mo'nique had to do for that role was to go sit in the hallway of an apartment building in downtown Atlanta for a week; she'd have found all the inspiration she needed right there.

  • Liz

    I'd point out that not only have only 4 women been nominated for Best Director that there were very few female directors at the time they began the Academy Awards, and it's really only been the past 25 years that there has been an influx of female directors. Therefore only recently would they have any need to make a best female director category. Also, out of the four nominated female directors--2 were foreign directors. So based on some ridiculous logic, you could say that half of the "respectable"* female directors out there are foreign, and we all know how hard it is to be nominated for anything aside for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars (Slumdog Millionaire being the first "foreign" film to really sweep to awards).

    If anything, his argument seems to support a female director category rather than de-sexing the acting awards. Regardless of what Mondello thinks, the reason there is a Best Actress position is because it was the only place women were encouraged to work in the industry. I have a feeling, it wasn't because men were afraid the women would win, but that the women had to fight to get their recognition from the men.

    *I put "respectable" in quotes because there are plenty of women directors but they do things such as The Squeakel or Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, AKA films that would never get them nominated. Look at Amy Heckerling, she did great work with Fast Times and Clueless, but those are "teen" movies that would never be considered.

  • snobographer

    Female directors make touchy feely movies like The Hurt Locker and American Psycho and Boys Don't Cry and Monster.

    Male directors make hard-edged movies like Titanic and Valentine's Day and The English Patient.

    If Mondello is of the belief that female movies are "touchy-feely" and male movies aren't, he's too misinformed to be making this argument.

    Liz - Slumdog Millionaire was directed by Danny Boyle and produced by a U.S. studio, otherwise it would have went to the Best Foreign Film category. Also, Loveleen Tandan co-directed it with practically no acknowledgment outside feminist circles. Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay! was a far superior movie concerning the same subject matter and only got one Oscar nom (Best Foreign).

    Also also, foreign films used to be included in the Best Director category until Lina Wertmüller was nominated for directing Seven Beauties in 1975. She was the first woman ever nominated for a Best Director Oscar.

  • snobographer

    AND also also also, the reason there are so few female directors is the film industry is and has always been based on exclusionary white male cronyism. Female film-makers don't get funding for big projects.

  • Reid

    Seriously, the Oscars? This is the same outfit that deemed Forrest Gump to be the best film made in 1994. As an institution it has zero credibility. Just ignore it.

  • Pingback: links for 2010-02-22 « Embololalia