Persall: Hollywood’s women deserve better, stronger roles

Oscars typically go to actresses playing sexualized, victimized, marginalized characters. That must change.
ABIGAIL GRAY SWARTZ | Special to the Times
Published Mar. 1, 2018
Updated Mar. 1, 2018

Nice work, Academy Awards, in responding to the #metoo and Time’s Up movements holding Hollywood accountable for sexual misconduct and harassment.

Harvey Weinstein isn’t welcome at Sunday’s presentations, an event he once ruled. Casey Affleck won’t present the best actress Oscar, breaking the tradition of a previous year’s best actor winner. James Franco didn’t get nominated while Christopher Plummer did, in part for replacing Kevin Spacey.

Now, Oscar, let’s discuss your role in degrading women on screen.

See the data: Oscar’s men are heroes. Oscar’s women are victims.

All those roles you’ve so often rewarded over 89 years, tacitly endorsing poor behavior toward women and encouraging more. Characters who are sexualized, victimized and marginalized. Everything #metoo and Time’s Up are rebelling against.

Oscar’s offenses can be traced back to the beginning, 1929’s inaugural Academy Awards. That’s the only year when acting nominations were attached to more than one movie.

Janet Gaynor won her best actress Oscar for three silent performances that came to define Hollywood’s worst instincts about roles for women. Gaynor portrayed a prostitute in Street Angel, a wife surviving her husband’s murder attempt in Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and a woman pining for her heroic man in 7th Heaven.

Sexualized. Victimized. Marginalized.

Janet Gaynor receives the 1929 Academy Award. Associated Press.

Through decades, the academy continues to honor portrayals of such characters or variations thereof. Browse the accompanying list of best actress Oscar winners and you’ll see more prostitute roles than nuns, true-life world leaders and scientists combined. More rape victims than first responders.

Of course, Oscar voters can only evaluate what studios and independent producers bring to them, and what they choose to see. That situation must change.

In recent years the academy increased membership in response to #OscarsSoWhite and longstanding complaints about its aging, mostly male roster. These younger artists, mostly people of color and women, are more conscious of how their cultures are represented in movies. They are generally more inclined to watch and appreciate edgier contenders. Their effect is only starting to be felt.

Sally Hawkins and Octavia Spencer in The Shape of Water. Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The first signs may be among this year’s major nominees; The Shape of Water and Get Out are unusual best picture finalists while Greta Gerwig and Jordan Peele join history as best director nominees. Even this year’s leading and supporting actress categories are exceptions to Oscar’s past poor judgments of women. Only one of those 10 nominated roles is a victim of physical and emotional abuse by a man: Margot Robbie in I, Tonya as disgraced Olympic ice skater Tonya Harding, not an easily sympathetic character.

Robbie is joined by four portraits of woman taking control of situations, from Frances McDormand’s violently grieving mother in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri to Meryl Streep publishing The Post. Sally Hawkins’ mute janitor in The Shape of Water discovers bravery through a banned romance; Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird is developing hers, awkwardly unafraid.

Four of five supporting actress Oscar nominees portray women with admirable qualities, lending support to other women. The outlier is the clear-cut favorite to win, Allison Janney in I, Tonya. Janney’s portrayal of Harding’s crudely domineering mother would be one of the few female villains to take home an Oscar.

But we can’t credit #metoo and Time’s Up for academy change. Not yet. These movies and nominated performances were completed long before those movements erupted.

Viola Davis accepts the best supporting actress Oscar for 'Fences' at the 89th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 26, 2017 in Hollywood, California. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

The situation is similar to last year when Moonlight won best picture and Viola Davis (Fences) was named best supporting actress after two years of #OscarsSoWhite scrutiny. Those movies were in production years before that. Only the multiple nominee Hidden Figures could be considered a result of the hashtag, rushed through production to qualify for the Oscars.

The academy’s only way of escaping its unflattering past is by shaping the future of women on screen. The members make the movies. Women without demeaning roles will make them better.