In recent years there’s been growing visibility to the plight of representation of women and racial minorities in the media. Campaigns like #AskHerMore and #TimesUp have drawn considerable attention in the mainstream, garnering an awareness of the alleged “male whiteness” of the Academy Awards.
#TimesUp featured prominently at the January 2018 Golden Globes ceremony, where celebrities wore black clothes and #TimesUp pins to indicate their support of survivors of sexual assault and abuse. Gender may be in the spotlight as of late, but the lack of racial diversity in the media has long been discussed. In 2015, a single hashtag was tweeted: #OscarsSoWhite. The hashtag gained momentum fast, resulting in controversy and ongoing discussion of the lack of diversity in Oscar nominations.
In 2016, renowned director Spike Lee announced he would not attend the ceremony because he “would not support (the lack of diversity).” That year, the Academy pledged to make several changes to membership practises with a goal of diversifying. The Academy’s approach assumes that by diversifying membership and capping the lengths of memberships, we will begin to organically see improvement in the representation of women and people of colour at the Awards.
To investigate if the 90th Academy Award nominations signify improvement is a complicated task. While the emphasis in recent years has been on diversifying the nominations, diverse narratives with diverse characters are equally important. Beginning with an overview of the history and function of The Academy, this investigation will explore the gains and losses for women and racial minorities in this year’s Oscar race.
What is The Academy?
The Oscars are a product of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. A professional honorary organization, the Academy is made up of approximately 6,000 motion picture professionals who are divided into branches according to profession. Branches include actors, directors, screenwriters, producers, cinematographers, make-up artists, designers and more.
Although the Academy welcomes members from around the world, membership is by invitation only, primarily American and member listings are not made public. Candidates may also be elected – in which case two existing members must nominate them.
Are you qualified to become a member? Let’s find out.
Candidates must meet these basic qualifications:
- Must be a film artist working in the production of theatrically-released motion pictures.
- Must be sponsored by two existing Academy members from the branch to which the candidate seeks admission.
- OR, if you happen to have won an Academy Award, you are automatically considered.
Sounds pretty simple, but the qualifications all relate to the candidate’s body of work within the industry. After meeting the basic qualifications, the candidate must meet qualifications for their specific branch. For example, an actor/actress must have:
- A minimum of three theatrical feature film credits, in which they played scripted roles, of a high calibre and one of which released in the last five years.
- OR, have been nominated for an Academy Award in one of the acting categories.
Once one has joined the Academy, they may see new films for free and have access to free screeners. Every year, the 6,000 professionals of the Academy are mailed ballots to vote on the nominees, as well as the winners.
How is a film nominated for an Academy Award?
To be considered for nomination a film’s producer or distributer must submit the film for adjudication. An integral element of the submission is a signed Official Screen Credits form, which lists the names of all involved in the film’s production. Rules and eligibility differ according to category but some criteria apply to all submissions.
For example, films must have had a theatrical run lasting longer than seven days and they must premier in theatres (rather than online or television). Ballots are sent to all members who are instructed to vote genuinely: justification for their vote is not required. According to Entertainment Weekly, there is no penalization for eccentric choices.
Nomination votes are done by branch: only a director may vote for the Best Director nominations. These votes allow for 5 choices per voter, and their choices are numbered. Ballots are manually sorted and counted by Pricewaterhouse Coopers; this same accounting team has managed the mailing and counting of the ballots for over 80 years. A second round of ballots is mailed out to decide the winner of each category. Then, the winner is voted for by the entire Academy rather than by branch.
Why so white and male?
The overwhelming white maleness of Oscar nominations is attributed to the historical pattern of power and oppression in North America. Throughout the 20th century, women and racial minorities actively fought for basic rights, while white men maintained an indisputable position of authority. Women and POC didn’t have an authoritative presence in the public sphere, let alone the work force. Therefore, their presence in the film industry was nil – meaning that for the better part of the 20th century, a white and male Academy Awards season was inevitable.
In the 21st century, when women and POC have made drastic gains in their political and social rights, the question of why white and male is more nuanced.
Statistics in the timeline above were retrieved from La Times, Women and Hollywood and Statista. Images from: indiewire, 3.bp.blogspot.com, static goldderby, the wrap, the nyrd.
These shocking numbers demonstrate how challenging it is for women and POC to gain a presence in the film industry.
The Representation Project attributes this difficulty to a lack of examples. When women and POC see their own gender and race portrayed in specific roles, they are more likely to aspire to those roles. Young white men grew up watching an Academy Awards season to which they could relate. For young women or POC to imagine themselves in a position of film-making authority, they need to see more prominent and relatable examples.
Oscars 2018: Has there been progress?
In 2016 the board of the Academy announced that a unanimous vote had been held in favour of changes which aimed to improve diversity in the Oscar nominations and membership. They pledged that by 2020 they would double the number of female and minority members in the Academy. The Academy decided that lifetime voting rights would be reframed, new governor seats would be added, and the committees would be restructured. We are into the second Awards season since these changes were incurred… so have they correlated with visible improvements in diversity?
In 2016, the Academy invited 683 new members to its governing body. The Academy publicised statistics in honour of their pledge to diversify. As per their goal, 2016 showed a doubling in female and minority invitees.
In 2017 the Academy invited 744 new members to its governing body. 39% of these members were women, and 30% were people of colour. Although these percentages were not as strong as in 2016, they did emphasize overall improvement. The overall membership of women and POC in the Academy is still less than half, but the numbers are indeed rising. And the rise of diverse members has reflected stronger diversity in the Oscar nominations.
The 2017 nominations broke records. For the first time since 2007, 7 non-white actors were nominated. A black actor was nominated in every acting category, and actress Viola Davis was nominated for three awards, setting the record for the most nominations for a black, female actor. For the first time in history, a black woman (Joi McMillon) became the first to be nominated in the editing category, for her work on Moonlight. Dev Patel became the first Indian actor to be nominated in 13 years, for his work in Lion. Actress Meryl Streep broke the record for the most nominated actor or actress in history, with her 20th nomination. Following the overwhelming whiteness that was the 2015 and 2016 nominations, the record-breaking of 2017 suggests that the Academy’s push for diversity was delivering results.
So how did 2018 add up? The directing category challenged it’s white male history by including one female director (Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird), one black director (Jordan Peele, Get Out) and a Mexican director (Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water). Black actress Octavia Spencer earned a nomination for Best Supporting Actress (The Shape of Water), and Pakistani-American writer Kumail Nanjiani earned a nomination for Best Original Screenplay (The Big Sick), making him the fifth nominee in the category of Asian descent. Rachel Morrison (Mudbound) made Oscar history by earning the first female nomination for Best Cinematography, a nod towards female accomplishment in the technical elements of filmmaking.
The 2018 nominations proved a second year of improved racial and gender diversity, but perhaps the most notable element of change was in the nominations which acknowledged an array of identity politics. Strong Island, nominated for Best Documentary, made Yance Ford the first transgender director of an Oscar-nominated film. A Fantastic Woman stars Chilean transgender actress Daniela Vega. Oscar history has often recognized cis-gender actors for their portrayal of transgender characters: Vega’s nomination signals a depart from treating trans identity as a “part,” a role that one dresses up as to play.
While the Oscar nominations are integral to encouraging inclusivity, the kinds of narratives that the nominated films portray is of equal importance. The Shape of Water offers an unusual fairy tale which preaches love and acceptance, while subtly criticizing the racist social politics of the early 20th century. 3 Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri portrays a grieving mother and survivor of domestic abuse, who seeks revenge for her daughter’s unsolved rape and murder case. Mildred is an angry, imperfect character, opposite of the stereotypical trope of the passive and submissive woman. Her desire for revenge extends beyond revenge for only her daughter – Mildred seeks revenge for the gendered violence that is instigated against women as a group. Call Me By Your Name tells the coming of age story of a teenager who falls in love with an older man. This LGBTQ love story tenderly follows a young man as he explores his sexual identity, love, and loss. Phantom Thread explores dynamics of power, control, dominance and submission in a heterosexual relationship – within the context of a specific historical period. Lady Bird, another coming of age story, introduces us to a complex female character as she navigates sex and relationships, and her misunderstanding of her mother’s sacrifices. And of course, Get Out uses the horror genre to satirically critique racism, using the “sunken place” to represent the prison-industrial complex and the marginalization of African-Americans.
These films, all nominated for Best Picture, represent a departure from the white, male and hetero-centric focus of Oscars past. 2018 has offered us a beautiful collection of inclusive, diverse stories which engage with important politcal and social issues. While genuinely enjoyable to watch, these films offer us an opportunity critically think about the world around us, and the diverse people we share it with.
In pledging to achieve change, the Academy took on a challenging but necessary task, privy to scrutiny. Because change does not occur organically, direct action had to be taken to address the lack of diversity in the Oscar machine. The changes which were made to the Academy membership process do correlate with improved representation and inclusivity in the nominations. In turn, these improvements will result in the dissemination of films which tell important stories. It will encourage filmmakers to tell diverse stories. And ultimately, will encourage tolerance and empathy in viewers. While there is always more work to be done, the Academy has made a good start.
By Erin Elizabeth Hynes
Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page