The film industry is currently moving out of summer’s silly season and toward the serious and somber part of each year we have come to know as awards season. From September to December, production companies move away from the hyper-masculine tropes of superhero fare and release the oeuvres they hope will win them a coveted golden statuette. But this year—just like every year—female film goers will be forced to acknowledge that the majority of Oscar-worthy films are not hospitable grounds for women.
Also known as “Oscar bait,” awards season films seem created specifically to earn nominations. They often feature brutal portrayals of war and suffering and are designed to remind us what a dark and complicated thing it is to be human. They also tend to star men.
With the exception of the Hillary Swank melodrama Million Dollar Baby, a film with a female lead has not won Best Picture since 1998’s Shakespeare in Love. And even then, Shakespeare’s female protagonist had to pretend to be a man for half the movie, and share the screen with a man for the other half. Meanwhile Million Dollar Baby, a boxing film in which the female protagonist attempts to embody traditional masculine values and in the process destroys her life, is not exactly a feminist classic.
The Oscar bait model was unintentionally established in 1978, when Universal Studios turned to producer Alan Carr to save their Vietnam epic Deerhunter. He launched a now-familiar awards campaign consisting of an end-of-year, limited box-office run that kept the film fresh in Academy members’ minds when it came time for nominations early the following year. The result? Nine Oscar nominations and an eventual Best Picture win. As a result, what began as a Hollywood marketing strategy has created a loop in which the public perceives violent, melodramatic films released at this time of year to be the “best films.”
And guess who tends to star in these kinds of films? (Hint: It’s not women.)
The 2016 awards season is full of hype. But what we are lacking this year is a Revenant; a film that clearly hovers above all others. This harrowing piece of cinema, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, ticked all the boxes for Oscar bait last year: Brutal portrayals of violence and suffering, personal tragedy leading to triumph, and, most importantly, masculinity as a great civilizing force.
With no Iñárritu-helmed masculine juggernaut in sight, could this be a year when a different kind of film is able to attract critical acclaim? Following years of backlash over the Academy’s white, male-centric membership and the ensuing #OscarsSoWhite boycott, are we finally going to see some diversity?
To be sure, there is some traditional, dude-heavy Oscar bait on the menu. Set for a November release and rumored to be his longest film to date, Martin Scorsese’s Silence is the story of two Jesuit priests who endure persecution while attempting to spread Christianity in Japan. The stylish trailer of Ewan McGregor’s American Pastoral opens with an arthouse explosion engulfing an American flag and goes on to show how a man’s life is destroyed when his daughter joins a violent activist group. At least Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a meditation on the American hypocrisy of “supporting the troops” in the face of perpetual war, and Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge, the story of a World War II soldier and conscientious objector who refuses to fight, promise to question the value of violence. Then again, wartime introspection is hardly breaking the Academy mold.
This year, it’s interesting to note how a disproportionate number of the films generating buzz are also directed by their leading men. American Pastoral stars McGregor and is also his directorial debut. Fences, the story of a struggling black former baseball player, is directed by the film’s star Denzel Washington. Warren Beatty does the same in the Howard Hughes biopic Rules Don’t Apply. At this early stage, we can only speculate whether any of these films will garner nominations, but the fact that they’re already being talked about is a reminder of how intertwined cinematic success is with maleness.
From the silent romantic hero played by Rudolf Valentino to John Wayne’s tough guy, and Stallone’s 1980s action persona to Russell Crowe’s moody brute, leading men and their ability to enact violence is central to our idea of what a movie star is. Hollywood has long used genres like the western, gangster, or action film as a tool to define stardom.
Meanwhile, the association of women with violence is only seen in moments of gender anxiety. In her book The Violent Woman, Hillary Neroni discusses why certain time periods seem to embrace films featuring violent woman: The femme fatales of the 1940s came on the heels of World War II; the horror cycles of the 1970s emerged out of first-wave feminism; and the corporate man-eaters of the 1980s were a response to the culture wars. But these are all really just conventional genre films in which male archetypes have been swapped out for women. These cycles of the past rarely offer an opportunity for female protagonists to redefine genres or what it means to be a hero.
What we therefore see in many Oscar-winning films featuring strong women are the tropes of masculine performance—ones that value the appropriation of ugliness and extreme physical transformations of the body as proof of real suffering and adversity. Much fuss was made about Robert De Niro’s and Sean Penn’s weight loss in Raging Bull and Milk, respectively, as well as DiCaprio’s exposure to hypothermia in The Revenant. Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron, and Meryl Streep were similarly praised for their bodily manipulations in The Hours, The Iron Lady, and Monster. Likewise, Hilary Swank and Natalie Portman were praised for the rigorous physical training schedule they underwent during Million Dollar Baby and Black Swan.
Just as we identify this emphasis on physicality as masculine, we identify an emphasis on emotion as feminine. A “woman’s film” is loosely defined as having a female-centered narrative, often set in the domestic sphere and featuring themes of relationship and intimacy. Some argue that it creates a safe space for female directors and actors to take on the conventions of a specific genre while generating complex roles for women—but others believe it only serves to ghettoize them. Rarely does a woman’s film sweep the Oscars the way a decidedly male-centric Gladiator or Birdman can. Indeed, films rewarded with Best Actress wins are rarely recognized outside of that category. For example, last year’s Room earned Brie Larson am Oscar but failed to win in any other categories. The same goes for the 2015 Best Actress winner Still Alice and 2014’s Blue Jasmine. Even Silver Linings Playbook, which earned eight Oscar nominations in 2013, only took home a Best Actress statue.
This year’s crop of buzzy, woman-centric, potentially Oscar-worthy films—namely Girl on a Train, American Honey, and Certain Women—speak to the idea that the woman’s film is still a contested category. Sometimes it carves out new territory for female protagonists and other times it merely subscribes to established tropes with an added gender twist. American Honey and Girl on a Train fall into the latter category: Like 1991’s Thelma and Louise—and even the more recent Ghostbusters reboot—these films adhere to the idea that a conventional Hollywood genre film such as the detective thriller or the roadtrip film can be made fresh by swapping out the dudes for babes.
Certain Women is clearly hoping for a more conventional Oscar run-up film. It has an A-list female cast and a director, Kelly Reichardt, who’s known to make movies based on literary sources and strong female protagonists. She often works within established genres (such as Meek’s Cutoff, which was a western), but the films, her directorial style, and the individual performances do not call attention to themselves. Her overall sensibility can be summed up as understated. This means that while Certain Women is not hyper-masculine, it’s not necessarily preaching women’s rights, either. The film is allowed to be—but not loudly.
It is possible that both audiences and critics simply no longer understand how to reward a film that doesn’t hit them over the head with an attention-seeking directorial style (Iñárritu, Cuarón), in-your-facing method acting (Daniel Day-Lewis, Jared Leto), or the kind of masculine hero that triumphs via extreme physical duress (Dicaprio, Penn). Instead, awards-season films replace the year-long spectacle of visual effects-fueled fantasy worlds with another kind of spectacle: brutality. The problem remains that both of these styles of storytelling remain deeply rooted in masculine stereotypes.
In order to win big, past winners like Million Dollar Baby and Shakespeare in Love have shown us that women still need to act like men. Perhaps the industry is not yet ready for a film to be both powerful and decisively female. It’s up to audiences and Academy voters to shift our understanding of what an Oscar-worthy film looks like.