What Do Oscar Winning Films Have in Common?

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This year I tried to watch the Oscars, but for various reasons, I couldn’t finish.  However, I did see the results, and it prompted me to do some research into the history of Oscar nominees and winners.  What I found was disappointing and a little surprising.

Many like to believe that we live in a post-racist, post-sexist society, and that media represents these positive developments.  After all, there are more strong women characters on TV and in movies than ever before; casting is race blind; at the Oscars there are female directors, screenwriters, and editors, as well as female escorts for men.  The world is reformed!  We were blind but now we see!  Even feminists who realize that this is bullshit would like to believe that the quality of female representation is the problem, not the amount; that women have a presence, but that it is simply not fully developed or positively framed.

I hate to be a Debbie downer, but before we can worry about how the media is representing women, we have to step back and realize how rarely the recognized media is representing women, and how completely male-dominated our film industry remains to this day.

Film is an art form that reflects and shapes society, touching our hearts and changing our lives, and we award the films that do this the best.  Below are the thirteen Oscar winners for Best Picture since 2000.  Since they are the films most recently made and most highly prized by our most revered film artists, they should represent and showcase the parts of our society that we acknowledge as most important, most interesting, and most exciting, while maintaining a high standard of artistry and construction.

I investigated four primary categories in my research:  Rating, Gender of the Protagonist(s), Bechdel Test Pass/Fail, and General Themes.  You can scroll over the films to see the first three categories and recognize the patterns I found.

Is it any coincidence that all of these films have R or PG-13 ratings?  I don’t think so.  Our society associates adult themes like violence and sex with reality and honesty, finding them fascinating and relatable on screen while simultaneously criminalizing and chastising them in law and on the streets.  A movie can’t be taken seriously if it is too clean, too simple, too child-friendly, too feminine; it has to be dark, dangerous, and demanding.  It has to show real problems and real people finding real solutions.

This standard makes it even more troubling that so many of these films have male protagonists.  This means that the people we value as real and serious in our society are mostly men.  They have the real, serious problems and they are real and smart and strong enough to solve them.  The films which have primary female protagonists are about women who are very masculine.  “Chicago” women are cold, hard, and ruthlessly calculating; and in “Million Dollar Baby” the woman is determined to become a skilled boxer.  They also have primary male characters beside them the whole time: “Chicago” women have their brilliantly conniving lawyer and Maggie Fitzgerald has a hardened male boxing trainer to mentor her and teach her how to do it. The films which have female protagonists who defy these masculine standards are either romance/relationship/teamwork movies (i.e. The Artist) or movies where there are so many characters the protagonist is difficult to pinpoint (i.e. Crash).

The Bechdel Test is an excellent way to determine the representation of women in films, protagonist aside.  It requires only that there be two named women characters in the movie who talk to each other about something other than a man.  Sounds simple, right?  Wrong.  Fewer than half of these films pass this test, which means that the majority don’t even have two female characters who talk to each other.  One actually has fewer than two female characters (Gladiator)!  Of the six films which pass the test, three are highly contested.  Though they technically pass, the passes (Argo, The King’s Speech, No Country for Old Men) are dubious at best, based usually on less than a minute or even less than a few seconds of dialogue between the two women.  The Bechdel Test is extremely forgiving, and failure to pass it is extremely problematic.

In addition to these basic tests, there are more complex thematic patterns threaded throughout these films.  Themes of individualism and relying on oneself, competition for power, status, or survival, heroism and moral dilemmas, and crime, law and violence are joined by pressure to perform in positions of power, and difficulty developing emotional intimacy in relationships.

These are all themes and problems which are prevalent not exclusively, but most prominently, in the lives and psyches of men in our society.  That’s not to say they are solely male themes and problems, but that men find issues of power, internal moral dilemma, solitude, competition, violence, and survival most relatable because men are historically the ones in positions of power, with control over their moral decisions, internally separated from others by standards of emotionlessness, pitted against each other for power and status, participants in violent events, independent, and responsible for their own survival.  Alternatively, women are historically in positions of subordination, with little control over moral decisions, protected in times of violence, and dependent on men for their survival.  Because of recent developments in gender equality, women can certainly relate to many of the same themes as men, but that does not make those themes  universally human or any less masculine or male-dominated.  It simply means women have joined the male bandwagon.

All thirteen of these films have gained status in the eyes of our society.  They have prestige, respect, and everyone involved in them will gain a career boost in years to come.  This experiment is the perfect example of why the third wave of feminism is so immaterial, surreal, and hard to gain support for.  Just like women have gained representation in films over the years and hundreds of movies have been made with excellent female characters and thematic material, there have also been many gains for women in the real world.  Women are joining many male-dominated career tracks, are attending colleges and universities in huge numbers, have a huge voter-turnout, have a loud voice on the internet and through liberal news media, and enjoy all of the same legal rights as men.

Despite these noticeable changes, the unwritten cultural opinion still favors men over women and masculinity over femininity, just like the Academy still favors films which are male-dominated over the films which have more female themes and characters.

Next step: Diversify the Academy that makes decisions about which films deserve praise!

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5 responses to “What Do Oscar Winning Films Have in Common?

  1. Nice article! Shocking and sad that most of them fail the Bechdel test. Sigh.

    I wonder if you considered researching and comparing the biggest factor in what drives the movie industry, debt based money? Let’s face it, what makes a movie successful is ticket sales and profits. I’m guessing this is a gating factor for best picture nomination and selection. Of course, winning will improve the profits quite a bit, but I wonder about box office gross numbers before they were nominated?

    Civilization is desperate to keep our economic system alive and it is designed to require and result in exponential growth. The popular liberal belief is if we are careful we can continue that growth without destroying our environment, through relatively clean industries such as entertainment. But even these areas of growth undermine our communities, the interaction from which sustains our happiness. But I digress.

    What draws the crowds to the theater is to be entertained. The majority of people still calibrate below 200 on Hawkins scale of consciousness, so the themes that you mention as being prevalent will entertain them better than those that are more feminine.

    If movies were primarily art, then the measures you gauged them on make sense in the big picture. Unfortunately, the current structures of civilization need monetary growth more than good art. We can change that in the longer run, because money does not have to be debt based. But for now, without the continued growth, the whole economic system will collapse. On the bright side, then we will have to entertain ourselves within our local communities again!

  2. It is interesting to note that movies in which women, as you say, jump on the male bandwagon (Million Dollar Baby, Contact, and so on) are often dramas, while films where men venture into feminine pursuits (Daddy Day Care, Mrs. Doubtfire, Junior) this gets played for laughs.

    • Great point! Being feminine is bad for men, and since bad things are laughable for safety purposes, men venturing into femininity is comedy. Women being masculine is admirable and means they can join the normal, “serious” film genre.

  3. Pingback: What You Didn’t Read in 2013: Flashback and Feedback | Queer Guess Code·

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