Oscars 2015: How Are Women Portrayed In The 8 Movies Nominated for Best Picture?

Oscars 2015: How Are Women Portrayed In The 8 Movies Nominated for Best Picture?featured

This Oscar season, it struck us how there have been eight movies nominated for the Best Picture Oscar this year—and of those eight movies, none of them tell stories about women (The Theory of Everything comes closest, because it tells the story of a man and a woman). As NPR‘s Linda Holmes points out, most of these movies all share a common trait: they’re about white men with “‘complicated genius’ profiles.”

Five women have been nominated for Best Actress, and except for Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), none of their movies have been nominated for Best Picture. Marion Cotillard has been nominated for Two Days, One Night, a drama which centers on a Belgian woman struggling to keep her job. In Still Alice, Julianne Moore plays a college professor battling early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The Atlantic points out how Best Actress and Best Picture rarely coincide: “What this all points to—a dearth of leading roles for women—is by no means a novel observation. But these numbers are stark. They provide a glum response to the question of why Wild, a film whose Rotten Tomatoes score (91 percent) puts it ahead of The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, and American Sniper, got zero nominations in non-actress categories.”

Sadly, 2015 marks the lowest nominations for Best Actress films since 2003. Not to mention, zero actors of color have been nominated, and Selma only received two nominations (Best Picture and Best Original Song), sparking the #OscarsSoWhite trending hashtag on Twitter started by @ReignOfApril.

To that note, we put together an analysis of the portrayal of women in this year’s Oscar nominated films — American SniperBirdmanBoyhoodThe Grand Budapest HotelThe Imitation Game, SelmaThe Theory of Everything, and Whiplash — and graded them accordingly. Our ratings aren’t necessarily indicative of the quality of the films themselves; they’re designed to draw attention to women’s representations, or lack thereof.

This post contains mild spoilers.

american sniper sienna miller

American Sniper | F
Fast-paced, emotional, and impactful, American Sniper is exactly what you would expect from a Clint Eastwood directed film. Nominated for six Academy Awards this year, this film is unfortunately no different when it comes to the majority of other films up for Best Picture this year—namely, that there is a distinct lack of female representation in the film.

Sienna Miller was the sole woman in the film (besides a few unnamed actresses with background roles throughout), and did nothing to drive the plot besides play the dutiful wife waiting back home. The film is semi-biographical, with parts taken from the late Chris Kyle’s biography. While I understand that there is only so much they can do with the material, it’s curious to me that there was not one interaction between Chris’s character and a female co-worker—movies, especially war and action movies, still remain a heavily male-dominated realm, one that I hope will begin to change in the future. [Michelle]

emma stone birdman

Birdman | C
The leader in this year’s number of Oscar nominations is Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) which is about a man who chooses to stake everything on a play in order to pull himself from out of the shadow from the immensely popular superhero movie he starred in 20 years ago. Director Alejandro González Iñárritu pairs up with Emmanuel Lubezki for a film widely touted for its strong acting, writing, score and cinematography, but let’s delve further into how Birdman handles its female cast. The film passes the first part of the Bechdel test (does the film have at least two named women?) with flying colors. In terms of the latter two parts of the test, Andrea Riseborough and Naomi Watts’ characters talk to each other once about “making it” in the biz, but that snippet of not talking about a man is stuck in between Naomi Watts’ character complaining about her asshole boyfriend who just tried to rape her. Then Watts and Riseborough unexpectedly kiss and their stories are largely dropped. Technically, Birdman passes the test, but it’s a squeaker.

Unfortunately, the rest of the movie mainly shows how the main female characters, Andrea Riseborough, Naomi Watts and Emma Stone, are largely fixated on men over any other pursuits. The fact that Birdman has received nearly universal acclaim with little mention of how it shortchanged its female characters jives with the fact that about half of current movies do not pass the Bechdel test.

The problem is misogyny, and racism for that matter, are much more often implicit these days. Since those harmful biases had been the norm for decades, the movie studio infrastructure has incorporated them into the system itself so the average person doesn’t normally bat an eye at how little actresses are given to work with. It’s time we start thinking about the subtle transgressions that occur daily instead of the fewer overt comments that briefly send the media into an uproar. It troubles me that all the Best Picture nominees this year have male protagonists, and what’s more — that thought hadn’t crossed my mind until I sat down to write this piece. [Sarah]

boyhood patricia arquette

Boyhood | B+
It’s called Boyhood, but its subtitle could have easily been Motherhood. While the film focuses on how Mason (Ellar Coltrane) changes and grows over twelve years, much of that time revolves around his interactions with his mother and sister. His father (Ethan Hawke) is mostly absent, and that makes Patricia Arquette’s role as Mason’s mother, Olivia, huge — for both Mason, as she is the major role model in his life, and the film itself. We see a mother watch her children grow up and try to muddle through adulthood, swapping husbands and career paths until it feels like she has lived out ever path she ever could have taken. The film is so powerful because while Mason grows up, beginning to become excited about his future, Olivia is already living out that future and moving through adulthood. We see her, as a middle-aged single mother, truly live throughout this film, something that women all too often aren’t allowed to do on screen.

So, when it comes to the presentation of women, Boyhood shows us something truly impressive. Olivia is a more fully realized character than anyone else on screen in the film. So, for the characterization of women in general, Boyhood gets an A. What the film doesn’t do, however, is talk about what life is like for women that aren’t white, as The Atlantic‘s Imran Siddiquee has discussed. But besides the issue of race, I can’t think of a more fluid, interesting or full portrayal of a woman that came to life on our screens this award season.

It is hard, however, to imagine this film being such a success if it were called or focused more directly on girlhood. That doesn’t diminish from the success and power of Boyhood, but it is an interesting and important question to ask (as Flavorwire already has) when looking at such a white and male-centric group of Oscar nominees this year. [Laura]

grand budapest hotel saoirse ronan

The Grand Budapest Hotel | C
I’ll always be the first to say I’m a big fan of Wes Anderson, but I don’t understand why he only has three named female characters in The Grand Budapest Hotel that never even interact with each other, thus not passing the Bechdel Test. The first is Madame D. (Tilda Swinton), a rich dowager countess who is one of M. Gustave’s many lovers. When Zero is retelling the story of when he worked at the hotel, he makes sure to emphasize Gustave’s necessities in his lady lovers: they must be “rich, old, insecure, vain, superficial, blonde, [and] needy.” The second, Clotilde (Léa Seydoux), is simply a French maid who is mainly in the background and has very few lines.

The third is Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), a baker at Mendl’s Bakery who falls in love with Zero and he with her. While Madame D. and Clotilde are merely props in M. Gustave’s story, Agatha is perceived by Zero as a savior. At first glance, she’s a beautiful and charming girl who simply paints and decorates baked goods, but Zero is quick to point out that she’s incredibly brave. She helps M. Gustave escape his prison cell by hiding hammers, nails, and other tools in the cookies they send to him. Although she is introduced as a love interest, she develops into a more three-dimensional character. She’s the one who essentially gets M. Gustave out of prison. She’s the one who retrieves the painting “Boy with Apple” for Zero. She’s the one who notices that there’s something hidden behind the painting. The admiration Zero has for her is easily depicted, making the viewer love her all the more, too.

In writing this, I had decided to re-watch the film again and was surprised to find that I hadn’t even noticed the lack of women the first time I saw the film. Whether it’s because of the time period in which the film is supposed to take place or if it’s just weak writing, my ignorance just goes to show how we’ve become so used to these sexist norms. I don’t necessarily blame Anderson for this portrayal since he has done so well in previous films like Moonrise Kingdom in making sure that women are developed individually and are not simply romantic interests, but I do think it was possible to make use of the brilliant actresses on hand. [Isabella]

The next page has The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, and Whiplash.

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  • Howardstern

    Just because these women were not portrayed how you would’ve liked them to be portrayed doesn’t mean the movies are weakly written. It just means they don’t live up to your standards. There are men that are depicted as villains in these movies but you don’t see anyone making the generalization that all men are bad

  • We explained our intentions at the beginning of the article: “Our ratings aren’t necessarily indicative of the quality of the films themselves; they’re designed to draw attention to women’s representations, or lack thereof.”

  • picklehair

    You’re intentionally ignoring the point of this article.

    Whiplash was my favorite movie of the year, but this post is spot on. Also it’s not necessarily about individual movies, but about overarching trends in the movies that Hollywood produces and promotes. Stop derailing.

  • bipedalist

    They’re boring women, sidelined characters, Stepford wives.

  • RossoVeneziano

    Bechdel test has nothing to do with artistic merit, period. To me it’s totally pointless.

  • thevofl

    The Bechdel test is one of the few tests where the results are nowhere near as meaningful as the discussion surrounding it. [Hell, last year, Gravity barely passed the test—with one line from Bullock to the Shuttle’s captain.] Having the Bechdel test as a launching point for the dialogue around why can’t films have more substantial female characters is valid. This is why it exists.

  • Selma

    I was really rooting for you then you said boyhood doesn’t talk about wo,me who aren’t white then I lost all respect for you.

  • Obviously, no one movie can address all of the issues that exist in our world, but for a film that attempts to chronicle the essence of life, race is notably absent in Boyhood. It’s an incredible film, but I was just trying to point out how, even in films that have full and interesting portrayals of women, women of color are still noticeably absent. For the most part, when we talk about women in this list, we’re talking about white ones; something that’s a trend in the overall representation of women in film.

  • Sara

    I agree; the point of the test is not a measurement of aesthetic or philosophical quality, but to test how well the film recognizes the existence of women in the world around us.

    Cinema, like all forms of fiction (or even more broadly, art) don’t represent a literal truth, but they do convey an emotional truth: art is meant to capture, exaggerate, invent, or share the scope of human experiences. If you grow up with access to film, television, and theater then it literally shapes how we see ourselves and the world. It’s storytelling, and storytelling is how we define ourselves as a culture, to each other and to our children.

    The core assumption behind The Bechdel Test is that women are entitled to have their stories told alongside the stories of men. It’s the assumption that women are people, and any human or even anthropomorphic world in cinema is not valid unless female characters are allowed to fully participate in the narrative. What the Bechdel Test does is to say, in a quick measurement, whether the film recognizes that women have a place in the world.

    It’s a low bar. Just about the lowest bar you can get, and yet most films still trip over it. Whether ethical representation is part of “artistic” merit or not is up to each individual audience member to decide.

  • Sara

    Oops, I meant to say that I agree with the poster below. 🙂 In this case, I disagree with Rosso that it’s pointless, although I do agree that it’s not a measure of artistic merit.

    Unless you think that art which is unethical is lacking in artistic merit…in which case the Bechdel Test is absolutely a measurement.

  • RossoVeneziano

    “Any human or even anthropomorphic world in cinema is not valid unless female characters are allowed to fully participate in the narrative”.

    This is a false assumption and that’s exactly my problem with the Bechdel Test. The claim that every single artwork must represent every single group of people in the world is utterly ridiculous. Art is always unethical because it’s free and the core of any ethics is the denial of freedom. If you judge an artwork based on its alleged moral values you’re legitimizing censorship and you’re totally missing the point: that Art’s domain is not Sense but Beauty. It’s not cinema that must “recognize that women have a place in the world”. It’s politics. Ask politicians to be equal, not filmmakers.

  • Kylie

    in 2015 we should be completely over racism and that includes to the white race which I think people forget is a race, and is long as the the films reflect quality race shouldn’t be a factor. I do believe Selma should have gotten way more nominations including Best Actress but for the simply fact that Carmen Ejogo had a great performance not based on her race.

  • A few things:

    The Bechdel test doesn’t claim that every single art needs to represent every single group of people. It looks at trends in movies and the results show that there is a disproportionate amount of men represented versus women. We’re judging films on a macro level.

    Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it should be criticized and judged. Asking people not to respond to art is an impossible task. Judging art doesn’t legitimize censorship. I would argue that criticism is the basis of freedom of speech.

    And you can’t talk about art without talking about the artist, the context, meaning, history, etc. When most people watch a movie, they’re not just responding to the “beauty” of the movie. They’re responding to plot, characters, themes, the people working on the movie, and whatever morals the filmmakers want you to come away with. By telling people how they can and can’t judge art, you’re pushing your own values on other people.

    Finally, in order to have an equal society, you must ask everyone to be equal, not just politicians.