2020 Oscars’ failure to nominate female directors is unsurprising reflection of industry bias

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When Issa Rae announced the 92nd Academy Awards’ all-male slate of directing nominees on Jan. 13, it wasn’t exactly shocking. The Golden Globe, Directors Guild of America and British Academy Film awards had already failed to nominate a single woman for this category in their respective ceremonies; the odds that the Oscars would deviate from this precedent were low. But after a year packed with critically acclaimed, masterful films directed by women, watching the complete shutout stung more than expected. 

This isn’t exactly a new trend for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. In the Oscars’ 92-year history, only five women have been nominated for best director; only one — Kathryn Bigelow, for her film “The Hurt Locker” in 2009 — has managed to win. The persistent homogeneity of the best director category is, of course, a seemingly direct consequence of an industry that has historically not valued stories by and about women: In 2019, women made up a measly 13% of directors working on the top 250 films, and that’s a 5% increase from the year before. 

But it’s not acceptable to chalk up the 2020 Oscars’ ignorance of female filmmakers to a lack of options. Within that 13% is a range of female-directed films that struck a chord with critics, audiences and awards bodies alike. Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” — an original, emotionally deft exploration of familial upheaval — was named one of the American Film Institute’s top 10 movies of the year and beat the per-theater average of “Avengers: Endgame.” “Hustlers,” directed by Lorene Scafaria, charmed audiences with a sharply adapted screenplay and garnered supporting actress nominations for Jennifer Lopez from the Screen Actors Guild, Critics’ Choice and Golden Globe awards. Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” received a whopping six nominations from the Oscars, including one for best picture, yet it missed out on a director nomination — and its odds of winning anything at Sunday’s ceremony are quickly decreasing.

The list goes on: Marielle Heller, Kasi Lemmons, Alma Har’el, Céline Sciamma, Melina Matsoukas, Mati Diop. All of these women directed films that garnered varying degrees of acclaim, only to quickly and decisively fall out of the conversation for Oscars glory.

Yes, 13% feels depressingly — and at times, insurmountably — small. But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ voters had options, and they still chose Todd Phillips.

It’s not hard to see the reasoning behind these choices. Despite drastic and highly publicized efforts to diversify, the academy’s voting body is still 69% male, a statistic that results in the seemingly blatant dismissal of and empty screenings for female-helmed films. When an overwhelmingly male majority gets to decide which stories are worth seeing, you get the results you might expect: Movies directed by men are hailed as sweeping triumphs, magnum opuses, celebrated studies of their male protagonists, masterpieces. Movies directed by women, especially if they star female characters, are often considered chick flicks. 

When confronted about the lack of female directing nominees at this year’s Golden Globe Awards, Hollywood Foreign Press Association President Lorenzo Soria said, “We don’t vote by gender. We vote by film and accomplishment.” But it’s become clear that, in the eyes of a male-dominated industry and Oscars voting body, a film being considered an “accomplishment” is an honor that seems to be reserved exclusively for men.

It’s easy to dismiss the Oscars as an ancient, near-irrelevant exercise in Hollywood pageantry; the films that the academy chooses to honor are often so niche that they’re virtually unknown to most of the American public. But in the long run, the Oscars do matter. 

Studios spend massive sums on awards campaigns because Academy Award nominations and wins often translate into significant box-office bumps. Industry leaders continue to bet on the fact that a best picture or best director win makes people sit up and pay attention. And when female filmmakers are recognized at the Oscars, they stand to benefit greatly from this attention — that gold statue makes them a known entity for film executives, complete with name recognition, a seat at the elusive Hollywood boardroom table and, most importantly, money to make their next project.

Because like it or not, for many in the film industry the Oscars still function as a major harbinger of which stories are “important” and whose films are worth making. Hollywood desperately needs to increase that lousy 13%, and the academy has the power to prove to industry leaders that this quest is worthwhile. But in failing to nominate a single female director this year — in appearing to willfully and brazenly ignore the sweeping triumphs, magnum opuses, celebrated studies of (sometimes) female protagonists and yes, masterpieces that women made in 2019 — the Oscars seem to have chosen instead to enforce the disheartening status quo.

Congratulations to those men, indeed.

Grace Orriss is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @graceorriss.