At Sunday's Oscars, we were treated to a montage of great moments from movies from the past few decades.
There was something quite surprising and quite disturbing about the montage.
In the first clip in the montage, Forrest Gump ate from his box of chocolates.
Next, a series of couples gazed lovingly into each other's eyes: Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio on the Titanic, Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart in Twilight, Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore in Ghost.
Then came a stream of 25 clips showing male heroes talking to, leading or fighting other men. In the middle were a few women, one screaming in stress about her wedding, one screaming because she was being attacked and one screaming to fake an orgasm.
And with that, the montage ended.
In the highlights of movies from the past few decades, there wasn't a single clip of a woman doing something that related to her children, her friends, her work or her contribution to the world. There wasn't a single clip of a woman leading, making a choice, making a decision or showing agency. There wasn't even a single clip of a woman experiencing a moment of meaning or joy.
There wasn't a single clip of a woman that didn't have to do with either her romance with a man or with her getting attacked.
Here are the four things we hear from the women in the montage:
- We're getting married in five hours! (Yelling angrily at fiance).
- Woman screaming in fear in shower
- Yes!...Yes!...Ohhhhh! (Meg Ryan faking her orgasm).
- I'll have what she's having. (Response to Meg Ryan's fake orgasm).
If I weren't so saddened by this omission of women's stories, I would have to thank the Academy for creating a montage so stunningly emblematic of how they imagine women and their lives.
The montage reflected a view that, unfortunately, too many popular movies still reflect: men are the protagonists and women are background figures who show up only as romantic interests or victims to be saved.
Oscar, I have news for you: there is another world of women's lives. We work, we create, we relate, we reflect. We choose, we risk, we grow. We love friends, children and parents. We have quests and adventures of our own. We have experienced the most amazing journeys. We'd like to see that reflected in the movies we see, and the movies you recognize.
It's not a huge surprise that women's stories are so absent from the most popular and acclaimed films. The film industry, though growing more diverse, remains male-dominated and primarily caucasian at the top. Oscar voters are nearly 94 percent caucasian and 77 percent male, The LA Times recently found. The LA Times reported that men compose more than 90 percent of the five branches of the Academy, such as cinematography and visual effects. Only 6 of the 43 members of the governing board of the Academy are female, and only one is a person of color.
Does this really matter? Should those of us concerned about women's empowerment and diversity spend our energy worrying about the Academy when there are so many other pressing issues affecting marginalized populations? So many forms of discrimination, extreme oppression, and horrific violence?
I think it does. We should dedicate a portion of our energy to what is happening in Hollywood because films are not fluff. They aren't just entertainment. Films shape our culture and they shape us. Popular films become part of our cultural fabric, stories that paint a particular picture of what it means to be a man, to be a woman, to be white or black. Over time, the images we see in story after story subtly impact our ideas about who we are. Films -- whether realistic or fantastical --teach us underlying ideas about what is possible and what is true.
When women can't see strong, interesting, female protagonists in the stories we watch, it becomes harder for us to see ourselves as the strong, interesting protagonists of our own lives. When girls grow up seeing story after story that tells them they are sex objects, accessories or victims, they will learn that to be a "woman" is to play one of those three roles.
Let's bring this era to a close, this era when the film industry was dominated by a single segment of the population that chose the narratives that shape our culture.
It is time for more women and people of color to courageously write, perform, direct and advocate for their own stories. It is time for all of us to invest in and support the programs that help them do that. It is time for the film industry to wake up to the tremendous business opportunity it is missing out on by ignoring these stories. It is time for the Academy to adopt new practices and criteria for membership that allow it to diversify its membership quickly - not over the next few decades.
It is time for the movies to look like us.
Reference: Statistics on the Academy's composition are from the February 19, 2012 article "Oscar voters overwhelmingly white, male" by John Horn, Nicole Sperling and Doug Smith.
Tara Sophia Mohr is an expert on women's leadership and wellbeing. The founder and leader of the Playing Big women's leadership program, Tara is also the creator of 10 Rules for Brilliant Women, and the free, online 10 Rules for Brilliant Women Workbook. Visit www.taramohr.com to learn more.