2013 Oscar Week: Feminism and the Oscars: Do This Year’s Best Picture Nominees Pass the Bechdel Test?

Written by Megan Kearns.

When people watch movies, they often think it’s just entertainment. That they don’t really matter. But media impacts our lives tremendously. Films reflexively shape and reflect culture. Feminist commentary is vital. 

It might seem like they don’t but the Oscars matter. The Oscars are the most visible celebration of filmmaking in U.S. and possibly the world. They can also positively impact career trajectories in financing and future themes in film. Called “liberal Hollywood,” they continue to exhibit conservative and sexist values and norms.

Too often, films depict misogyny, sexist gender roles, damsels in distress, women killed, and women’s bodies objectified. The Oscars typically reward women for playing roles that support a central male character in films.

The Academy is 94% white, 77% male, often perpetuating sexism and racism with their white, dude-centric accolades. Women and people of color are rarely nominated for — and even more rarely win — major awards. Although the actor – male or female – with the most acting nominations is Meryl Streep (nominated 17 times) and the actor – male or female – to win the most Oscars for acting is Katherine Hepburn (won 4 times).

Only 6 black women — Hattie McDaniel (Gone with the Wind), Whoopi Goldberg (Ghost), Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls), Halle Berry (Monster’s Ball), Mo’Nique (Precious), Octavia Spencer (The Help) — have ever won for acting. Sadly the roles they won for are “maids, single mothers on welfare and one trickster con artist.”

Only 4 women in 85 years have been nominated for a Best Director Oscar — Lina Wertmüller (Seven Beauties), Jane Campion (The Piano), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker). In 85 years, Kathryn Bigelow the only woman ever to win Best Director Oscar. Ever. No women of color have been nominated as Best Director.

In 85 years, only 7 women producers have won the Best Picture title, all as co-producers with men — Julia Phillips for (The Sting), Lili Fini Zanuck (Driving Miss Daisy), Wendy Finerman (Forrest Gump), Donna Gigliotti for (Shakespeare in Love), Fran Walsh for (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King), Cathy Schulman for (Crash), Kathryn Bigelow for (The Hurt Locker).

This year Quvenzhane Wallis is the only female of color nominated for acting. Lucy Alibar who co-wrote Beasts of the Southern Wild, is the only woman nominated for Best Screenplay. No women are nominated for Best Director. There are women directors who could have (and some should have) been nominated – including Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty), Ava DuVernay (Middle Of Nowhere), Sarah Polley (Take This Waltz) and Lynn Shelton (Your Sister’s Sister).
The Academy often overlooks female directors and female-centric films.

Women’s dialogue and plotlines rarely focus on other women or even themselves. If women talk to each other, it’s usually revolving around men. This is why the Bechdel Test – while not perfect or automatically indicating feminism – matters. The Bechdel Test: film must 1) feature two named female characters, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something other than a man.

Now the Bechdel Test doesn’t measure whether or not a film is good or even if it’s feminist or female-centric. And it’s not just about judging films on an individual basis. The Bechdel Test matters because the overwhelming majority of movies fail, indicating the institutional sexism and rampant gender disparity prevalent in Hollywood.

So let’s look at each of this year’s Best Picture nominees:

The heartbreaking Amour focuses on the marriage and love between wife Anne and husband Georges after Anne suffers a stroke. Their daughter Eva and Georges argue about putting her into medical facility. Eva talks to Anne after her stroke but it’s more of a one-sided conversation. It may not pass the Bechdel Test but it’s arguably a female-centric film as Anne is often the focus.

Argo has a woman problem (and perpetuates Iranian stereotypes) as the women are pushed to the background. The two female hostages never interact with each other alone (the way the men do), only as a group, and we never really hear their opinions or views. The Canadian diplomat’s wife and their housekeeper Sahar — a pivotal female character who’s not initially trusted or credited with bravery — talk extremely briefly. Just like the other women in Argo, Sahar’s opinions and views are erased. Her importance truly lies in how she relates to men, again reifying the exultation of men.

The breathtaking and unusual Beasts of the Southern Wild boasts a unique, nuanced, fierce female protagonist of color. While the film focuses on Hushpuppy’s relationship to her father Wink, her relationship to her absent mother is equally important as we see in her wearing her jersey and searching for her. She also has conversations with her teacher Miss Bathsheeba. We often see boys and men in films that showcase a hero’s journey or transformation. But here we see a journey with a strong-willed, opinionated girl. And I couldn’t be more thrilled.

Django Unchained features a black male protagonist spurred on by “heroic love.” It’s wonderful to see a black married couple who love each other onscreen. And Django captures the “psychological and emotional terrorism” blacks endured. But from a gender perspective, women don’t interact with one another aside from a white woman ordering a female slave. Broomhilda – the catalyst of Django’s journey – is ultimately a damsel in distress rescued by her husband.

Les Miserables boasts feminist themes showcasing plight of women – poverty, sacrifice, sexual slavery. Fantine is a pivotal character. While Eponine and Cossette are in the film, they never interact with each other. Rather there’s a love triangle with Marius in the middle. Despite the large cast of characters, Les Mis ultimately revolves around Jean Valjean – one man’s redemption and salvation.

While his mother impacts his life throughout the film, Life of Pi revolves around an Indian boy’s survival on a shipwrecked boat with a tiger and his search for religion and spirituality.

Obviously, Lincoln is about a dude….Lincoln. And yes, his wife Mary Todd Lincoln is depicted as “his intellectual equal.” But again she revolves around him. Also the film whitewashes the abolition of slavery with the omission of Frederick Douglass. Really? How the hell can you discuss abolition without Douglass?? Even when we do see two women together – Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field) and Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben) – they barely converse. That’s right, only white dudes have impacted or changed history.

Silver Linings Playbook features the unconventional friendship and attraction of a Tiffany and Pat, both struggling with mental illness. We learn that Tiffany is a widow who’s been on medication with an unnamed illness. We see Tiffany and her sister Veronica talk with each other about their lives. I loved this movie. Jennifer Lawrence is once again an outstanding badass. And who knew Wedding Crashers’ Bradley Cooper (although I did love him as Will on Alias) was this good? I’m thrilled that we’re starting to see more nuanced portrayals of mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder – Homeland, Friday Night Lights. But when it comes to gender, while Tiffany is complicated, confident and vulnerable, we get a few details here and there about her life. The predominant focus remains on Pat.

The most controversial (and outstanding) film of the year, Zero Dark Thirty revolves around a strong, complex, intelligent female protagonist. Many have disputed its feminism because they believe it condones torture. While it doesn’t condemn torture is vehemently as it could or should, it raises complex questions. Throughout the film, Bigelow shows that not only does she not condone torture, but ultimately makes a bold and damning statement against the U.S.’ War on Terror. Friends Maya and Jessica debate strategy, challenge each other and unwind. Zero Dark Thirty makes an interesting commentary on gender politics, showcases female friendship and a complex female protagonist struggling to assert her voice in a male-dominated world.

So 3 films pass the Bechdel Test. It’s interesting, although not surprising, that two of those films, which are the most female-centric films nominated this year – Beasts of the Southern Wild and Zero Dark Thirty – are also the two with a woman co-screenwriter or woman director.

I’m really, really, really tired of the white dudefest.

It’s really hard to ignore the correlation between the lack of female-centric films and how few women write and direct.

Of the top 250 grossing films in the U.S. in 2012, 9% of directors were women and 15% were writers. Women 18% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on top 250 films. Only 33% of films’ speaking roles belong to women

Despite the fact that women buy 50% of movie theatre tickets (as of 2010), most films feature male protagonists. When a female character exists, usually she’s some guy’s lover, spouse or sidekick. Or she’s the damsel in distress he’s going to rescue, validating his virility and masculinity. Male characters do talk about women but they exist as one topic in the spectrum of dialogue. When we see female characters, they serve as “damsels in distress, pining spinsters, fighting fuck toys,” sexy seductresses or “manic pixie dream girls.” Men’s films are seen as universal. Women’s films are seen as niche. That has to change.

All of these objectifying tropes exist for the male gaze, implying that women’s lives must revolve around men. We need to see more women on-screen and behind the scenes. Hopefully then we’ll see more diversity in female characters in age, class, race, sexual orientation as well as personality traits. 

This past Wednesday, Bitch Flicks guest-hosted Women’s Media Center’s weekly tweetchat #sheparty where we dialogued about women and the Oscars. We discussed the problem, the abysmal stats, focus on male-centric films, and solutions. We also debated if Zero Dark Thirty — which has faced a sexist backlash — would have been universally acclaimed if directed by a dude. I say without a doubt yes. Explaining why talking about gender disparity matters, Melissa Silverstein of Women and Hollywood said, 
“People don’t think about whether a film is directed by a man or a woman. We need to help folks understand why it is important. We need to make people understand in terms they can process about the gender disparities in Hollywood. People don’t think about whether a film is directed by a man or a woman. We need to help folks understand why it is important.” 
So can we change the gender dynamics in Hollywood? Yes, we can. 
Female filmmakers can support and mentor other women. As the recent Sundance Institute study showed, networking is vital, studios must be more supportive of work/life balance for women, and we need to make people realize a gender disparity exists in the first place. We as moviegoers can attend opening weekends for female-fronted or women directed movies. We can support independent filmmakers through Indiegogo, Kickstarter and other crowdfunding campaigns. At #sheparty, Spectra of Spectra Speaks said, 
“Taking on the big bad Oscars is important, but so is doing our part as individuals to support women filmmakers. Write about them. Independent filmmakers need actual support — reviews they can show distributors, social media buzz to coax funders.” 
It’s important to deconstruct and analyze and laud mainstream movies. But we film writers must be sure to write about female-centric films and women filmmakers – both mainstream and indie – too. 
When we see more diverse female filmmakers, we see more diverse female protagonists. We need to see women of different races, classes, sexualities and women with abled as well as disabled bodies. We must demand to see more films featuring strong, intelligent complex women living life on their own terms, whose lives don’t revolve around men. We also need to recognize films featuring women and created by women in awards shows.

Women’s stories matter. Women’s voices must be heard. It’s long overdue for the Oscars to realize that too.

  • feminists are so funny

  • Very interesting article. Thanks for doing all this research. It really makes you see the inequality that is accepted as normality.