Sexism and the Oscars

// 26 February 2008

Sarah Churchwell has written a thought-provoking article over at Comment is Free about how women lose out at the Oscars unless it’s ring-fenced as a woman’s award.

In 1928, at the first Academy Awards, there were 15 categories. Men won in 14 of them, but Janet Gaynor managed to sneak away with the award for best actress.

Comment Is Free

Last Sunday there were 24 major categories of which women won in seven categories, twice on their own, five times jointly with men (there is also one name I can’t place into a gender, sorry). This equates 29% to compared to the 1928 7%. Of those two were women only categories (the two sole winners) and of the total 26 winners (counted individually) only there were only seven winners. The categories also show gender bias with women winning in Costume Design and Music and men in film editing and cinematography. The only non-traditional woman’s win was Karen Baker Landers for sound editing.

The problem is that awards which do not segregate on the basis of gender tend to overlook women altogether. There is no Nobel prize for women’s literature: women go head to head with men. And they’ve won 10 times in 107 years.

The best actress category persists because we wouldn’t want to risk the possibility that no women would win an Oscar, for obvious reasons – which have nothing to do with equality and everything to do with economics, of the sexual variety.

Comment Is Free

Obviously, this being Comment is Free the usual host of misogynistic responses are there (although some of the best/worst ones have been moderated off the site now) those left up include:

JeremyJames: “you are a senior lecturer in American literature and should know better. You have misused the word ‘gender’ all the way through your piece – gender is grammatical, sex is biological. And the word, correctly, is ‘actress’ which is not a synonym for ‘slut’ any more than ‘actor’ is a synonym for narcissist.”

NevOmphalos: “Women, why not concentrate on doing a better job and fighting your way to the top- rather than arguing for special dispensations?”

MrMydak: “I think that the issue may be down to ability more than “discrimnation”.”

Comments From You

Eleanor T // Posted 26 February 2008 at 4:23 pm

“Of those two were women only categories (the two sole winners) and of the total 26 winners (counted individually) only there were only seven winners.”

Forgive me if I am misunderstanding your statistics here, but a single woman did win an award all on her own which wasn’t a Best Leading Actress or Best Supporting Actress award. Diablo Cody won Best Original Screenplay for “Juno”.

Also, I watched the entire programme (what can I say? I’m a geek for awards shows) and even though there was the usual nonsense about women’s dresses and ‘glamour’, I felt the whole thing to be far less misogynistic than your blog entry suggests. Women presented awards, received awards and performed with good grace. Two stand-alone women with clear minds of their own won awards (Diablo Cody and Tilda Swinton) and The Academy was far more likely to give awards to foreign entries than home-grown nominees, which I think shows signs of progression on a different scale than man vs. woman. Perhaps your blog could have reflected this better?

I love this site and have contributed myself in the past, but sometimes it does feel as though bloggers complain about the wrong stuff.

jim jay // Posted 26 February 2008 at 8:36 pm

Eleanor may be right on the statistics, I’m not sure, but I do think it’s probably wise to use caution about where the sexism has crept in (and I’m sure it’s there).

After all if the industry more broadly is not giving women the golden opportunities, then even the least “tainted” Oscar process wont produce many female Oscar winners.

If women find it harder to get film scripts accepted, or to become recognised cinematographers (and I don’t know enough about the subject to know if that is the case) then they don’t get into the position of even being considered for an Oscar. Is it the industry or the Oscars that is responsible? Possibly both – but by far the most serious aspect is the industry in my view.

On a less serious note I see that the alternative to the Oscars, the Razzies (, which nominates for the worst performances, has nominated Eddie Murphy for a whole host of awards including worst actress (for one of the roles in Norbert) so men may be crowding women out of even the women’s awards there.

Davina // Posted 26 February 2008 at 9:20 pm

This is completely beside the point, but just noticed Cath Elliot (the lovely Mswoman for regular CiFers) has written an article about the ‘Angry White Men’ column piece that’s been floating around recently. If you haven’t read it I suggest you do so now.

Angry White Men:

I haven’t read Mswoman’s article but I am sure the usual comments are up there!

Cath Elliott:

Tasha // Posted 26 February 2008 at 10:54 pm

Statistics do not lie; however, I do think this has been a misappropriation of these particular numbers. Obviously, I have unique knowledge about how winners are really chosen, but I do think that the startling male/female ratio is owing not to the Academy, but the ‘boys club’ that is Hollywood. As a female editor, I know that it is not a matter of ability, but opportunity that creates the gender disparity [so I’m not saying women need to ‘suck it up’ and make better movies], but maybe we should look at this more as a symptom rather than the root ailment.

Evie // Posted 27 February 2008 at 10:54 am

Hayley Atwell is: 25, British, an actor and utterly gorgeous. At least she is in the eyes of everyone but Miramax Films who suggested she might lose a few pounds before taking the role of Julia Flyte in Brideshead Revisited. Enter her co-star Emma Thompson who, noticing that Atwell wasn’t eating all her grub, demanded to know why, before calling Miramax and threatening to quit the film if they didn’t lay off. Which they promptly did. Bravo, Emma!

Incidentally, Miramax is run by man mountain Harvey Weinstein, who could well afford to lose a few stone himself.

Jane Purcell // Posted 27 February 2008 at 11:09 am

I do love the fact that both fashion hags and the right wing press are all of a purple faced fluster over Tilda Swinton, the winner of the Best Supporting Actress oscar. Not only is she in her late 40’s, but she is living in some mutually agreeable menage a trois, causing the Daily Mail to practically explode with moral indignation. Worst of all she attended the Oscars without wearing makeup. And WON.

What is the world coming to? Tut tut huff huff . . . .

Louise Livesey // Posted 27 February 2008 at 3:03 pm

Which was precisely the point that Churchwell was making.

As for this being a misappropriation – I am not sure from whom I have misappropriated them. If you mean you think they are a misuse please do tell me how – the statistics speak for themselves (well with the correction by Eleanor T who was quite right I’d miscounted Diablo Cody).

Louise Livesey // Posted 27 February 2008 at 3:07 pm

Thanks for that Davina, the original article is quite scary – especially the bit threatening to beat Hilary Clinton “like a drum” (ostensibly about the election).

Whitney // Posted 30 October 2008 at 3:41 am

I have to agree with those comments from NevOmphalos and MrMydak. Why should women have a separate category? Because they’re women, and couldn’t possibly stand up to men so they need to be put aside to have a fighting chance? Isn’t that a little backward?

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