Oscar 2009: Worst Year for Women?

Media images are not necessarily up to date. A “culture lag” might prevail between society’s material conditions and its cultural representations. In Hollywood pictures, there was a huge disparity between women’s occupational and other roles in the social structure and their ideological treatment in texts and images.

In the 1970s, the narrow, stereotypical portrayal of women showed that Hollywood had been out of touch with reality, disregarding the little progress women have made.

The most negative portrayal, trivializing women’s domestic roles and condemning career women, occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s, during the time that we now describe as Hollywood’s Last Golden Age. It was paradoxical and ironic: The New Hollywood opened its gate to new and innovative directors, like Altman, Spielberg, Scorsese, and Schrader, but it discriminated against women, just when they were beginning to make some mark of screen.

Hollywood’s ideological backlash against women was manifest in three significant ways:

Paucity of Roles

There was a paucity of screen roles, particularly leading parts, for women of all ages. For a while it seemed as if women had disappeared completely from the American screen. The worst year in the history of the Best Actress Oscar, marked by extremely weak competition, was 1975, when members of the Acting Branch had difficulties coming up with five lead actresses.

No wonder Louise Fletcher won for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”–there was not much competition. Under normal circumstances, Fletcher’s role as the rigid, authoritarian nurse in the Jack Nicholson’s star vehecle would have qualified as a supporting Oscar.

The other nominees were:

French Isabelle Adjani in Truffaut’s “The Story of Adele H.,” who earlier won the New York Film Critics Circle Award; Ann Margret in the Ken Russell’s musical “Tommy”; Glenda Jackson in “Hedda,” the film version of the Royal Shakespeare’s production of Ibsen’s play, “Hedda Gabler”; Carol Kane in the immigrants’ melodrama, “Hester Street.”

Ellen Burstyn, the previous year’s Oscar winner (“Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”) asked her colleagues in the Acting Branch not to nominate actresses in the lead category as a protest against Hollywood’s marginalization of women.

The status of actress in the Best Supporting Actress was no better. Sylvia Miles was nominated for the noir remake, “Farewell, My Lovely,” in which she basically played a cameo, and that of a floozy. Miles herself joked that if she win, her Oscar speech might be longer than her part.

Arguably, the worse and most undeserving nomination in the Academy’s annals was Brenda Vacaro in “Jacqueline Susann’s Once Is Not Enough,” in which she played a sex-crazed magazine editor. The trashy, soap-opera like movie, which was poorly directed by cinematographer Guy Green, also had the dubious distinction of casting two veteran talented actress, American Alexis Smith and Greek Melina Mercouri, as predatory lesbians!

Male Domination

Men dominated Hollywood quantitatively and qualitatively. The era’s typical big budget movies were typically action adventures, focusing on male heroism, male friendship, and male courage. The major movies of the late 1960s and 1970s usually featured two males in the lead roles, with few or no women in their narratives. The list of movies is too long to reproduce here, but it is sufficient to name some of the Best Picture nominees:

“In the Heat of the Night,” starring Rod Steiger and Sidney Poitier “Midnight Cowboy,” with Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” with Paul Newman and Robert Redford “M*A*S*H,” which boasted a male cast, headed by Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould “Patton,” with George C. Scott and Karl Malden “The French Connection,” with Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider “Deliverance,” with Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds “The Godfather, Parts I and II,” with an all male starring cast, Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, and Al Pacino “The Sting,” with Paul Newman and Robert Redford “The Towering Inferno,” with Paul Newman and Steve McQueen “Dog Day Afternoon,” with Al Pacino, John Cazale, and Chris Sarandon “Jaws,” with Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider, and Robert Shaw “All the President’s Men,” with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman

No Women as Box-Office Stars

Finally, most box office stars in the late 1960s and 1970s were men. The only woman among the ten Box Office Champions was Barbra Streisand, though Streisand, too, was narrowly cast, playing a larger than usual share of screen prostitutes.

The industry’s biggest names were all male stars with a tough “macho” image, such as Steve McQueen in “The Thomas Crown Affair” and “Bullitt,” Clint Eastwood in his “Dirty Harry” movies, Lee Marvin in “The Professionals” and “The Dirty Dozen,” and Charles Bronson in the “Death Wish” movie series and its variants and imitators.

American films do not operate in a social or political void. Rather, they’re interrelated with the dominant ideology and politics of the society at large. Hollywood is an industry whose products have a strong technological foundation, but they also embody and transmit cultural values. These two facets of films, as ideological constructs and as commercial products, are intertwined in Hollywood’s popular movies, such as Oscar winners and nominees.

Hollywood pictures have expressed the ideological dominance of one powerful group: white upper-middle class me
n. This group has defined, controlled, and imposed the normative order on less powerful groups, such as women, children, and ethnic minorities.

Cultural hegemony or dominance is therefore a crucial notion to the understanding of how specific yet popular images have influenced American collective consciousness. According to Oscar winning roles, women’s contributions to society are mostly in the marital and familial arena, as wives and mothers, or in service professions, as entertainers and prostitutes.

The function of female stereotypes, from dominant ideology’s POV, is to keep women in their place, to reward them for accepting traditional roles–for not challenging the status quo. Female roles provide the kinds of rationalization needed to reconcile women to marriage and family life. These all-embracing images go beyond the socio economic area, offering a state of mind and a way of life. Their persistence for half a century suggests that most moviegoers have accepted at least passively the ideological message of Hollywood movies.