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The controversy over female directors at the Oscars, explained

With the work of female filmmakers seemingly sidelined (and not for the first time), a conversation has started about the role of diversity and inclusion in the arts

Sam Levy and Greta Gerwig on the set of “Lady Bird.”
Sam Levy and Greta Gerwig on the set of “Lady Bird.”
Merie Wallace, A24

The 2020 Oscars nominations stirred up controversy almost immediately after they were revealed in January.

After what has been called a “banner year” for women in film, none of the five Oscars nominees for best director were female. Presenter Issa Rae summed up the feelings of many Oscars observers after announcing the contenders for best director, saying flatly, “Congratulations to those men.”

Though the Academy has been trying to respond to criticisms it has faced in recent years about diversity and inclusion by increasing the number of voters in each of the categories, according to The New York Times, the lack of women represented is not unusual.

In the 92-year history of the Academy Awards, only one woman has ever won an Oscar for best director, according to The Hollywood Reporter. What’s more, only five women have ever been nominated in this category.

The reveal of this year’s nominations has once again stirred up a conversation about women and other underrepresented groups in Hollywood, with everyone from “Little Women” actress Florence Pugh to horror writer Stephen King weighing in on the subject.

A ‘banner year’ for female directors

It was a “banner year” for female filmmakers in 2019, according to a recent study from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which stated that the year saw the highest number of women directing films since the study began 13 years ago.

Of the top 100 highest-grossing films of 2019, 12 of them were directed by women, the study found. This was an increase of 4.5% from 2018.

This image released by Disney-Marvel Studios shows Brie Larson in a scene from “Captain Marvel.”
This image released by Disney-Marvel Studios shows Brie Larson in a scene from “Captain Marvel.”
Chuck Zlotnick, Disney-Marvel Studios via Associated Press

What’s more, films by women performed well at the box office in 2019. Two of 2019’s 10 highest-grossing movies were co-directed by women, “Frozen II” and “Captain Marvel,” while films directed solely by women, like “Little Women” and “Hustlers,” have had strong box office numbers, as well.

After studying the Metacritic scores of top movies over the last 13 years, the USC Annenberg study found there was essentially no difference in the critic scores of films directed by men and those of films directed by women.

However, despite there being little difference in the critical scores of films, and despite the progress made by female directors, Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to have won an Oscar for best director.

Bigelow received the award in 2009 for her war drama “The Hurt Locker,” and some have noted that the film (even though it was directed by a woman) tells a male-centric story, according to BBC News.

“It worries me that for a female filmmaker to break into the club, she has to make a war movie or give her take on preening masculinity,” film critic Jason Solomons told BBC, adding, “It’s a shame that equally emotional films about ways of being female in this world, like ‘Little Women,’ haven’t shouted as loudly.”

In 2020, “Little Women” director Greta Gerwig (who was nominated for best director in 2018 for “Lady Bird”) was just one of several women who were discussed as possible nominees for this year’s award, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Actress Florence Pugh, who played the role of Amy March in Gerwig’s “Little Women,” told Entertainment Weekly it was “incredibly upsetting” that Gerwig did not receive a nomination.

“She’s literally made a film about this,” Pugh told EW. “She made a film about women working and their relationship with money and their relationship with working in a man’s world. That’s literally what ‘Little Women’ is about, so (this) only underlines how important it is — because it’s happening.”

‘Never consider diversity in matters of art’

However, directors was not the only Oscars category to receive criticism.

Jiang Yongbo, Aoi Mizuhara, Chen Han, Tzi Ma, Awkwafina, Li Xiang, Lu Hong, and Zhao Shuzhen in “The Farewell.”
Jiang Yongbo, Aoi Mizuhara, Chen Han, Tzi Ma, Awkwafina, Li Xiang, Lu Hong and Zhao Shuzhen in “The Farewell.”
Big Beach

Actress Awkwafina made history at the 2020 Golden Globes when she became the first actor of Asian descent to receive an award for lead actress in a musical or comedy for her performance in “The Farewell,” according to CNN.

Despite her recent win, however, Awkwafina was not nominated for an Oscar, and neither were favorites like Jennifer Lopez and Lupita Nyong’o. The only woman of color nominated in any of the acting categories was Cynthia Erivo for her role in “Harriet,” NBC reported.

Bestselling author Stephen King took part in the Oscars nominating process for the categories of best picture, adapted screenplay and original screenplay, according to The Guardian. And the day after the nominations were announced, he took to Twitter to share his take on the controversy surrounding diversity in Hollywood.

“I would never consider diversity in matters of art,” King tweeted. “Only quality. It seems to me that to do otherwise would be wrong.”

King quickly faced backlash from a number of prominent voices, including author Roxane Gay, who noted that his comment “implies that diversity and quality cannot be synonymous.”

King later walked back his comments by tweeting, “The most important thing we can do as artists and creative people is make sure everyone has the same fair shot, regardless of sex, color, or orientation. Right now such people are badly underrepresented, and not only in the arts.”

‘A very important conversation to be having’

This conversation about underrepresented groups in Hollywood and the arts is not likely to go away any time soon. According to University of Utah film professor Sarah E. S. Sinwell, it is “a very important conversation to be having.”

Awards like the Oscars are important because they influence what kinds of stories can be told, Sinwell noted in an interview with the Deseret News.

“The awards give these films a push in the marketplace,” Sinwell explained. “They allow these films to stay in theaters longer and allow people to see them in ways they might not have otherwise. So, by including them in awards and nominating them, that gives people of color, women and minority groups an opportunity to be seen.”

Oscars nominations and awards “have real effects on which kinds of stories get told, sold, and distributed,” Vox reported on Jan. 13.

Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Eliza Scanlen and Florence Pugh in Columbia Pictures’ “Little Women.”
Wilson Webb, Columbia Pictures

In the case of a film like “Little Women,” when it is not considered for awards on the same scale as a more male-centric film, “that’s a strong signal to the rest of the industry that women’s stories don’t carry the kind of prestige value that men’s stories — which women generally are willing to watch, and which we generally consider ‘universal’ rather than male — are believed to hold,” according to Vox.

Sinwell believes it’s important that a variety of stories and storytellers are considered for nominations and awards.

“I think there’s a lot of people that look for representations of themselves, whether it be women, people of color or intersectional identities, that really want to see themselves on screen,” Sinwell told the Deseret News. “And these are the kinds of things that we should be thinking about when we’re thinking about which films have been nominated.”