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The Oscars keep snubbing women-made and focused genre films and it's bad for business
The nominations for the 92nd Academy Awards were announced on Monday and, despite some stellar choices, we couldn’t help but feel incredibly disheartened by the results. In a year where zero women were nominated for Best Director and 19 of the 20 acting nominees were white, it was tough not to feel as though Hollywood was once again taking a major step back. Despite repeated assertions from the Academy that they were working towards greater diversity in their membership and insistences that they were as disappointed by the white male domination as everyone else was, progress continues to feel like a pipe dream.
The worst part is that most of us were predicting this. Even in a year where women made some truly amazing movies and there was such a variety of films to enjoy and appreciate, we just knew that history would repeat itself once more. In 92 years of celebrating the supposed best and brightest of cinema, they've still only managed to nominate five whole women for Best Director, all of whom have been white, and only one of them took home the award. It's embarrassing. Another sad fact made all the more evident by this year's nominations was how speculative fiction of all kinds remains mostly ignored by Academy voters. There was one honking exception in the form of Joker, but even that's a movie that’s gone out of its way to insist that it's not really a comic book movie (even though it totally is). Nothing for Us, Midsommar, or High Life, three of the best-reviewed speculative works of the year. I’m sure it's coincidental that all are either made by women or centered on female protagonists.
We're used to this pattern. In 1988, Penny Marshall directed Big, starring Tom Hanks. Despite it becoming one of the highest-grossing movies of the year and the movie landing its leading man a nod, Marshall did not get a Best Director nomination. Warner Bros. pushed Wonder Woman in a major way for Oscar recognition with a very expensive For Your Consideration campaign that saw Patty Jenkins doing directors' roundtables and being celebrated for her groundbreaking work, yet the film still landed zero nominations. This year, despite giving one of the best performances of the year, Lupita Nyong'o was not considered Oscar-worthy for her turn(s) in Us. Name a great genre film either made by a woman or centered on women's stories and the chances are that the Academy seemingly forgot of its existence. The exceptions are so few and far between that you can't help but wonder why we even bother.
Before we continue, a quick note: Yes, the Oscars are kind of silly and they’ve never been an indicator of quality or merit. Ultimately, the Academy Awards are an inherently fallible way to historically keep track of the supposed best films of any given year. A film that doesn't win any awards is not objectively worse than one that wins ten. The Oscars are, however, the best gauge we have of how the film industry sees itself, the message it wants to send to the world, and the people and stories it prizes above all else. That's why it matters when women filmmakers are shut out and when the stories that audiences by and large consume are treated as secondary to the same middlebrow sad boy war dramas that seem to dominate proceedings year after year. When you combine the misogyny of the business with how the most popular genres in storytelling today continue to marginalize diverse voices, you have a veritable melting pot of how the entertainment world sees most of the planet's population.It's not hard to see why women audiences and storytellers are so drawn to science-fiction, horror, and fantasy to tell their own tales. The speculative offers freedom for thematic and personal exploration that can greatly liberate us from the smothering constraints of reality and realism. In regards to the Oscars, it's obvious that straight white men's stories are recognized above all else, and within those narratives, everyone else is relegated to side-characters, walking morals, or speechless supporters: the loving spouse; the helpful minority; the lesson to be learned. That's assuming they're even included in the story. A lot of the time, we’re just not there to begin with. Genre fiction is making leaps and bounds in this regard, especially in terms of the high-concept, big-budget studio tentpoles that are seen by the vast majority of audiences. There is still a hell of a lot of work to be done (skinny white women are still the stars of this particular show) but as the box office revenues show, this is something people want and it’s something they need.
The Academy loves to move the goalposts constantly so that women directors and stories centered on women are never able to meet their amorphous standards. Oh, you made a critically beloved movie in the form of High Life, Claire Denis? Fine, but it didn't do well enough at the box office for us to care. Ah, you directed Big, the fourth highest-grossing movie of 1988 and helped get your leading man an Oscar nomination, Penny Marshall? Sure, but still not enough (Marshall also directed Awakenings, which landed a Best Picture nomination in 1990 but no director nod for her, which led Billy Crystal to joke that the movie must have directed itself). Hi Lupita, loved your work in Us, but was being in a horror movie and playing two roles really harder than Charlize Theron playing a Fox News anchor?
The consistent maligning of such stories isn't as simple as a bunch of old white dudes collectively deciding to ignore them. It's rooted in decades of systemic misogyny, coupled with the business machinations of an industry that sees no benefits in taking supposed risks. It's a problem mixed in with how certain narratives are historically prized over all others, and how such films seldom have space in them for anyone who isn’t a straight white man.
There are always "reasons" why women and their stories get shut out by the Oscars: It was a crowded year for competition; another director was overdue their award; the buzz was with other films; someone else campaigned more effectively. All of these justifications seem easier to swallow than the cold-hard reality, as shown by decades of nominations, that misogyny is real. It’s made all the more aggravating by the exceptions to the rule. Think of the glorious Oscar success of Mad Max: Fury Road, a fiercely feminist action film that was too good for even the Academy to ignore. They're clearly open to this, when the stars align and everything fits their narrative, but most movies like this don't even get that opportunity to form said narrative, so history simply repeats itself.
There's no room for Lupita Nyong'o in Us or Florence Pugh in Midsommar or films like The Babadook, Atlantics, Raw, or even Wonder Woman. All this does is make the Academy increasingly irrelevant, especially as it makes a hard U-turn back to embracing whiteness above all else. They're leaving good money and positive publicity on the table by refusing to embrace the future of the medium, so it shouldn't surprise them if audiences tune out and stop caring. If they only want to view women and our stories in the way they deem "acceptable" then why bother adhering to such smothering standards? They need us more than we need them.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.