I made an effort over the holidays to see some of the movies that have been generating awards buzz, looking at the nominations for the Screen Actors Guild, the Golden Globes, the Critics’ Choice Awards. I saw Black Swan, The Fighter, The King’s Speech, and True Grit. Scrolling down the nominations pages, I was feeling pretty good about myself—until I reached “Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture.” Because, of course, only one of those films has a female lead. I hadn’t noticed previously because most of the other award categories aligned with the male leads. Some of the nominations do this more so than others, but there does seem to be a trend.
For instance, the Golden Globe nominees for “Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama” include the leads of The Social Network, The King’s Speech, 127 Hours, Blue Valentine, and The Fighter. Three of these movies made it to the “Best Motion Picture – Drama” category. Nominees for “Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama” include the leads of Frankie and Alice, Rabbit Hole, Winter’s Bone, Black Swan, and Blue Valentine. Only one of these—Natalie Portman in Black Swan—made it to the “Best Picture” category.
It’s old news that it’s hard to make a female-led movie in Hollywood. Male leads have a sheer numbers advantage that could explain their prominence in the awards nominations. However, clearly the award organizers found enough good performances to fill the “Best Actress” categories. Why didn’t these films receive more attention elsewhere in the nominations? Were they just not as good as the other films? Is there decreased competition for the “Best Actress” award, giving some films attention that they wouldn’t otherwise receive (as shown by the lack of nominations elsewhere)?
I personally doubt that this is the case. However, not having seen the films (except Black Swan), I can’t offer an opinion. That will be the next goal on my movies to-do list. If the films do turn out to be strong, then what explanation do we have? Are the gender dynamics of the awarding organizations skewed? Could this explain the bias? Is it an issue of timing or release size? Or are the genres of the female-led movies just less conducive to awards?
Whatever the explanation, it’s unfortunate for these films and others that might choose a female lead. The awards promote feedback loops that help the nominated films and hurt the others: people tend to see the films that have awards (or nominations) and not see the ones that don’t. We then go on to discuss how great the awarded movie is, having never seen the other films, which might be just as good. The films with recognition go on to receive more recognition (like Merton’s Matthew effect).
I’m not suggesting that we should make an effort to watch every movie the film industry produces. Clearly, this would be impossible. Of course, many—if not most—of these films turn out to be terrible. However, I’d like to see more female-led movies, with special notice of those that make it to the awards but not that final category. I might waste a few Friday nights, but I might also find a few hidden (or not so hidden) gems. Does anyone else want to join me in this? Increasing the number of viewers will probably only help these films. And it might have the added bonus of adding authority to your opinion when the award ceremonies roll around.