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The Oscars And Bias

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Yet again Hollywood has failed women.  Of the eight best picture nominees, Birdman, Whiplash, American Sniper, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, and Boyhood, only Boyhood could even remotely be considered to be about a woman’s story, and even then, the story is about a boy, and his relationship with his mother.

As Gina Davis notes in this post on the McKinsey website, unconscious bias in media has not changed in the last 40 years.  Davis notes that women have only 30% of speaking roles and 17% of actors in crowd scenes and only 23% of films feature women in co-leading roles.  Women seem to top out at 17% in politics, senior executive roles, tenured professors – in fact 17% seems to be a common number.  This may reflect what we call in academia the “one and done” philosophy – that you get one woman in a powerful position, so you don’t need to do any more for gender equality.

Why does it matter that women are seen only as adjunct characters to men’s stories? If women are not represented as agentive actors in their own stories, we come to think of women as passive followers.  Study after study show that we associate agentive (active) behaviour with leadership. When women are never seen as agents in their own stories, we reinforce the stereotypes of the passive, kind, sweet female follower.

Reese Witherspoon and 40 other female nominees all put an effort to have the red carpet interviewers “ask her more”, in other words, ask female nominees about their work, not about what they are wearing.  Witherspoon is a great example of someone trying to change Hollywood’s belief that women’s stories aren’t commercial enough for the big screen.  Her production company Pacific Standard produced both Gone Girl and Wild this year.  I think that this has been out of necessity for Witherspoon.  As women age, they start to disappear from the screen, with a few exceptions (yes, Meryl Streep is still a movie star).  Yet most men can eek out a career well into their 70s.  You would think that women cease to exist after menopause.

But the fact remains, that if the Academy does not acknowledge films that feature women’s stories, or acknowledge women producers, directors or writers, we are going to remain a society that reinforces stereotypes of women being vehicles to advance men’s life experiences, rather than an equal world, where we share interest in the way that both men and women see the world.

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