The lack of diversity in this year’s award season nominations has not been overlooked, receiving criticism from many of the nominated artists themselves, with the hashtag ‘#OscarsSoWhite’ trending on social media. Just a few weeks ago at the BAFTAs, Leading Actor winner Joaquin Phoenix called out systematic racism prevalent in society. Rebel Wilson highlighted the lack of female nominees in the Best Director category, joking she couldn’t match their success because she doesn’t ‘have the balls’.
The latest comments to spark debate on twitter have been those of an anonymous member of the Academy made to the Hollywood Foreign Press whilst shedding light on his votes for last weekend’s Oscars. In discussing his Best Picture vote, he stated, “With Little Women, the timeline was ridiculous — I was really confused sometimes, and I know I’m not the only one. Thank God she [star Saoirse Ronan] cut her hair, because that at least gave me a bit of a reference point.” He also commented on his Best Adapted Screenplay vote:
“I think Greta Gerwig is really great, but I shouldn‘t need a scorecard to keep track of a movie‘s timeline, so I ruled out Little Women first.“
Granted, art is always subjective to individual audience members and these comments from a single Academy voter cannot be taken to reflect the institution as a whole, nor all men in general. For example, former US President Barack Obama included Little Women in his 2019 best films list. This Academy member, however, isn’t the first man to criticise the timeline of Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the classic novel which begins in the middle of the book and shows the March Sisters’ childhoods as flashbacks during their early adult lives.
Upon hearing there was another adaptation of Little Women in the works a few years ago, I admit I questioned whether it was needed. The 1994 version starring Winona Ryder has stood the test of time, and if this wasn’t enough, Call the Midwife’s Heidi Thomas adapted the novel for a four-part BBC series in 2017, starring Stranger Things’ Maya Hawke. A minute into the film, however, Gerwig convinced me she had brought something new to the table as we were hurled straight into following Jo run through the busy streets of postbellum New York to offer a piece of her writing for publication instead of the book’s starting point: the young March sisters as children during the Civil War. Speaking with female friends and family, it seemed we all agreed with this fresh adaptation using flashbacks and flashforwards, which served to draw together themes and parallels in the narrative that heightened emotion and allowed for new interpretations of characters to be made.
It’s worth considering, therefore, the basis of these comments and why so many male critics were confused by the timeline. The Academy voter demographic, which in 2019 was 77 per cent male, had no trouble awarding Tarantino’s notoriously non-chronological Pulp Fiction Best Original Screenplay at the 1995 Oscars and Christopher Nolan’s Inception received critical acclaim for its complex narrative. Although film comparisons aren’t always the most effective when illustrating a point since there are numerous elements contributing to particular films gaining recognition, in this case and plenty others, it does appear that, the majority male Academy membership find it easier to engage with films that feature men, are about men and are made by men.
In some ways it makes sense, given the demographics of the Academy voters, that female filmmakers have been overlooked. Art interpretation is personal and members will likely cast their votes in favour of those they most identify with. This is where the problem lies in the film industry; whilst membership remains predominantly white and male, funding and recognition are less likely to be given to marginalised filmmakers because within this demographic, the audience for it just simply isn’t large enough. This means we’re missing out on the stories and art of huge sections of society simply because the industry doesn’t accurately or fairly represent the population of filmgoers in terms of gender and race. Calls for a wider diversity in the industry have been a hot topic in awards season for several years now and until the Academy membership changes, it seems snubs of this kind are set to continue.