Image by Julie Kwak


HOW CHLOÉ ZHAO MADE HISTORY AND WHY WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT IT

1/7/21
Karolina Jaszczuk

The Academy Awards have just been awarded for the 93rd time and they left us with plenty to talk about. 


As always there were winners - Nomadland, which won the best picture award and losers, such as The Trial of The Chicago Seven, which despite 6 nominations, went home empty-handed.


Chloé Zhao made history with her triumph in the best director category for her movie Nomadland, as the second woman and first Asian woman to win this award. The first one was Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker in 2010. 


But how come that in the 93-year run of the awards, only seven women have been recognized in the category, even though over a dozen films directed by a female filmmaker have been nominated for best picture during that time? 


The first was Lina Wertmüller in 1977 for Seven Beauties, followed by nominations for Jane Campion (The Piano, 1994), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, 2003), Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, 2010), Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, 2018), and this year a record two Chloé Zhao, who won the award, and Emerald Fennel for A Promising Young Woman. 

91 wins for men in this category seem against all odds. 


Then why do we still keep on choosing films portrayed through the male gaze? 


It can be argued that women in Hollywood have had significantly less opportunities over the years to direct than men. The numbers, though steadily improving over the years, still leave a lot to desire. In 2010 women accounted for only 10% of directors of 100 highest grossing films, and in 2020, 16%. However, since Sofia Coppola’s nomination in 2004, the Academy has been making steady attempts to improve gender equality by including more female members in the board. 


Karyn Kusama said this after Kathryn Bigelow’s win: “(...) what will truly be exiting and groundbreaking is when a woman wins for telling a story about women and their lives. As it is, it’s as if the Academy doesn’t believe women’s stories matter.” 


This statement encompasses the main problem of Hollywood: reliance on the male perspective. Women in the movie-making industry were never seen as directors, but rather as objects to be consumed and looked at by men. Close-ups of women’s bodies, skimpy and unrealistic clothing choices is what comes to mind when thinking of women in film. Yet, when one says “director”, we immediately imagine old photos from the set of Scorsese, Tarantino, Coppola. Studios need to put more effort into documenting women at work in film, so that we are able to see their presence, their impact, and visualize them during voting. Prejudice in the industry still hinders women’s progress to get equal opportunities in gaining experience, as men have. But striving towards this, is the only way to allow more women into the directing field, to allow them to tell stories about women and the world from their own perspective. Who knows, we might just learn something new from it. 

Another significant factor diminishing women’s success in Hollywood is the belief that they are being awarded and appreciated only for being women. The same issue affects members of racial or sexual minorities. Such thinking encompasses the idea that pictures created by men are inherently better, and that there is no need to review each piece of artwork by its own characteristics. Whenever such a claim arises, it is accompanied by forcibly picked arguments to support the “rightful” position of the winner in question. However, looking back there have always been controversies surrounding the choices of the Academy and the nominations - we believed some were undeserving, the other, that they were wrongly overlooked. Nevertheless, a nomination for the most awaited award in the movie industry always added prestige. If anything, it certainly resulted in wider recognition which translated into higher box-office sales. 


Stacy L. Smith, who is behind USC's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which has long tracked the progress women have made in the industry, said: "An Oscar nomination is the evidence of an industry that values work from its first screening until the nomination process. Often, women directors don't receive that level of notice”. Nominating more women would only be treating them equally to men.  Last year, Gerwig was snubbed for her work on Little Women, as were Lulu Wang, Lorene Scafaria, and a host of other women who directed some of the year’s best movies. (Wang’s film, The Farewell, did take home the Independent Spirit Award for best feature on Saturday night, a rarity for a movie that wasn’t Oscar nominated).  It seems unbelievable that not a single one of them got the nomination in the directing category. 

That is why, a woman finally getting recognition for a film from a female perspective is so groundbreaking. It needs to be shown in the media that we care about seeing the world from the woman’s view, and that we want to see more of it. Only then, we have a chance at securing the same privileges as men have in this field. And even if we don’t live to see those days, we should fight for this cause for the next generations of female film - makers. Hopefully, when dreaming of directing in Hollywood, girls will be able to picture someone other than white, old men, and truly believe that this is a field they have an equal chance to succeed in.


Chloé Zhao made history, but this is not the last we will be hearing about her. Her next feature, Eternals, is set for release in November, and undoubtedly, she will now be very busy with promising projects. 


With luck, next year’s awards will keep on pushing gender boundaries, and give equal recognition to female directors. Who knows, maybe this time we won’t have to wait another 12 years for such a win to happen.