The Oscars aired nearly two weeks ago, which is a decade in internet-time. So this post may not be the most timely. Yet there’s still a lot left to say, not just because it’s International Women’s Day, but because how women are treated in society is important every day.
There were many gif-able moments from the Oscars, including Quvenzhané Wallis’s adorable muscle-flexing, Jennifer Lawrence falling on stage, and Anne Hathaway’s sincere acceptance speech. There were also a lot of problems.
The part of the Oscar ceremony most commented on, live on my dashboard and Twitter feed, or online the few days following, was Seth MacFarlane’s disaster as a host, particularly his incredibly offensive opening number and other jokes made at actresses’ (women’s) expense. Compounding this night of horrendous sexism intersected with racism and homophobia, The Onion then goes ahead and tweets an outrageously offensive slur about Quvenzhané Wallis since they apparently forgot satire should be made at the expense of the powerful, not at 9-year-old black girls with puppy purses.
Margaret Lyon’s article on Vulture, Katie McDonoguh’s article on Salon, Amy Davidson’s article in the New Yorker all explain, rather clearly, why the tone of this year’s Oscars was not just incredibly uncomfortable, but extremely offensive and harmful to women—consistently undermining these actresses’ professional work by taking cheap shots commenting on their bodies, age, and/or roles as sexual objects.
As these articles touch upon, it’s not that the blatant misogyny displayed in during the Oscars was an isolated incident—last Sunday night was one piece of a vast and complex pattern in our society of women being valued only as physical bodies for consumption and not individual human beings with their own lives and agency. This utter disrespect for women as people is further exacerbated by Hollywood and the mainstream media.
Just take a look at the list of movies released in 2012. How many of them passed the Bechdel Test? And how many of them, if there were female characters, featured them in skin-tight or revealing clothing? Or, if these women didn’t fall into Hollywood beauty standards, was their body size/type played for laughs? It’s important to ask these questions to find that the sexist portrayals of women in film are no isolated incidents either. Hollywood is built on a capitalist bedrock of exploiting women for profit and then spitting them back out once they’re too old, too pregnant, or too dated to be of any more use to the industry. Is it really a shock that someone, particularly a privileged, wealthy, white man, would make a remark about the datability of a 9-year-old black girl? Think white girls are sexualized at too young an age? They are. What’s the youngest age you can imagine a white girl being sexualized? Thirteen? Eleven? Now subtract 2-5 years and then you’re closer to the age many girls of color—Black and Latina in this country, in particular—are first sexualized. At least with young white girls, people are sometimes reasonable and push back on commodifying their bodies. Not a chance if you’re a young girl of color, though.
When you’re female, growing up in our society, you learn from a very very young age that your body is not your own. In our world, women’s bodies exist for public (male) consumption and pleasure. Strange men catcall you from their cars, ask if you have/need a boyfriend, expose themselves to you in public, and not only believe they have the right to reach out and touch you in any place they desire against your will, but actually take that action and claim ownership over your body, your self.
All of these experiences young women have we then internalize as “normal” and something we, as women must take actions to adapt to, to prevent from happening. All of these messages we receive scream that the problem lies with us, not the men abusing us, not the society that condones this behavior. And all of this gets reiterated by Hollywood and the mainstream media, telling us that our bodies, are in fact, not our own and that we must both willingly provide ourselves up for others to consume, comment on, criticize, and control as well as take all the blame for any harm done unto us as a result of this structural framework of oppression.
Hollywood has, for decades, exploited women’s bodies for visual satisfaction. If you’re interested in film criticism, read Maureen Turim’s “Gentlemen Consume Blondes”. In it, she explores the conflict between satire and sex Howard Hawks’ 1953 film, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She explains the message of the famous “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” number as thus:
“Over and over the lyrics say men are undependable and women have one commodity to exchange, and that for a limited time (youth) […] The female body is not only a sex object, but also an object of exchange; its value can be sold (prostitution) or it can be incorporated into another commodity which then can be sold (the film).”
Turim is writing about a central philosophy in Hollywood that did not only develop in the 1950s, but dates back to far before the motion picture, rooted deeply in our society, that designates women’s worth as singularly linked to the value society places on the commodification of our bodies. In the film, Lorelei and Dorothy understand their value as showgirls lie in the first word, show. They know that the display of their bodies as items for consumption by a public audience or by a single admirer is what would guarantee them their livelihood and security. In brazenly singing about this exchange, Hawks, through Marilyn Monroe’s character, comments on the tendency for Hollywood, and by extension, society, to only give women agency over their bodies so far as they are allowed to submit their bodies for use and control by a man. Yet, while highlighting this practice, Hawks ultimately uses Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell as seductively-dressed actresses for his audience to consume, thereby, commodifying their bodies in the same way.
It is this “visual pleasure” that Laura Mulvey writes about in her seminal piece of feminist film criticism, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. If you’re someone who’s interested in cinema studies but haven’t read Laura Mulvey, you’re doing it wrong. The crux of Mulvey’s article argues that filmmakers construct their work to place viewers in a the eyes of men, thereby subjugating all women who appear on screen to be the object of the “male gaze”—that at which to be looked. Hollywood films are all built upon this structure of taking pleasure in visually consuming women. Bill Nichols, in his introduction to Turim’s article in Movies and Methods: Volume II explains that,
“In the framework of Turim’s article, this linkage [between the utopian sensibility conveyed by musicals and the premise that utopia can be realized on the terms of capitalism that prompts the envisioning of an alternative realm in the first place] involves the channeling of sexual desire into heterosexual monogamy and a transformation of the body as a signifier of personal style or individuality into a commodity. Not only is this commodity then put on display for the (male) viewer, its idealization as a commodity demonstrates the distinctive form of social organization that underpins capitalism, namely, the private ownership of the means of production and, in the patriarchal family, of reproduction.”
Nichols touches upon an important aspect of the portrayal of women in film—the aspect of ownership. In Hollywood and mainstream media, it is primarily the filmmaker and the (male) audience who take ownership over actresses’ bodies and likeness. So as art imitates life, this issue of women being stripped of their autonomy on screen reflects the reality of women being denied their individual agency in society.
So how does all of this feminist film criticism and structural oppression relate to last Sunday’s Oscars? Well, the entire thread of the Oscars and the media and social buzz surrounding the actresses nominated for awards were quite glaringly a continuation of this misogynistic paradigm whereby women are objects to be viewed and used by men and male-dominated society. And this is something we, as educated, social justice-oriented members of this oppressively-structured society need to call out. Feminist icon, Gloria Steinem, made an incredibly important point this week on her Facebook page:
“How hard is it to be a female human being in the media? Anne Hathaway is a pretty good measure. She learned everything she could about sex trafficking and prostitution to play Fantine, and knew only too well that modern-day Fantines were probably living within blocks of the Academy Awards. As she said in her acceptance speech, “Here’s hoping that someday in the not too distant future the misfortunes of Fantine will only be found in stories and never in real life.”
Did that get coverage? No. Instead, the huge and expensive media beast speculated on her nipples. In a way, that makes Anne’s point. No wonder there are still Fantines, so many in the media think like pimps, traffickers and johns.”
Media outlets, rather than taking the time and stage to follow up on Hathaway’s point, attaches itself, time and time again, to commenting on women’s bodies and sexualizing women rather than affording us the privilege and forum to speak, to act, to exist as something other than an object to be exploited.
Anne Hathaway used her time, on stage, on television, in front of millions of people to bring up something important, something we, in society, should care about and fight against. Yet, that was overlooked in favor of stories about her body. Quvenzhané Wallis stared in Beasts of the Southern Wild at age five and became the youngest actress ever to be nominated for an Oscar for lead actress as well as the 10th ever Black nominee for the award. Yet, the most widespread stories around her that night were about a white man joking about her as jailbait and a wide reaching parody newspaper throwing a ridiculously inappropriate gendered slur at her. Hundreds, if not thousands, of women contributed to the creation of all the films nominated for awards and the planning and execution of the event from directors and actresses to caterers and custodians. Yet rather than applauding all the labor women have put into the industry or all the accomplishments women have achieved, Hollywood and the media, again, relied on overused, incredibly offensive jokes made at women’s expense. They criticized and sexualized women’s bodies, just for the cheap laughs. The icing on the cake? The people in charge are in on it and the people talking about it (some people talking about it) don’t care.
I basically wrote a term paper about the Oscars and a whole load of other stuff. And now I’m forcing you to see it on your dashboard.