The Oscars Should Expand Its Directing Category (Guest Column)

Greta Gerwig, Lulu Wang, and Marielle Heller- Split-Getty-H 2020
Michael Kovac/Getty Images; Taylor Hill/Getty Images; Amy Sussman/SHJ2019/WireImage

As women get sidelined, an immediate remedy for the Academy to consider would be to expand the category for helmers to reflect the number of films nominated for best picture.

To paraphrase film scholar and critic B. Ruby Rich, being a woman film director is like betting against the house in Vegas, the deck is stacked, the game is fixed. Once again, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has neglected to nominate even one woman in the best director category. It is a decision that the Academy has now made in 87 of the 92 years of the awards. A decade after her win, Kathryn Bigelow remains the only woman to have ever won the coveted award.

What more can be said about the Academy’s ongoing failure to recognize women’s considerable contributions to the art and commerce of film? The AMPAS has been called out repeatedly for its gender myopia, and in response has heavily publicized its efforts to diversify its membership, with women now comprising 32 percent of its members and 20 percent of those in the directors branch. And yet, women directors continue to be sidelined for one of the most prestigious awards on Hollywood’s biggest night. 

In recent years, the organization has skirted the issue by claiming it should not be blamed for the problems of the larger industry, and that the awards come at the end of a long production pipeline, with decisions regarding employment and representation occurring much earlier in the process. But as the years without even a single woman being nominated accumulate, and as women are directing critically acclaimed fare, the argument is increasingly out of sync with the marketplace.

A simple and immediate remedy would be to expand the category for directors to reflect the number of films nominated for best picture. In other words, if eight or nine films are recognized for best picture, the same number should be nominated for best director. Expanding the number of directors nominated in the category would increase the chances that women and members of other underrepresented groups would be included, without diminishing the significance of the award or patronizing the nominees.

It’s possible that such a change would have made room for any number of women this year including Greta Gerwig, Lulu Wang and Marielle Heller. Last year, Lynne Ramsey, Chloe Zhao and Debra Granik may have seen nods. It also avoids the problems associated with creating a “Best Woman Director” category destined to forever be perceived as a second-rate consolation prize.

In 1971, art historian Linda Nochlin posed the question, “Why have there been no great women artists?” Intending to provoke a dialogue, she noted that the most common strategy employed by defenders of women artists and their art has been to list the names of talented women. But such an approach ignores the larger issue of the system that created such a perception. Instead, Nochlin posited that a more effective response would consider the environment that created the particular standard of greatness that privileges the works of certain groups over others. 

The Academy is a highly visible part of the environment that helps build careers and confers greatness on film artists. But greatness is a largely subjective and elastic concept, limited by our imaginations and biases. The current standard heavily favors male characters engaging in traditionally male-identified activities, including prolific violence and war. In 2019, audiences were almost twice as likely to see male characters in speaking roles as female characters, according to the latest report of It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World From the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.

The producers of the Oscars might shudder at the suggestion of expanding the best director category, which would require a bit more time in an already epically long show, but it would be an expeditious fix for the naggingly narrow nominations that plague the awards virtually every year. It would be a win for the Academy and a win for all of the directors who would benefit from the weeks of career-enhancing visibility.

The awards game is fixed for women directors, so the Academy needs to fix the game. #ExpandtheNoms.

Dr. Lauzen is the founder and executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University.