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Earlier this week the LA Times unveiled the fruit of 20 researchers’ labor: old, rich, white men dominate the AMPAS. I was as shocked as you are.
I kid. I do. There’s nothing wrong with the article as such, and the structural dynamics of the Academy do bear looking at.
One of the strange, self-devouring aspects of the internet is that it is now common practice for critics to reflect on, riff off, add to or otherwise deconstruct one another’s work. A positive element of the trend is that a conversation develops in our virtual realm. Of course, levels of discourse are, as ever, varied. We’ve not yet weighed in on the matter and I do so now with a grain of salt, and a bit more sass than I had originally intended. Is it earth shattering news? Clearly not. Does it seem to be indicative of an overindulgence of the paper’s resources? Ish.
Let’s take a glance at the United States Congress. According to ThisNation, the House has 362 men and 76 women. In the Senate, there are 17 women and 83 men. 361 members of the House are white, 44 are African American, 25 are Hispanic and seven are Asian. 96 members of the Senate are white, two are Hispanic and two are Asian. To be frank, I’d rather see the LA Times devote those man-hours to investigating how the racial and gender composition of Congress effects the way laws are created and implemented.
(Hint: They convene a council on women’s reproductive health issues, and decide that it’s best for the ladies to retire to the drawing room at that time.)
I assess a fair portion of this situation from the feminine perspective because it is one I can speak to on an experiential level. But the truth is that the bias revealed in the LA Times piece is felt across gender and race lines.
We’ve all had to manage and negotiate the burden of perception in one way or another. Though the lion’s share of the people in my field are remarkable creatures I feel blessed to know, I tire of the indulgent looks a small (but felt) number my colleagues bestow upon me as they assume a position of grandiosity whilst stating their cinematic opinions. It seems to matter little to them what my background may or may not be, and they rarely bother to investigate as it is so much easier to assume, for the most part, inaccurately. I am a small blond female and have encountered countless “oh, look, it talks and knows what color reversal is!” expressions of shock mid-interview with a filmmaker. Annoying? Very. But there are certainly larger issues in the universe, even in my own little world.
I can say with clarity that I’ve had jobs where I was hired based on appearance (though they were primarily in a service capacity) and I have had positions where, due to superficially based perceptions, I was paid less than a male who had fewer skills and qualifications than I. And so it goes. Should it be an issue that I am a female? Who cares? It is one. Not one that defines my choices, but to pretend that things aren’t so keeps them stagnant. Women still earn roughly 75 cents to the male dollar here in the U.S. and until I receive a 25% “vagina discount” from my creditors, I’m going to find that more than a little bit problematic.
Does it matter that the Oscar voters are (as the LA Times reports) nearly 94% Caucasian and 77% male? Well, it does to me. It matters in the sense that it speaks to an industry that is grotesquely outdated and atrophied. It happens to be my industry, so yes, it matters. It affects the livelihoods of many people I care about, as well as my own. In light of a continued recession, it matters.
The real issue is employment and how these figures effect and reflect employment practices. Believe me, most of us would rather have a job than see the Academy manufacturing a false sense of diversity. Create diversity via your hiring patterns and then let that, over time, be reflected come Oscar night.
Here is a brief overview from the article of how employment breaks down along gender lines in the industry at present:
“Women account for 17% of film writers employment. The academy's producers branch is about 18% female, and the directors branch is 9% female, figures comparable to those in a study by San Diego State University's Martha Lauzen. She examined the 250 top-grossing movies of 2011 and found that women accounted for 25% of all of the films' producers, and 5% of all their directors.”
(Let us pause to really reflect on the fact that women represent over 50% of the population.)
As we can see, women have fared a bit better in the producer’s sphere. That is a good thing. And yet it so often feels like one step forward, two steps back. Brand new stereotypes have cropped up to stranglehold women in what is so often, at its root, a support role. “Producer” is an amorphous term in Hollywood. There are so many facets to the job that it can describe a myriad of positions. Sometimes it denotes a high level of influence (indeed, the most significant if you are a studio executive), sometimes it denotes a financial stake and sometimes it denotes a role that is more akin to a management position.
So we begin to hear things like “women are good producers because they are organized, because they can multitask, because they are nurturing” and so on. There may in fact be some truth to those assessments. I would not and do not argue that men and women are very different beasts. Indeed, I love those variances. I love that we each have some of the masculine and some of the feminine. I love the way that balance plays out in both our individual psyches, in our relationships and ultimately in society at large. I love the traits that are so uniquely male and I also, very much, love being a woman. The point is to recognize our unique skill sets and value them equally. Additionally, we must account for individual strengths and weaknesses.
It may be true that women (in very general terms) have some native and some developed attributes that lend themselves to a producer’s tasks. It is also true that those same attributes can, and do, lend themselves equally well to a director’s chair.
Scientists are working to understand how the physical differences in the male and female brain translate to traits and strengths. But one difference they can discern is that women have more white matter, a larger corpus collusum and more cellular connections, allowing for a faster transfer of information between the left and right sides of the brain. This means, theoretically, they can connect seemingly unrelated pieces of information and tend to conceptualize in less linear terms (think: big picture).
Whereas men have more grey matter, tend to operate more from the left-side of the brain, and function in more individuated terms (think: one task at a time). Both the male and female proclivities lend themselves to different, but effective, directorial styles that have an equal chance of yielding powerful and evocative films.
Of course, these are incredibly broad stokes and each person is going to bring their own singular talent palette to the table. But the endeavor is to get a seat at said table to begin with.
The Times article indicates that Frank Pierson, a former Academy president who won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for "Dog Day Afternoon," feels that the Academy’s structure is a result of an egalitarian meritocracy. "I don't see any reason why the academy should represent the entire American population,” he said. “That's what the People's Choice Awards are for. We represent the professional filmmakers, and if that doesn't reflect the general population, so be it."
The notion that the financial and power discrepancies present in the world are entirely a result of the “cream rising to the top” as it were, is willfully ignorant, rude, self-aggrandizing, irresponsible and frankly bullshit. We could sit here and argue about the cause for the incongruity “on the ground.” But let us look at just the U.S. as an example.
The truth is, if you really cannot concede that a culture that emerged from a history of slavery, that signed the 14th amendment into law less than 150 years ago and the Civil Rights Act that supported it and eradicated Jim Crow less than 50, never (yes never) signed the ERA into law and has misogyny imbedded in nearly every aspect of the language (“Hi, I am a FeMALE, be careful or I may get hysterical”) has some intrinsic and deeply ingrained biases then...you must be on your period.
With all that in mind, let's take a look at the (quite salient) video Melissa Silverstein of Women and Hollywood put together looking at some of the extraordinary work from women directors just this year. And let's also remind ourselves that in 84 years only four women (Lina Wertmüller, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow) have been nominated for Best Director. Only one, Bigelow, has won.
Again, I must beg pardon for focusing on the feminine aspect of the issue, when the problem (and by that I mean inequity across industry and national lines) is clearly far larger in scope.
In any event, we must take note that this business of the Oscars is really a small matter in the grander scheme of global concerns. And the weight and gravity with which the LA Times presented their (somewhat “common-sense says”) study begged for a bit of ribbing. With that in mind, and to conclude on a slightly lighter note, here's a look at what goes on behind the cotton blend golfing pants curtain of the Academy Awards:
For year-round entertainment news and commentary follow @JRothC on Twitter.
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