At The Oscars This Year, It’s All About the Women


The Oscars are nearly here. And we all know it wouldn’t be the Oscars without some Oscar-centric controversy. The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag has been replaced, according to some, with #OscarsSoMale.

A recent study by USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that of the 109 films released in 2014, women received fewer than 29% of the speaking roles. “That breaks down to 2.5 male roles per female role,” notes ABC News reporter Joi-Marie McKenzie.

Now, this discrepancy is real, and I’d love to see more and meatier female roles on the big screen. But it’s interesting that folks are talking about this controversy now. Looking at this year’s Best Picture nominees, strong women sit at the heart of the majority of them. And as we’ll see, they don’t need to have the most lines to be at the center of the story.

We’ll start with Arrival, the deep-thinking sci-fi thriller starring Amy Adams. When a bevy of aliens comes to earth with unknown intentions, it’s up to Adams’ brilliant linguist Louise Banks to figure out what they want. I think Adams’ should’ve received an Oscar nom for her multidimensional work here, playing not just a committed language expert, but a loving, sacrificial mom, too.

Fences did spawn an acting nom (and likely award) for Viola Davis, who plays Rose Maxson, longsuffering wife of Denzel Washington’s problematic protagonist, Troy. While Fences is Troy’s story—his internal battle with his own soul and the toll it takes on the ones he loves—Rose is its moral core, the character with whom we, as an audience, must sympathize.

Near the middle of the movie, Troy tries to justify why he stepped out on Rose. “It’s not easy for me to admit that I been standing in the same place for 18 years,” he says.

“I been standing with you!” Rose thunders back. “I been right here with you, Troy! I got a life too. I gave 18 years of my life to stand in the same spot with you!” Blistering. Rose might’ve stood in the shadow of Troy’s oversized ego and insecurities, but this is no weak woman.

Hidden Figures gives us not one, but three strong women (played by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe). These unsung heroes of the early space program worked in a place and age where racism was an overt, everyday reality for virtually all people of color. But through grace, perseverance and flat-out talent, they eventually received a measure of the recognition they deserved. Like Arrival, the heroines in Hidden Figures are wives and moms. And while the story doesn’t devote as much screen time to home life, it does take the opportunity to show us how important their families are to them.

The love story La La Land, meanwhile, focuses on a girl and boy, both big dreamers who fall in love. Male protagonist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) receives plenty of screen time, but La La Land really feels like the story of Emma Stone’s Mia and her quest to be a movie star. And she’s the one who eventually faces with the movie’s central choice: whether to pursue her acting dream wholeheartedly or give it up for a chance at love.

Next, both Lion and Moonlight have unquestionably male protagonists, but women shape them into who they are and, in many ways, push the story along.

In Moonlight, Chiron’s lifelong template is set, in large part, by his drug-doing mother, Paula. We see the character (played by Naomie Harris) slowly fall deeper and deeper into the clutches of crack cocaine. She’s abusive and neglectful, and Chiron—who has plenty of other issues—suffers the life-changing wounds of that relationship. The fact that he makes it to adulthood at all may be thanks to Teresa (Janelle Monáe again), a mom-like figure who steps it up just at the right time.

Finally, Lion is all about motherhood—and one young man’s quest to find his own mom. Saroo was accidentally whisked away from his biological family in India as a little boy after falling asleep on a deserted train that carried him more than 1,000 miles from home. He had a happy childhood, thanks to his adoptive parents, John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman). But his desire to find his birth mother again powers the story … and leads to some wonderful revelations about the power of family and the beauty of adoption.

Now, all these films have problems, and some have significant ones. I don’t want to minimize those. Nor do I want to minimize the apparent gender inequality in the movies generally being made. But from what I can see from this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees, the message is clear: This year, at the Oscars at least, women rule.

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Anonymous More than 1 year ago

This article really isn't quite sitting right with me. Although you mention the problematic fact that women only have 29%, this whole article feels pretty dismissive. Like, "I don't get why they're complaining - there are some women in these movies, and they're even decent characters and contribute to the storyline some. You women should be happy you're included in the stories at all." I'm sure you didn't outright mean it that way, but that's how it's coming off to me.

At least the way it's framed - by starting off with those trying to bring attention to women's underrepresentation in film and then having your only follow up be a list of a few counter-examples, it sounds like you're saying it's a non-issue. It's like if Person A pointed out that they only got half as much food as Person B at dinner, but your response was just to talk about how good Person A's pasta was. Okay, yeah, the pasta was good, but Person B still got steak and shrimp in *addition* to the pasta, which was all Person A got - hence why Person A brought up the discrepancy to begin with.

In addition, the issue isn't just character representation, although that's one facet. The other is the fact that women are underrepresented as directors, screenwriters, etc. as well.

Andrew Gilbertson More than 1 year ago
The point, as I saw it, is that although that might be a complaint of the industry in general, it's a bit strange to level that complaint at the Oscars - except that it's gotten trendy to attack the Oscars about whatever the current social trend is - because the Oscar nominations do not reflect that lack of representation that exists in the industry as a whole. If they were saying 'movies so male', that would be one thing but 'Oscars so male' doesn't really seem to hold water based on the actual roles of female characters within the nominated films.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
By CbinJ
I was totally with you until I read your second sentence. First, I, as a female, am so tired of this victimhood nonsense. Value does not come from inclusion in  fiction. As a female artist, I find it is far easier to write males than to write females, especially if I want to be realistic. A male character can be more easily related to by both men and women than a female character can. As a female, I relish the fact that I have that versitity that men don't necessarily have. Men need men to look up to. On the other hand, I find women are far more intuitive. Jesus was a man; the majority of the Bible is written by and characterizes male figures. Should we hold a protest? #BibleSoMale 

Second, I am so tired of the quotas. I don't believe the 29% stat bear out*, but even if it does, it was a female Hollywood producer (my favorite producer) who explained in an interview with PIO that men go to the movies more than women do. *The 29% stats definitely don't bear out when you add TV into the mix. It probably gets above the 50% mark on TV. And in fact, women watch more TV than men do (probably by a large percentage if you exclude sporting programs). TV is filled with feminist propaganda, nearly every show on Network TV (including some of my favorites) are female led. Also, considering the people who populate Hollywood, it would be interesting to note hiring discrimination. However, no one is legally stopping women from entering any of the fields you mentioned. More women go to college than men. Single women who work the same job and hours are often paid more than their male counterparts. Women have all the advantages nowadays, yet they are more miserable than at any other time in American history. Equality, especially the feminist version of it, is a farce.

Third, I am so tired of the portrayal of unrealistic women. You want more women portrayed in movies and TV? How about we include respectful and realistic portrayals? I love Marvel movies. Black Widow is one of my favorite characters. But she is my favorite becuase she is vulnerable. I am about to get specific so bear with me: In The Winter Soldier, she needed Captain America to save her. When he was carrying her on his shield after a building falls on top of them--that is a beautiful moment, a win for realism. Then we have Civil War (after complaints that creators made Widow "weak" in Avengers 2 by writing her in a romance with a man), she is beating up two or three huge hulking men. I can suspend disbelief, but that battle in the first 15 mins or so was absolutely ridiculous. We wonder why we have a domestic violence problem, but don't take into account that maybe it is because men are fed these feminist notions that women are exactly the same as men even when it comes to physical tasks and physical fights. We have women beating men up all the time in these superhero movies and crime dramas. It is not right. Like Paul said, it is funny the radical feminists chose this year in particular to complain. The Oscar nominees mentioned in the blog actually do have respectable female portrayals. Arrival, in particular, impressed me with it's proper portrayal of a woman. Louise Banks is independent and courageous, but its her feminine intuition and compassion that makes her the heroine. While I am not thrilled with the timing or tone of Hidden Figures, if the story is true, by all means it is a great story to tell. Fences seems like it also portrays a wife in a realistic and respectable fashion.
By CbinJ
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great comments. I agree that, as a woman, it is nice to have good role models of my gender, but I also absolutely do not mind looking up to males if they are well-done and admirable characters. I also liked Black Widow way better in Winter Soldier than Civil War :)

To create quotas is actually, in some ways, more demeaning, as it encourages having an abundance of thinly-written "tough girl" characters that actually are not good characters at all. They end up unrealistic, and when they come off well it is usually only due to the efforts of a talented actress (looking at you, Jyn Erso). I'd rather have a few, truly strong female characters who were written because the screenwriter wanted to write them, not because they felt obligated to create a girl sidekick.
B Evans More than 1 year ago
What exactly was wrong with the timing or tone of Hidden Figures?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago

Well, sure, if you prefer movies to have just a handful of only weak women* and think men and boys can't look up to female characters, then I guess I can see why you're fine with the status quo. Personally, though, I'm not satisfied with being the afterthought.

This isn't some arbitrary quota. Women make up half of the population, so why is it unreasonable to ask that we at least close to half the population portrayed in movies? Not even necessarily leads - just characters in existence. That 29% of speaking lines is easy to see when you're thinking about it. And it'd be great to see maybe close to half of those making movies, as well. This concept isn't just about characters, after all.

*I really don't include Black Widow in that at all, though. All the men in the Avengers movies have moments of vulnerability, too - it makes them human, not weak, and the same is true for Black Widow. The same should be true for all characters we see. Black Widow, like her teammates, is a character that can be looked up to and admired by women and men alike.