Katherine Hepburn's Best Actress Oscars, for" Lion in Winter" and "On Golden Pond"

Originally posted at Ms. Magazine

Jake Flanagin at Pacific Standard and Victoria Dawson Hoff at Elle recently floated an interesting idea: The Oscars should be entirely segregated by gender. Their proposal would create categories such as Best Female Director and Best Female Writer in addition to the already segregated acting awards.

Though this would lead to recognition of more women working in the field, it wouldn’t solve one of the Oscars’ main gender problems: the Academy Award for Best Picture. Most films are produced by teams of both men and women, making segregation in that category impossible. And yet, the Best Picture category is where we can see the clearest evidence of the Academy’s preference for male-driven films. Only three of the nine films nominated this year even have women in leading roles: American Hustle, Gravity and Philomena.

Perhaps as significant as the lack of women characters is the treatment in these films of women’s bodies. The main female character in Her is not even human, allowing the film and its central relationship to avoid dealing with the messy reality of  women with bodies. In Dallas Buyer’s Club, one of the two female-gender-identified characters is played by a cisgender man, effectively replacing a body that would raise interesting questions about the difference between sex and gender with one that is much easier to understand. One cannot help but wonder, if a trans actor had played the role, in which category would she be eligible for a nomination?

Where women’s bodies are present in these films, they are almost always objectified through an emphasis on their sexuality. In The Wolf of Wall Street, one woman has sex on top of a pile of  money (the actor says her back was covered with paper cuts after filming) and another woman literally wears money. One could argue that these moments are PHILOMENA-poster-773x1024-504x667designed to reveal the callousness of the male characters, but in imagining and glamorizing a world without any female characters who aren’t objectified, the film ultimately endorses its characters’ worldview. The main female character in 12 Years a Slave is literally a possession, and she is repeatedly raped. Unlike with The Wolf of Wall Street, which encourages the audience to identify with criminals, 12 Years a Slave invites us to sympathize with the victim rather than the perpetrator. In this way, the film does at least provide a critique of turning women into objects, rather than an endorsement.

American Hustle provides the clearest example of Hollywood’s inability to deal with women’s bodies without sexualizing them.Though most of the fashions in which the male characters adorn themselves–from the polyester to the conspicuous chest hair to the hairstyles–are quite unsexy, the women are dressed in ways that reveal their every curve. Though plunging necklines were popular for evening wear in the era portrayed in the movie, women also wore formal dresses that, by today’s standards, look like your grandmother’s nightgowns. During the day, women wore button-up shirts with large collars; the most popular woman’s outfit of the decade was the pantsuit, and hair was more commonly worn natural than elaborately styled.

It makes sense for Amy Adams’ character to wear a dress cut down to her belly button to the disco, but when her character impersonates a British aristocrat, it would have been more logical to have her button up. She would still have been sexy and her talent would have shone just as brightly without an outfit that invites the viewer to spend most of the scene staring at her boobs. Similarly, the notion that a troubled housewife would wear her hair in an updo all the time is incongruent both with Jennifer Lawrence’s character and with the style of the time.

blog-gravity-poster-sandraThe contrast between the body of Christian Bale’s character and those of his lovers is especially striking. Whereas Bale’s character has an outside that matches his inside–his corrupt, conniving character is manifest in his weight, physical health and  unnatural hairpiece–Adams’ and Lawrence’s characters are gorgeous despite their twisted insides. I would love to see a version of this film in which the women’s bodies, the clothes they wear and the hairstyles they sport are as reflective of their unsavory inner selves as the men’s are.

Only two of the nine films nominated for Best Picture are genuinely about women, and the difference in how women’s bodies are treated in those films versus the other seven is telling. Sandra Bullock spends much of Gravity in shorts and a tank top, yet at no point is she sexualized. One might note that she looks strong and healthy, but one’s eyes are not deliberately focused on her breasts either by her costume or the camera. The unnecessary addition of [SPOILER ALERT!] a lost child to Gravity betrays Hollywood’s inability to portray women without reference to their biology, but even the final shot in which the camera slowly pans from Bullock’s feet to her head is much more about showing her strength than it is about showing her girl parts.

Philomena is a film centered around a woman’s reproductive past, yet it trounces the competition in its fully human representation of a woman character. Unlike  Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle, Judi Dench is old enough to conceivably be the woman she portrays. Close-ups of her face make no attempt to hide signs of age, revealing a beautiful woman whose wrinkles only make her intense emotional experience all the more gripping. Though the film is about the woman’s search for her lost child, the woman herself MV5BMjExMTEzODkyN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTU4NTc4OQ@@._V1_SX214_is far more than a mother on a mission. She loves her children, but she also loves sex. She’s a woman of faith, she’s openly accepting of gay people, she loves to read and she makes friends everywhere she goes. This is not to say that every female lead in every movie needs to be a saint;  most real women are not. But is there any other female character in this year’s nominees for Best Picture about whom the audience learns so much and in whom they become so deeply invested because of whom she is instead of what?

You might question whether the absence/objectification of women’s bodies in this year’s Best Picture nominees reflects on Hollywood or the culture as a whole. None of these films would necessarily be problematic on its own—12 Years a Slave in particular performs the important function of detailing the violence under which female slaves really lived and showing slave owners to be as oppressive as they really were. What is telling is the presence of so many films that either elide or sexualize female bodies in the category that presumably represents the best of the best.  The Academy clearly has a critical preference for movies about men, with women present primarily as wives and sex objects.

Though segregating awards by gender would up the profile of women working in Hollywood, it would also perpetuate the notion that there is something fundamentally different about work created by women and work created by men. And it would not solve the fundamental problem at the heart of Hollywood: Movies about men are more highly valued than those about women.

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Originally published by The Atlantic

Last week, Swedish movie theaters created a media foofaraw when they announced that they would begin providing a rating based on the Bechdel test for the films they screen. The test, created by comic artist Alison Bechdel in 1985, asks whether a film has at least two female characters and at least one scene in which they talk to one another about something other than a man—if it satisfies these criteria, Swedish theaters give it an A. The goal, according to Ellen Tejle, the director of an art-house cinema in Stockholm that is implementing the rating, is to draw attention to how few films pass the test and encourage filmmakers to make more movies with three-dimensional women characters in them.

When the news broke, writers immediately began questioning whether the test is an effective way to judge whether a film is feminist. The answer to that is no—but it’s important to note that that’s not actually something the test was intended to do. The illustrated character in Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For who first espouses the idea says she uses it to determine not whether the movies are feminist but simply which movies to spend her money on. For those of us with a limited movie budget and a desire to see representation by and of women improve, choosing which films to support can be a political act; I like to spend my dollars on films directed by and/or written by women—and, not surprisingly, those films also usually pass the Bechdel test.

But to actually evaluate whether a film as a whole is feminist requires much more than a tally of female characters and the conversations between them. A film may have some feminist elements, some sexist elements, and some elements that are neither, because—and this is important—”feminism” is not simply the absence of “sexism.” The most reliable way to determine whether a film is feminist is to see it—and even then, the question is not a simple one.

It is, for example, possible for a character to be a feminist creation without the film in which she appears being feminist. When Pacific Rim premiered earlier this year, sci-fi fans eager to support Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi invented a test named after her character, the Mako Mori test. Though Mori is the only female character in the film with more than five lines, she has her own goal that’s separate from the male lead’s: avenging the wrongful death of her parents. Thus, the Mako Mori test asks whether a film has “at least one female character who gets her own narrative arc that is not about supporting a man’s story.” This test is one way to determine whether a character is feminist—by which I don’t mean that she espouses feminist philosophy but rather than she is a fully-fleshed out human being—by asking whether she is a subject or an object. A subject has her own thoughts and desires upon which she acts, whereas a woman who has been objectified is acted upon by others.

However, as the inventor of the Mako Mori test notes, the question of whether a film is feminist cannot be determined solely based on whether the characters are. For example, some critics have argued that although Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone, the central character in Gravity, is a feminist creation (director Alfonso Cuarón resisted studio pressure to define her by a romantic relationship and have her be rescued at the end), putting the solution to her problem—spoiler alert—in the mouth of a male character, hallucinated or not, actually reinforces patriarchal norms. Likewise, not every film that fails the tests can be said to be entirely sexist. In fact it is hard to find anything sexist in  The Lord of the Rings, which fails the Bechdel test, other than the lack of female characters. Same goes for The Avengers, which fails both the Bechdel and the Mako Mori.

Muddying matters further, whether one believes a film is feminist varies depending on one’s definition of feminism. Liberal feminists—who believe that women and men are created equal and should be treated as such even though they often aren’t—would likely consider the X-Men films to be feminist because they feature female superheroes who fight alongside male ones, even though they live in a world ruled by men. Cultural feminists, who believe women’s biology and instincts make them different from men in ways that should be celebrated, might consider Steel Magnolias to be feminist even though the characters only talk about men and family. Material (more commonly referred to as intersectional) feminists—who believe that sex, gender, sexuality, race, religion, class, and other factors are all components of internal identities and signifiers of privilege (or the lack thereof) in society—may consider Bridesmaids to be feminist: Though it avoids race and religion, it deals with class, body size, sexuality, and the intersection of the many pressures women face in choosing mates, friends, and careers. (Shout out to Jill Dolan’s The Feminist Spectator as Critic for the categories liberal, cultural, and material feminism.)

But in evaluating whether a film is feminist, it’s perhaps most important to understand that the question of whether a film itself is feminist is often confused with the question of whether it is sexist, whereas in reality the absence of the one does not imply the presence of the other. Dead Poets Society is not generally considered feminist: It does not pass the Bechdel or the Mako Mori tests, and it does not espouse equality, celebrate female biology, or detail the multitude of factors that determine identity. But unless we’re willing to call Bridesmaids sexist for having only one fully fleshed-out male character and not dealing with the concerns of men, it would be unfair to call Dead Poets Society sexist simply for being a male-driven film.

The truth is that the definition of feminism varies as much between feminists as it does between feminists, non-feminists, and sexists. For those of us in the artistic and theoretical realms, one focus of feminism has long been disrupting false binaries like male/female, masculine/feminine, and gay/straight so that equality is not something that’s measured by whether you treat women the same way you treat men but by whether you regard everyone as a unique yet fully human individual. Feminist criticism needs to work to disrupt a binary, too—the one that defines art as either feminist or sexist. Even the most socially conscious creator can be influenced by the sexism that pervades our culture, whereas a creator interested in telling stories primarily about men can still make a feminist film—or at least a not-sexist one.

The Bechdel test, the Mako Mori test, and whether the film was written and/or directed by women are all great ways to determine how to spend your movie-going money in ways that support women’s stories. But evaluating the feminism, sexism, and/or lack thereof in a film as a whole rarely results in an easy conclusion—and it definitely requires that you see the movie.