Biopic and Documentary Week: Women and Biopics–Where Are the Best Picture Nominations?

Women in Biopics
In November 2009, I wrote a brief analysis of the films that won the Academy Award for Best Picture between 2000 and 2010, ultimately asking the question, “What do these films have in common?” The answer is, of course, men. With the exception of Crash (which qualifies as an ensemble drama in all its racist glory), the Best Picture-winning films all center around men, with women either showcased as sidekicks or merely fulfilling one of the ridiculous tropes that drives the (male) narrative forward.
We’ve talked here before about the importance of looking at and analyzing pop culture–like the Academy Awards–even though we’re all well aware at Bitch Flicks that these types of ceremonies don’t actually honor The Best in Cinema. However, paying attention to what’s happening in pop culture helps us understand what society values as important. And according to the past 40 years or so of Oscar-nominated biopics, society thinks pretty highly of White Dudes.
Here is a list of Oscar-nominated biopics about men (since 1976), accompanied by critics’ ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. Asterisks denote Best Picture Winners.

*Patton (97%)

Lenny (100%)

Bound for Glory (88%)

The Elephant Man (91%)

Raging Bull (98%)

Reds (94%)

*Gandhi (88%)

*Amadeus (96%)

*The Last Emperor (91%)

Born on the Fourth of July (89%)

My Left Foot (100%)

Bugsy (88%)

JFK (84%)

In the Name of the Father (95%)

Shine (91%)

*A Beautiful Mind (78%)

The Aviator (87%)

Finding Neverland (83%)

Good Night, and Good Luck (94%)

Ray (81%)

Capote (90%)

Milk (94%)

Frost/Nixon (92%)

The Fighter (91%)

*The King’s Speech (95%)

The Social Network (96%)

127 Hours (93%)

Moneyball (94%)

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Here is a list of Oscar-nominated biopics about women (since 1976), accompanied by critics’ ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. Asterisk denotes Best Picture Winner.

Coal Miner’s Daughter (100%)

*Out of Africa (63%)

Elizabeth (82%)

Erin Brockovich (83%)

The Queen (97%)

The Blind Side (66%)

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So the only biopic about a woman to win the Oscar for Best Picture is Out of Africa, which–based on Rotten Tomatoes scores–critics disliked way more than any other nominated biopics within the past 40 years. 
I don’t have much analysis to offer here because it feels quite obvious to me that 1) Hollywood doesn’t care that much about women’s stories (gasp!) and 2) the stories that Hollywood does manage to tell about women often get much less critical praise. Is that because the films about women are just … worse? Or is it that, again–as is the case with everything from parenting to politics–we hold women to a much higher standard, imposing a level of scrutiny that makes it impossible to focus on women’s successes in the same ways we showcase the achievements of men?
However …
We love our women entertainers! I remember taking a class in college in which we discussed the dynamics of visibility in the patriarchy; we love women and minorities who sing for us, make us laugh, dance for us, play sports for us–but do we want them in leadership positions? Fuck no. And if one looks at a list of biopics in general (i.e. biopics that weren’t necessarily nominated for Oscars or other major awards), it’s easy to see the disproportionate number of biopics and documentaries focusing on women in the entertainment industry. That isn’t to say, of course, that entertainers don’t influence society in significant ways, but they’re less able to directly do so than, oh, women in high government offices, for instance.
I’m reminded of an important documentary, Miss Representation, which we wrote about here, and the astute tagline, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” We’ve got two Linda Lovelace biopics on the way. Wouldn’t it be nice to get, like, a Harriet Tubman biopic?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16195801629178470295 Candice Frederick

    sigh, preach. it would be nice for a female biopic to get some love. i personally think what’s love got to do with it was one of the best. i also love Monster.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03174529197241883636 Charlie Shipley

    I’m wondering where “The Hours” falls for you in terms of being a biopic or not. Certainly it doesn’t fit a straightforward definition, since only 1/3 of the film has Woolf as its protagonist, but Woolf’s presence certainly informs the entire narrative…