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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Bristol chapter.

As feels like a tradition at this point, the Oscars have come under fire for failing to diversify. In 2020 it feels jarring to not see a single woman nominated for Best Director at the Oscars (or at the Golden Globes and Baftas!), and the films nominated for Best Picture feel noticeably masculine. Across the board, the most nominated films– Joker, 1917, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and the Irishman – are all overwhelmingly made by and starring men, all of them featuring excessive violence by white men. Yet it doesn’t feel like a particularly lacklustre year for women’s films – in fact, films written by and starring women having been notably critically acclaimed. I’m not saying the Academy should have a list of boxes to tick, but there is a definite tendency to lean into the idea that women’s films need to focus strongly within the themes of gender or fighting the patriarchy in some way. Sometimes it feels radical to just, you know, have films with women as leads, and focus on their experiences – no Hollywood shoehorning necessary, just good and honest storytelling and filmmaking which includes the other half of the damn population. Listen, I’m not an expert, just a consumer, but here’s just four of the films that I think show important depictions of women and who would be deserving of some Oscar nods. It’s probably important to give you an idea of my film taste: not a fan of superheroes (too repetitive and Disney friendly), big fan of coming-of-age (raised on 1980s John Hughes), love slightly artsy, grainy cinematography (I go to Bristol University and have a nose ring), consider Paddington 2 to be a perfect movie (Hugh Grant was ROBBED of an Oscar). So, yeah, not putting myself forward to be a member of the Academy itself, but I am a big fan of movies and also women.

 

1. Booksmart

Referred to by many as ‘the girl version of Superbad’, Booksmart takes on the coming of age genre and breathes in new life for this generation. The film itself is visually stunning and it has its own share of genuinely hilarious American Pie-esque moments as Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Denver’s characters attempting to fit two years of missed high school shenanigans into one night, but it is the theme of female friendship which sets this one apart. Their friendship is both believable and incredibly familiar as it delves into the codependency and intimacy that we share with friends at that age, a refreshing equivalent of the Bill and Ted dynamic. Booksmart also brings a fresh take on the high school genre, so often reduced to the tables in Mean Girls or The Breakfast Club, where we must break down barriers between jocks and nerds. Here, we see a much more nuanced portrayal of teenagers: three dimensional, kinder and much more empathetic. The film truly reflects our generation of teenagers: the use of social media doesn’t feel forced nor does Denver’s character’s sexuality, shown as a non-issue, much like it is in many schools now.

It’s disappointing to not see Oscar nominations for the two leads- whose chemistry is unforced and natural- and especially, in a line-up of all-male directors, no nomination for Olivia Wilde, to who we owe this heartfelt portrayal of real young people, capturing beautifully that tentative moment between finishing school and starting adult life.

 

2. Hustlers

Jennifer Lopez (as in JLo) and Crazy Rich Asian’s Constance Wu take centre stage in this film, also featuring Lizzo, Cardi B and Lili Reinhart (yes, Betty in Riverdale), which tells the story of a group of strippers who drug men and steal their money. I know how it sounds. Not Oscar worthy. But in all honesty, the film is already a damn feminist classic in my eyes. Sure, it’s still flawed in its portrayal of the sex industry and I won’t pretend that the actions of the women are more than a little problematic, but the emotional depth and intelligence that this film gives its women characters moves beyond the ‘stripper heist’ box that this film is inevitably in. We traditionally expect our female-led films to be almost righteously moral, and a flurry of ensemble films in the past few years have reflected this. Except we don’t expect the same moral high ground from our male-led equivalents- nobody expected the characters in The Irishman to be entirely honourable, and this film benefits rather than suffers from its morally dubious story and characters.

 

Not only does this film tackle complex issues of race and class (as well as addressing the impacts of our post-financial crash world) its use of the female gaze is worth applause in itself. We likely owe this to the (sadly unnominated) female director: Lorene Scafaria, who highlights that a stripping performance is not degrading, rather placing them in positions of admiration where their work is seen as a skill – the point of a scene in which Lopez performs on a pole is not sex or glamour, it is Wu’s characters reaction of awe at the hard work. Her body- radically- is a subject, rather than an object. The film, whilst at the surface is a thrilling tale of the glitter and intrigue of the stripper group, has something much deeper at its core: an important look at the deep and meaningful friendships that women form with each other and the moment when a group of female friends become family.

 

It feels a little strange to say but Lopez is sorely missed from the Best Supporting Actress line-up, bringing a career-best performance throughout, which shines most through the relationship with Wu’s character, one of motherhood and protection. The physical work it took to perform the pole dancing scenes is to be as equally commended – the Oscars are known for rewarding physically demanding roles. It is disappointing that the Academy failed to recognise the truly deserving artists in this film, perhaps too afraid to reward films which showed women, specifically sex workers and women of colour, skirting morality in the same way as men, or to take Lopez seriously as a respected actress.

 

Popcorn
Sara Carte / Spoon

3. Us

Jordan Peele’s follow on to the Oscar-winning Get Out stars Lupita Nyong’o in a horror film about terrifying doppelgangers. That’s all I’m giving you. I went into this one without even seeing the trailer and I’d truly recommend that. I did the same for Get Out as they’re both films where the less you know, the scarier and more interesting the film becomes. Being a Peele film, Us goes beyond the sinister and opens a commentary on America, class and most importantly, privilege. Furthermore the importance of a woman of colour as the lead in a horror film is not to be underestimated. In my favourite horror film, Alien, while gender is important to Sigourney Weaver’s character, it’s not all that she is – famously the parts were written unisex before casting. Similarly, here, as Danielle Dash has highlighted, unlike in Get Out, the fact of the characters’ race is ‘unremarkable’ and Peele himself spoke about wanting to make a film with black people which was not about blackness.

 

All of the performances in this are stellar, with the child actors being particularly impressive, but Nyong’o is a clear stand out: her wide-eyed anxiety and physical acting is crucial to the film and she essentially plays two different roles, which is the sort of thing which often receives a nomination, except she is sorely missed from the Best Actress line-up. Vox attributes this to the not normally Oscar-friendly horror genre, and perhaps more importantly, the fact that a woman of colour played a part in a position of power – notably Nyong’o won an Oscar in 2014 for playing an enslaved woman. Perhaps the Academy are only willing to diversify on their own terms.

 

4. Little Women

I first read the book that this film is based on when I was about 12, but I don’t think I truly got it. I was obsessed with whether Jo ended up with Laurie and the sheer romance of it all, which of course is important (it’s a period drama for heaven’s sake!) but this film really brought the feminist side of the book to the forefront. Politically correct shoehorning basically isn’t a thing here- the story was radical from day one- as the author, Louisa May Alcott, was the first woman to register to vote in Concorde and her life largely mirrors the book, with writer-director Greta Gerwig underlining that one of the key themes of the book was women’s relationship with work and money.

 

For me though, this film truly illuminates the joy in women’s spaces: there’s a palpable warmth in the incredibly female-orientated family, where the strengths of the individuals are given space alongside the care they have for one another. Gerwig and the cast capture something so familiar about sisterhood and family in ensemble scenes where no one can get a word in edgeways and where the response to any situation (Meg’s hair burning off, a foot getting stuck in plaster) is to immediately scream with laughter. I feel like I grew up watching token women and girls in groups of men and boys, and it feels rare to see this flipped, where Timothee Chalamet’s Laurie is welcomed almost as a fifth sister. Gerwig justifies casting the dreamy Louis Garell as a character who is described as decidedly not-handsome-in-the-books Frederich Bhaer since ‘for the history of cinema men have been putting glasses on hot women and calling them awkward.’ However, her attention to character and her emotionality, prevalent in both this and in Lady Bird, means that at no point did the male characters feel ‘second-best’. Instead, care is taken so that all the characters are developed: the writing and acting mean that the characterizations feel real and tangible.

 

 All of the Oscar nods are well deserved, particularly Florence Pugh, who breathes something new into Amy’s character and steals absolutely every scene – her ability to play both the vain and childlike younger version and the self-assured adult is clearly to be commended. It’s disappointing though, to not see a nomination for Gerwig, who also breathes something new into a film made 6 times before and makes use of flashbacks without it seeming clunky, making something relatively complex appears effortless. As Pugh herself has noted, there is an alarming irony in a female director being snubbed for a film essentially about women’s work.

So why have stories like this been side-lined? And it’s not just about gender, either. The Oscars remain disappointingly white, with only one performer of colour being nominated at all – Cynthia Erivo for her portrayal of Harriet Tubman. The Academy remains an incredibly white, old, male organisation. Perhaps until it further diversifies within its ranks, they won’t be able to offer platforms to more diverse filmmaking. And some more courage is needed in its nominations, understanding that it is possible to nominate women and people of colour even when the role isn’t focused on their race or gender. Perhaps we’ve got our own role to play – in supporting more diverse films and encouraging the idea that films made by, and starring, women are not exclusively to be seen by women.

Second year History student at University of Bristol
A third-year Law student at the University of Bristol, I am a lover of dogs, going to the gym and baking. I am always happiest when drinking a good cup of tea!