'Stories about men, told by men': Oscar nominations snubbed women, say critics

Not a single woman was nominated for Best Director this year, and only five women have been nominated in that category in the Oscar’s 92-year history.
Greta Gerwig, Jennifer Lopez, and Awkwafina.
Greta Gerwig, Jennifer Lopez, and Awkwafina.AFP via Getty Images; AP

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By Erin Delmore

When actress Issa Rae presented the Academy Award nominees for Best Director on Monday, she voiced what a lot of people were thinking with four words: “Congratulations to those men.”

“I think those are moments that really matter, because I think it’s important when you’re inside of the Hollywood system to be able to critique it,” Roxana Hadadi, a pop culture and film writer who has contributed to the A.V. Club, told Know Your Value. “That moment kind of captured how people feel about the status quo.”

Not a single woman was nominated for Best Director this year, and only five women have been nominated in that category in the Oscar’s 92-year history. Only one woman has taken that top award: Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker” in 2010. This year’s shut-out came despite the critical acclaim and box office success of films directed by women, including Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women,” Lorene Scafaria’s “Hustlers” and Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell.”

“A lot of the women who were perceived as front-runners in the screenwriting and directing categories, specifically, were shut out in a way that was sort of surprising, but probably shouldn't be,” said film critic Jason Bailey, who is a contributor to the New York Times. “There was a real feeling [that the films that] were highly nominated — you know, eight, nine, 10, 11 nominations — were all stories about men, told by men.”

“There's still this overwhelming sense that women’s stories and women storytellers are not seen as weighty and as important and as award-worthy as their male counterparts,” Bailey added.

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The Academy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“Joker” led the pack with 11 nominations this year, and it’s vying for best picture alongside “Ford v Ferrari,” “The Irishman,” “Jojo Rabbit,” “Little Women,” “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” “Marriage Story,” “Parasite,” and “1917.”

While Gerwig’s “Little Women” didn’t receive a nod for Best Director, its six nominations also include Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Gerwig herself was the woman most recently nominated for Best Director for “Lady Bird” in 2018. Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Todd Phillips, Sam Mendes, and Bong Joon-ho were nominated in the Best Director category this year.

“Famously, the Best Director category is the one that we’re seeing a lot of the focus on in terms of disappointment and pushback,” Bailey said. “And that’s because it's traditionally a category that just does not recognize women. It’s also a field where women struggle for opportunities and for equal footing.”

He praised Gerwig’s adaptation of “Little Women” as a unique interpretation of a classic story through a new lens and called her omission in the Best Director category “egregious.” He also pointed to writer-director Lulu Wang, who’s film “The Farewell,” was talked about for best actress, best supporting actress, even for best picture, for screenplay — but came up empty handed.

Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson in Greta Gerwig's "Little Women".Wilson Webb / Columbia Pictures

“This has always been an organization that has had some difficulty recognizing the work across the gender spectrum, if you will,” Bailey said.

Much has been said about Jennifer Lopez being snubbed in the best supporting actress category for “Hustlers.” And as part of “The Farewell”’s shut-out, Awkwafina — who won the Golden Globe for best actress in a musical or comedy — didn’t get an Oscar nomination.

In a rare move, Scarlett Johansson picked up nominations for best actress for “Marriage Story” and best supporting actress for “JoJo Rabbit.” “Harriet’s” Cynthia Erivo was the only non-white person nominated in the best actor or best actress categories.

“As a woman of color, I was pretty disheartened by those nominations” Hadadi said. “It takes a long time to create change within the industry and think the voting body in the academy can be very hegemonic.” Of the Academy’s more than 9,500 voting members, 68 percent are male and 84 percent are white. That’s despite the Academy’s steps to increase gender parity and diversity in the ranks of its members, who vote to select the nominees

While the Academy makes changes to its membership, change in the industry itself may be slow to follow. “It's an industry that's overwhelmingly controlled by men, and by control I mean the people who have the power to make decisions about what films are made and what stories are told,” Bailey said. “And as a result, fewer women are given those opportunities, fewer films by and about women are made. And then when the time comes to recognize the highest achievements in cinema, there are fewer films by and about women to choose from.”

Bailey points out that while it’s easy to dismiss the Oscars as subjective, the awards themselves carry a lot of weight. Splashing “Academy Award-nominee” on a movie promotion can drive audiences to theaters or streaming platforms in a way movie critics can’t. And an uptick in ticket sales or rentals generates revenue, which reinforces decisions on which movies get green-lit.

“They're making movies to make money, and especially in the kind of sort of character-driven, small scale, non-franchise, non-sequel, non-tentpole films that women are typically given the opportunity to make, [an Academy Award nomination] is a real key to those films proving profitable,” Bailey said. “We're still at a weird point where there are such a minority of films that are made by and about women, that every one that is given even a slightly significant budget is perceived as some sort of test. There’s a fear that if this fails, then another woman’s not going to get an opportunity to tell us her story.”