Women Have Never Been Nominated in One of the Most Important Oscar Categories

The cinematographer is responsible for the film’s ‘gaze.’

Jill Soloway at the 2016 Golden Globes. Soloway won the prize in 2014 for Best Television Series Comedy or Musical. (Photo: Rachel Murray/Getty Images)

Feb 18, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

Last year, multiple academic studies, a wildly popular Tumblr, and a high-profile ACLU campaign all worked to highlight the plight of women directors seeking work in male-dominated Hollywood. On Thursday, an analysis by the Women’s Media Center revealed the extent to which female filmmakers are overlooked during the industry’s biggest night: Just three women have ever been nominated for an Oscar for best director, and of those, only Kathryn Bigelow has taken home the statuette.

But the analysis also exposes another, less frequently discussed role in which women are deeply overshadowed: cinematography. In the Academy’s 88-year history, not a single woman has ever been nominated for best cinematography, making it the only Oscars category that has only ever honored men, according to the Women’s Media Center tally.

RELATED: The Women of Hollywood Find Their Voice

Sometimes referred to as the director of photography, the cinematographer is arguably as important to a film as the director, dictating every motion of the camera, deciding what makes it into each frame, and controlling the look and feel of the movie. In other words, the cinematographer is responsible for what is often referred to as the film’s “gaze," or the way it positions viewers to see each character from the particular perspective of the filmmaker.

The concept of the male gaze, which refers to the visual perspective of a heterosexual man—traditionally the person operating the camera in Hollywood movies—was first explored by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey in a 1975 essay called “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” In it, Mulvey posits that the male gaze “projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly.” Essentially, she suggests that when women are portrayed on-screen as sexual objects, it's likely because the cinematographer is a heterosexual male, to whom the woman signifies desire.

Though much has changed in the decades since Mulvey wrote her essay, the concept of the male gaze—and ideas about how to subvert it, mainly by supporting filmmakers who are not straight white men—remain as relevant and widely cited as ever.

“The male gaze, because the men are subjects, necessarily divides us, divides women into either/or—the Madonna or the whore, the slut or the good girl, or the many, many ways in which women are divided to be seen as objects when the male character is the subject,” Transparent creator Jill Soloway said during a speech at the Women in Film awards last year. “That divide is kind of a wound that’s really harming our entire planet right now.” The solution is rather simple, in theory anyway: Women can bridge the divide, Soloway said, by picking up the camera and making movies.

RELATED: Fed Up With Hollywood Sexism, a Filmmaker Created Her Own Database of Women Directors

But in practice, the challenges remain steep for female cinematographers looking to project their gaze in the mainstream industry. Women accounted for just 5 percent of all cinematographers on the 250 top-grossing films released in 2014, according to a study released last year by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University. Women’s membership in the American Society of Cinematographers, the nearly century-old, influential industry group, is even smaller, at just 4 percent.

Overall, women accounted for roughly 19 percent of all Oscar nominees in non-acting categories between 2006 and 2015, according to the Women’s Media Center analysis. But several categories stood out as egregious examples of underrepresentation: Over roughly the last decade, women accounted for just 1 percent of nominees in visual effects, 2 percent of nominees for directing, 3 percent of nominees for sound mixing, and 6 percent of nominees for sound editing.

Oscar nominees were nearly equally split between men and women for production design/art direction and documentary short. Women dominated, accounting for 73 percent of all nominees, in just one category: costume design. And yet, the percentage of men nominated in that category is still higher than the percentage of women nominated in all non-acting categories.

TakePart’s parent company, Participant Media, is a partner on Beasts of No Nation, as well as on Oscar-nominated films Spotlight, Bridge of Spies, and The Look of Silence.