Women’s Stories, Movies and the Oscars

February 24, 2011

Oscar season is a time when members of Hollywood are celebrated and reward for the work that they do.  But it is also a time when we see just how male centered the movie industry really is.  As Allan G. Johnson points out, “If you want a story about heroism, moral courage, spiritual transformation, endurance, or any of the struggles that give human life its deepest meaning, men and masculinity are usually the terms in which you must see it,” and since the vast majority of Hollywood films are about these narratives then that might explain the overabundance of stories about men’s lives.

Here are a few simple questions to keep in mind next time you watch a movie, to help you identify whether the story you are watching is male or female centered.

  1. Who has the most screen time?
  2. Whose perspective do we see the scene from?
  3. Whose story arc does the plot revolve around?
  4. Do we see them make decisions?
  5. Who do we most identify with?

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As you might have guessed, I watch a lot of movies, some of my favourites are science fiction but also dramas, action, thrillers and I’ll even admit the occasional romantic comedy. If you go to the movies a lot too you might have noticed one thing that the vast majority of these films have in common, most of the movies seem to be stories about men.  One of the primary reasons Hollywood continually churns out movies about men is because we live in a male centered society.  Most simply, male centeredness is an aspect of patriarchy that shows us how most of our attention is placed and prioritized on men, men’s stories, the things men do and the things men don’t do. As a result, the images we see in the media often focus on male-centered stories.

One way to demonstrate the male centeredness is not only to look at the movies that are made but to look at which films are most honoured and celebrated.  To do this I looked up the films that won the Academy Award for best picture over the past 50 years.  Let’s see whose stories are being told?

Starting in 2009 is The Hurt Locker which although directed by a woman is still all about men
Slumdog Millionaire – men
No Country for Old Men – need I say more
The Departed – is about men
Crash – is an ensemble
Million Dollar Baby – is interesting because it’s pretty equally a story about a man and a woman
Lord of the Rings – men
Chicago – is woman centered
A Beautiful Mind – men
Gladiator – is about a man who fights other men
American Beauty – man
Shakespeare in Love – man
Titanic – is from a man’s perspective
The English Patient – man
Braveheart – man
Forrest Gump – man
Schindler’s List – man
The Unforgiven – is about men on horses
The Silence of the Lambs – is about a man who eats people, and this is interesting because although Jodi Foster’s character plays a pretty big role in the film, you would never describe it as a movie about an FBI agent who… you would describe it as a movie about Hannibal Lecter.
Dances with Wolves – man
Driving Miss Daisy – is about a man and a woman
Rain Man – is about a man and his brother
The Last Emperor – man
Platoon – man
Out of Africa – is woman centered
Amadeus – is about a man
Terms of Endearment – is woman centered
Gandhi – is about a man, albeit a pretty extraordinary one
Chariots of Fire – men
Ordinary People – is about a family
Kramer vs Kramer – is about a couple
The Deer Hunter – men
Annie Hall – is about a man and his love life
Rocky – is about a man who fights other men, again.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – man
The Godfather, Part II – men
The Sting – is about two con men
The Godfather, Part I – men
The French Connection – is about men
Patton – men
Midnight Cowboy – is a man
Oliver! – is a boy
In the Heat of the Night – is about men
A Man for All Seasons – man
The Sound of Music – is woman centered
My Fair Lady – is another interesting one because it’s pretty equally about both a man and a woman’s story
Tom Jones – man
Lawrence of Arabia – is so male centered that there aren’t even any female speaking roles in it
West Side Story – is about both a man and a woman
And finally in 1960 is The Apartment which is from a man’s perspective

So only 4 out of 50 are centered exclusively on women’s lives. The vast majority are stories about men and their lives and although a few are ensemble casts the women often play secondary or stereotypical roles.

Year after year we see men and men’s stories being created, produced, celebrated and awarded while women’s stories take a back seat or aren’t even represented.  and it’s also Hollywood behind the scenes that is dominated by men.  It’s astonishing that Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to have ever won an academy award for best director in it’s 83 year history, and she won for “The Hurt Locker” in 2009, which is most definitely a male-centered film.  In fact only 4 women have ever even been nominated for best director.  And what’s more startling is that women only account for 7% of Hollywood directors.  Hollywood executives, production companies, financial investors and backers are most interested in marketing to young men and funding stories that they, as men, can relate to.  Thus they fund and produce the majority of Hollywood films to appeal to this demographic.

Obviously, I want to see a many, many more films centered on women’s stories, however it’s important to note that even women centric films can be sexist. For instance, in so called “chick flicks” depict women in stereotypical gender roles obsessed with shopping, love and finding “Mr. Right”.  I want to see more films that depict women as full and complete human beings. And just so we are absolutely clear… I’m not saying stories centered on men are never good, interesting or important but I want to point out that they are disproportionally valued and most rewarded in our society.

Here are a few simple questions to keep in mind next time you are at the movies, to help you identify whether the story you are watching is male or female centered.

1. who has the most screen time
2. whose perspective do we see the scene from
3. whose story arc does the plot revolve around
4. do we see them make decisions
5. who do we most identify with

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22 Responses to “Women’s Stories, Movies and the Oscars”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Melanie and Sociological Cinema, Feminist Frequency. Feminist Frequency said: Before you watch the Oscars on Sunday be sure to watch my latest "Women's Stories, Movies & the Oscars" http://bit.ly/hnETfG [...]

  2. I strongly disagree with your characterization of Silence of the Lambs. I will admit that for a minor character (based on his screen time), Hannibal Lector is a disproportionately large factor in the movie, but he acts against Clarice.

    Using your own metric from the end of the video, the movie is clearly Clarice-centric.
    Clarice has the most screen time
    Every scene that features Clarice also centers her, barring the climactic scene in the dark, and she is featured in the majority of scenes
    The story arc centers around Clarice’s hunt for Buffalo Bill
    Clarice must make decisions while maneuvering around Hannibal, who is presented as a static force which Clarice must contend with
    We don’t empathize with Hannibal, we clearly are meant to do so with Clarice

    I don’t contend with any of your other points, clearly this is an issue, but I feel you mis-characterized Silence of the Lambs

    Eric P. Reply:

    Thank you. I don’t have to write all that now. I mean, don’t get me wrong, many people found Lecter a more memorable character, and that says a lot indeed. But SOTL was such a huge movie for women and for a woman. Let’s not forget the many times Demme (the director, a man) brought out all the sexism Clarice had to deal with in order for her to just do her job… That was such an important part of the movie for me.

    Joe Reply:

    I can go with you part of the way here. But, I agree with her that Hannibal is who many remember. The film also is about her going after a male and she’s quite right that what the viewer remembers is Hannibal. It is quite telling, perhaps, that the fact you are correct that Clarice is a main character is not what many viewers focus upon.

  3. How about breakfast at tiffany’s? :)

  4. OK Megan, so 5 ot of 50.
    And… I still do not agree.
    I remember Hanibal and the following movies were again about him.
    Best case scenario, 50/50 story the first part and male centric the others.

    Meilibi Reply:

    While this in no way discounts the point of the video, it’s true that Anthony Hopkins (that is, Hannibal) gets only 16 minutes of screen time throughout the movie. While a male is the most memorable character (which might be a problem in and of itself), a female is definitely it’s center.

  5. [...] amazing Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency has this fantastic video, “Women’s Stories, Movies and the Oscars.” She’s done her research and has a great graphic design sensibility. Give it a [...]

  6. i just want to say that as a man of color, I really empathize with the issues presented by this blog post. I’m even thinking about looking back and examining how many African Americans (male or female) have been the center or behind the scenes on Oscar nominated films.

  7. [...] “Women’s Stories, Movies, and the Oscars” by Anita Sarkeesian at Feminist Frequency [...]

  8. Why single out Rocky, by tone and expression? How is it in any way worse than any of the others? Have you even seen it?

    This video examines such an obvious and yet unspoken issue. It’s a damn shame you chose that moment to get snarky (yet you offer no subtle commentary on a steaming pile of crap like American Beauty).

    Avork Reply:

    i don’t think she was trying to be snarky about the film. i took it as “oh, there are multiple films about men fighting men.”

  9. You just can’t mention the Oscars without mentioning the Bechdel Test: http://bechdeltest.com

    For a movie to pass:

    1. It has to have at least two women in it
    2. Who talk to each other
    3. About something besides a man

  10. And now you can add the 2010 winner, “The King’s Speech”, which is about a man working with another man to become a better ruler of a patriarchic country.

    (Granted, we’ve seen some pretty good portrayals of British female members of the monarchy in movies like “Elizabeth” and “The Queen”. And although both have gotten award nods, none have won a Best Picture Oscar, interestingly enough.)

  11. Great job, as usual! You are an inspiration for me. I have decided a while ago only to watch feminist films and above all to boycott all sexist and male-centered films until women achieve equality in the media, and until they get to be represented as human beings and not as decorative objects or two-dimensional male ego flatterers.
    Since then, well, I havn’t watched anything (that has come out lately in cinema/ on TV)

  12. Most films by Miyazaki have a girl/woman as the main character. However, Miyazaki is from Japan. The films have done well over in America though.

  13. I more or less agree with your video but I have one problem.
    Even though Titanic is told from a male perspective, the MAIN story is told from a woman. The movie could have survived without the bullshit at the beginning about the guy trying to find the “heart of the ocean”. The core of the movie and what is so memorable is the story of Rose who was unhappy in her life that was dominated by male power. it’s a beautiful story of her struggle to break free and fall in love with someone who actually embraces who she is as a woman. In the end, we see how Rose went on to be her own person and that she accomplished so much in her life without the help from a man.

  14. Yeah, I’d argue that Titanic is historical romance told from a woman’s perspective.

  15. I’d love to see a video listing women-friendly films ! (good ones should exist, right)
    And what they’re doing correctly, etc.
    It would be more positive and give something new to see ^^

  16. [...] Sarkeesian at Feminist Frequency rightly pointed out the trend of movies that win Best Picture to overwhelmingly feature men, and [...]

  17. [...] we see in the media often focus on male-centered stories”, sagt Anita Sarkeesian von “Feminist Frequency” [...]

  18. [...] Women’s Stories And The Oscars from Feminist Frequency, in which we learn exactly how many woman centred movies win this big [...]