Menu Close
Two women in diner
Director Chloé Zhao with Frances McDormand on the set of Nomadland (2020). IMDB

How the Oscars finally made it less lonely for women at the top of their game

This year, with the nomination of both Chloé Zhao and Emerald Fennell in the Academy Awards’ Best Director category — and their films in Best Picture — it seems at last the Oscars powerbrokers have learned to count, putting more than one woman in the category for the first time. Women have been nominated for awards in the past, but it’s been lonely at the top.

When Lina Wertmuller was nominated for Seven Beauties in 1977, her co-nominees were all male; fast forward to Kathryn Bigelow 33 years later when she became the first and only woman to win Best Director, and the same rules applied. Women, it seems, take up such space in the cultural psyche, perhaps two can’t fit. This affects the field in two ways.

On the one hand, as we’ve seen with Bigelow and the Oscars, and Jane Campion as the only woman ever to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes (in 1993 for The Piano), being the singular nominee of your gender, makes these women “exceptional” and “iconoclastic”. They are mould smashers and rule breakers whose talent appears to strike out of nowhere and is singularly responsible for their individual success.

While there is no disputing the “talent” part, the blinding light generated by Bigelow or Campion on these occasions hides the tall barriers women face in the resource-intensive world of commercial filmmaking. When viewed as singular successes, Campion and Bigelow are subjects of excellence and objects of isolation.

Now two women have received Oscars nods for directing in the award’s 93rd year, and it’s noteworthy — both in terms of behind-the-scenes factors and the films they’ve created: Nomadland and Promising Young Woman.

Head shots for five film directors
This year’s Oscar nominations for Best Director (from left): Lee Isaac Chung for Minari, Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman, David Fincher for Mank, Thomas Vinterberg for Another Round and Chloé Zhao for Nomadland. AP

Read more: The lowdown on Lina Wertmüller - the rule-breaking, nonagenarian female director finally awarded an Oscar

Changing the rules

Several factors have been credited for diversification of the Oscars and other award events this year, including subtle shifts in membership and eligibility criteria to unfold over the next few years and the holding off of some larger budget productions due to pandemic cinema closures.

The contribution of big streamers like Netflix is also a matter of debate. The needle-moving role of each of these factors may not be known for a little while; after all, some changes aren’t due to bear fruit until 2025 or later.

Regardless of the cause, there is no doubt this year the door has opened to more nominations for women and people of colour across all categories in all major ceremonies (the BAFTAs, Golden Globes, and Oscars).

A number of things unite the female-helmed Best Picture and Best Director nominees this year: both Nomandland and Promising Young Woman centre their stories around a female protagonist; both are low-budget, independent films, with flashes of innovation in cinematic style.

‘I’m not homeless, I’m houseless. Not the same thing, right?’ Frances McDormand in Nomadland.

Both are about the dashing of dreams, due (in Nomadland) to the economic collapse experienced by itinerant workers in Trump’s America, or (in Promising Young Woman) to the scourge of sexual violence against women and the persistently unfair rules that privilege young male professionals over their female counterparts.

Read more: This award-winning Lesotho film also has social justice at heart

Films that speak to their times

Along with a third female-directed film many believe should have been nominated — Kitty Green’s remarkable The Assistant — all these movies are uncannily topical. Green’s film depicts, in micro-detail, the demoralising experiences of a young female entertainment industry worker under a boss seemingly based on sexual predator Harvey Weinstein.

The Amazon warehouse work that Nomadland protagonist Fern must resort to anticipates the unionising struggles of real-life Amazon workers in current-day Alabama.

The sexual assault at the centre of Fennell’s movie, that takes place at a medical school party, could just as easily have come to pass among students at esteemed Australian schools and universities or, indeed, in the corridors of political and industrial power.

Meticulously depicting disenfranchisement and gendered violence from the inside, these female-led films make a pitch for group solidarity. In Nomadland, the occasional visits Fern enjoys with fellow nomads bring welcome, though temporary, solace.

‘Every week a nice guy comes over to see if I’m okay. Are you?’

In Promising Young Woman, Carrie’s difficulty with processing the rape and subsequent death of her best friend Nina, the eponymous woman of the film’s title, are compounded by the fact Carrie is isolated and, audiences are repeatedly told, “has no friends”.

The film’s opening shots of masses of men’s bodies (gyrating on the dance floor) contrast sharply with the subsequent framing of Carrie on her own and vulnerable. In the logic of this movie, boys go out in groups and girls do not. This is considered a bad thing, whether you’re a student in med school or law school or, perhaps until now, a film director.

There is no doubt Promising Young Woman contains a message for men. In the post-#MeToo era, phrases like “educate your sons” remind us that women’s safety is men’s responsibility and has nothing to do with women’s dress or behaviour. But the film has further insight to offer: women are stronger when we’re together. This year’s Oscars will give women at the top of their filmmaking game their first chance to live that message.

Read more: 'Rape-revenge' films are changing: they now focus on the women, instead of their dads

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 185,300 academics and researchers from 4,982 institutions.

Register now