Why 2013 may have handicapped women in film

longhiThe results are in for what was arguably one of the most competitive Oscar seasons in years.

Last night’s Academy Awards were well-deserved, and and many winners gave emotional speeches that brought tears to the eyes of the audience; in fact, the program become the most watched entertainment telecast in the last 10 years. However, an interesting phenomenon was occurring behind the scenes of some of our favorite nominated films.

In a New York Times article published on Thursday, cinematic experts examined the gender gap between the 2014 nominees and their time portrayed on the big screen.

 

 

One disquieting finding from my research is that this year’s lead actors average 85 minutes on screen, but lead actresses average only 57 minutes,” Kevin Lee, lead of the study, said.

These findings are especially troubling when considering the fact that more time was spent debating which of the leading ladies was most deserving of the coveted acting awards than the time they actually spent on-screen.

I am aware that it’s Jennifer Lawrence’s world and we’re all just living in it, but did she really deserve the supporting actress nod for her 20-minute turn in “American Hustle?” Most viewers can agree it wasn’t anything to write home about.

This disparity between men and women on-screen can be attributed to a variety of factors. “Male stars are typically the protagonists in action or goal-oriented narratives that require the viewer to follow the story through the lead’s experiences. Female stars are more typically cast in melodramas that require the lead to serve as a hub connecting different characters and subplots,” Lee said.

This tendency to pigeonhole men and women into roles deemed most appropriate for their gender is not anything new, but the way we talk about and praise them needs to change.

“Judi Dench won a Supporting Actress Oscar for eight minutes of ‘Shakespeare in Love’ and Anthony Hopkins was awarded the Best Actor Oscar for a total of 18 minutes in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’; 10 minutes can, in fact, considerably impact an actor’s performance,” Caroline Siede of The A.V. Club said.

Does 10 minutes of extra screentime really elevate an actor from “supporting” to “best”? Additionally, the fact that Hopkins won Best Actor for a movie in which he plays the secondary villain to a female protagonist hardly makes sense.

But this statistic brings up another important issue in the realm of Oscar politics: It seems we are so intent on honoring the same storied, familiar talent that we shut out all room for innovation and recognition for a new class of actors, both male and female.

2013 was a year when the public praised the brave performances by women, from Amy Adams’ turn as a jilted con-woman to Cate Blanchett’s fallen Manhattan socialite.

But what about all the forgotten names?

Where was the nomination for Brie Larson in “Short Term 12″? Greta Gerwig for her turn in “Frances Ha”? Julie Delpy for “Before Midnight”?

While I understand the Academy cannot accommodate all of the talent that appears in the film industry in a given year, the study by the Times has illuminated core problems in the way we interpret women’s success in film and how we choose to honor those we deem worthy.

As evidenced by the past, when a newcomer breaks through in Hollywood, the Academy and its audience revels in the breath of fresh air this performer brings. This was true of Jennifer Lawrence three years ago, and it was true of Lupita Nyong’o this year.

But by recycling the same actors and carrying on in traditional fashions, the Academy shatters its own illusion that the best stars will receive recognition and instead stifles and shuts out important opportunities for women.

Reach the columnist at llonghi@asu.edu or follow her on Twitter @lolonghi