Despite being a massive film buff, I’ve never been a big fan of the Oscars. The event is essentially a pride party for powerful white men, and Heaven knows they don’t need the ego boost.
Perhaps for the first time, this year’s awards were an exception—Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite dominated the ceremony with its four awards, and Taika Waititi made history as the first Indigenous man to win an Academy Award.
You think I’d be just as abuzz with pride over Natalie Portman’s red carpet look. There’s no denying she looked stunning in her Dior ensemble. The outfit was completed with a custom cape, embroidered with the names of eight female directors who weren’t nominated for awards. These directors, including Greta Gerwig and Céline Sciamma, produced notable films in the 2019-2020 season. Portman said the cape was a statement piece; she “wanted to recognize the women who were not recognized for their incredible work this year in (her) subtle way.”
Her way was subtle indeed. No hate to Portman; I will always have love for her SNL rap videos and be impressed by the fact that she has a Harvard degree. If we place cynicism aside for a moment, we can say that her fashion statement was probably born of good intentions. But was it enough to make an impact on Hollywood in the upcoming years?
It’s obvious that we cannot expect Portman to change Hollywood’s love affair with white men single-handedly. The system itself is definitely a large part of the problem; Hollywood is wrought with male talent and built upon an environment that is disrespectful and downright abusive to female contributors. It is Hollywood that needs to step up and pioneer change. There need to be spaces where women are respected and able to work safely. The industry itself must be reworked to provide opportunities for women to nurture their talent. This won’t be possible if crucial players in Hollywood continue to ignore and diminish the talent of a diverse pool of women. Without the use of powerful voices, this change will not be able to occur.
I would like to suggest that all recognized members of Hollywood are the ones who need to be responsible for making this change—and this includes established actresses like Portman.
It is easy for big-name actresses like Portman to come out with activist statements when there’s a heavy media presence there to record her; she has a big enough name and enough of a financial cushion to take bigger risks in the public eye. Best case, Portman looks woke and gets celebrated; worst case, she gets a little negative publicity until a bigger scandal comes along. No stranger to the gendered politics of Hollywood, Portman is certainly aware of her ability to speak out: in 2018, she made a snide, seemingly off-script comment about the lack of female nominees while presenting the Golden Globe for best director.
You could argue that it’s something, but I don’t think that a couple of statements and a cape are enough of an effort. Of course it would be foolish to suggest that Portman boycott any opportunity with a male director; not only would she miss out on being a part of some great films, but there simply aren’t enough women in directorial positions to make this feasible. Portman has to take enough work to keep herself relevant, both as a woman of Hollywood, and as an aging actress with an ever-shrinking selection of parts available.
Despite this, Portman has the ability to be selective with the jobs that she takes on. She could aim to work with a specific percentage of female directors; she could lend her abilities to smaller budget films with female directors; she could walk away from projects with particularly repellant male directors (I’m looking at you, Woody Allen) that enable the current sexist cycle.
At the bare minimum, she could make an effort to foster female directorial talent by providing opportunities or mentoring up-and-coming female directors. One would assume that this was her intention when she began her own production company, Handsomecharlie Films, in 2007. However, of the eleven films produced or up for production by Handsomecharlie Films, only two have had a female director; this would be a little more impressive if the director in those two cases hadn’t been Portman herself. In fact, during the span of her 26 year career, Portman has worked with two female directors. This is lowered to just one if we exclude her self-insert with Handsomecharlie Films.
I’m not against celebrities taking a stand. In fact, given how they are able to influence both the media and their fans, I think it’s a crucial part of garnering effective change. However, making a statement can only go so far. Without backing up these words with action, these statements become hypocritical and merely performative; another role Portman plays in front of the cameras.
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