Oscars: How Female Characters Reclaimed Their Narrative in 2019

Wilson Webb/Columbia Pictures; Columbia Pictures/Lionsgate; Alison Cohen Rosa/STX Financing

For decades, film has served up hypersexualized, ambitious females, but this year, the Amys ('Little Women'), Ramonas ('Hustlers') and Megyns ('Bombshell') of the world explore the power and predicament of wielding femininity.

Early in Greta Gerwig's Little Women, Amy March, played by Florence Pugh, is putting on jewels and rouge as she gets ready for a party she's too young to attend. Ever the pesky little sibling, Amy can hardly believe her tomboyish older sister Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is squandering the chance to primp for the event.

"You could be pretty if you tried," Amy tells Jo.

"Don't want to," Jo responds. "Won't do it."

An aspiring author from a poor family, Jo is the heroine of the Sony Pictures movie and of the beloved Louisa May Alcott book on which the film is based. She's a trailblazing character who normalized professional ambition for generations of girls during the past 150 years. Amy, a painter who seeks a husband as a path to financial stability, is historically the most hated by readers of the four March sisters for her vanity and selfishness.

But in Gerwig and Pugh's hands, the character has new dimension and vitality, and Amy embodies one of the movie's central ideas — that ambition as a woman has taken many forms over the centuries, and one of those involves performing the version of femininity that will most please a man.

Hate her if you want, but it isn't Amy March who made the rules. "Amy is a realist," Gerwig says. "I don't think she's any more feminine than Jo — I think she is using femininity as a tool to expediently get her where she is going."

Women play-acting at an ideal of femininity to pay the bills is explored by filmmakers in other awards-contending movies this year, including Lorene Scafaria's Hustlers and Jay Roach's Bombshell. They arrive as Hollywood and the world at large is snapping to the realization that gender itself can be a kind of performance, thanks to modern messengers like RuPaul and the cast of FX's Pose, who bend the edges of gender definitions. These movies also come as, two years into the #MeToo movement, women have begun to speak out loud about the issues they once whispered about —sexual harassment, the wage gap, representation.

These are largely economic issues, felt by women from the boardroom to the strip club, which is where Scafaria's workplace crime drama is set. In the STX movie, Jennifer Lopez (who earned Golden Globe and SAG Award nominations for playing the charismatic Ramona) and Constance Wu are savvy strippers who deploy the tools of Lucite platform heels, bedazzled G-strings and, eventually, illegal drugs, to profit from men's lust. Scafaria lost the backing of her first studio, Megan Ellison's Annapurna, two years into development. As she pitched to find another, it was crucial to her that Hustlers be able to explore the way that gender and money are intertwined in a strip club. "It's the kind of thing that I feel like we only talk about in terms of shopping and in terms of spending and we don't really talk about in terms of earning and in terms of surviving," Scafaria said at the Toronto premiere.

In Bombshell, starring Charlize Theron as Megyn Kelly and Nicole Kidman as Gretchen Carlson, the women of Fox News don the jewel-tone sheath dresses and Manolo Blahnik stilettos that network CEO Roger Ailes favors. It is in a quick shot of a Band-Aid plastered over a painful blister on one of those stiletto-clad feet in the Lionsgate movie that Roach's camera hints at the bind these women face: Becoming the fantasy female that a powerful man wants might get you the job, but it will leave you with wounds.

It's an idea that resonates deeply for actresses.

"The first film I ever did just happened to be a role of somebody who was hypersexualized, a femme fatale," says Theron of 1996's 2 Days in the Valley. "After that I would go into meetings and people would just be like, 'We want you to do exactly what you did in that movie.' It's putting you in a box. And all of a sudden, you can't get out of the fucking box."

For decades, getting the role in Hollywood has required actresses to present themselves as the kind of woman that male studio executives or directors find alluring. At its most innocent, a casting session is like a date. At its darkest, as has been uncovered over the past two years, it's an opportunity for an abuse of power.

During awards season, an actress' performance of femininity shifts from the screen to the red carpet and to For Your Consideration events, where again she attempts to win over predominantly male audiences — Academy members, film critics, guild members. Female contenders employ a small army of stylists, trainers and glam squads, because the freedom to make a movie about being a woman in a man's world still requires living in a man's world — ideally in a sample-size dress.

Some contenders, like Lupita Nyong'o while campaigning for 12 Years a Slave and Jennifer Lawrence for Winter's Bone, raise their profiles through exquisite presentation on the carpet, earning not only Oscar recognition but lucrative beauty contracts. Others, like best actress winner Frances McDormand, who literally threw up her middle fingers while posing for a photocall at the Venice premiere of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri — manage to flout expectations about femininity entirely.

Little Women shows multiple ways of being a woman in the world (McDormand is definitely a Jo). But Gerwig's version asks us to also understand the Amys, who have played an unfair game using pluck and pragmatism—and occasionally rouge. "Amy has always been underestimated," Gerwig says. "It's telling that the sister who is most clear about her desires, and who sets out very deliberately to achieve them, is the sister that everyone didn't like for 150 years. It's a sign of progress that we now look at Amy and think that maybe she had something more profound going on."

This story first appeared in the Dec. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.