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Entertainment

‘Little Women’ is unlikely to win best picture. That is exactly why it is important.

The Oscars have a long history of being called out for a lack of diversity. This year, no woman was nominated for best director, and only one best picture nominee focused on a female cast: “Little Women.” This comes at a time when the number of women working both behind and in front of the camera has reached historic highs.

These issues of representation are anecdotally obvious, but we wanted to know just how deep it goes. We dug into all 91 past best picture winners and analyzed correlations to nominations in other categories. The numbers show a still troubling trend of female-led films being left out.

Saoirse Ronan (left) plays the lead character Jo in “Little Women,” directed by Greta Gerwig (right). (Invision/AP)

Female nominees and winners for director, writing, film editing and cinematography remain scarce. Yet winning best picture is commonly linked to all of those categories, plus lead actor. That means a film like “Little Women,” which was directed, written and acted primarily by women, is statistically much less likely to win best picture.

It is a stark reminder that Hollywood has still failed to give equal time and recognition to men and women. It is also what makes “Little Women,” still sadly a rarity, so important as a nominee in the first place.

Wins and nominations for Best Picture winners

The columns below are a selection of a few notable Oscar categories. Some categories have also been combined: Adapted and original Screenplay are both in the “Writing” column. “Years” are based on the award season, not on the year of the actual ceremony. (e.g. The 2020 Oscars honors the movies of 2019.)

Won
Nominated
Female nominee/winner in non-gendered categories
Movie
Year
DirectorD
WritingW
Film EditingFE
Cinema.C
Lead ActorLA
Supp. ActorSA
Supp. ActressSA
Lead ActressLA

Click to expand

Source: Academy Awards Database, IMDB.

Illustration of film reel, serving as a divider on the page

Best director dominance for the ages

All of this year’s best picture nominees except for “Ford v Ferrari” are nominated for either best adapted or original screenplay, which is consistent with our findings that best picture correlates with writing. (89 percent of past winners were nominated for it.)

However, an overwhelming majority of past winners were also nominated for best director. In fact, only five films weren’t nominated for director, while over 71 percent of best director winners go on to grab best picture.

That means four nominees this year have a much smaller chance of succeeding: “Little Women,” “Ford v Ferrari,” “Jojo Rabbit” and “Marriage Story” all missed out on director nominations. Greta Gerwig was widely considered snubbed, as the academy once again had an all-male slate.

The nominations spread for this year’s Best Picture choices

The categories below are only a selection of the total Oscar categories. Adapted and original Screenplay have been combined in the “Writing” column.

movie poster for 1917
movie poster for 
	ford v ferrari
movie poster for jojo 
	rabbit
movie poster for joker
movie poster for 
	little women
movie poster for 
	marriage story
movie poster for once upon a time in hollywood
movie poster for parasite
movie poster for the 
	irishman

Cinematography

Supp. Actress

Male

nominee

Lead Actress

Supp. Actor

Lead Actor

Director

Writing

Editing

Female

Joker

The

Irishman

Parasite

Once Upon

a Time...

1917

Jojo

Rabbit

Marriage

Story

Little

Women

Ford vs.

Ferrari

Male

nominee

Once

Upon

a Time...

The

Irishman

Jojo

Rabbit

Marriage

Story

Little

Women

Ford vs.

Ferrari

Joker

Parasite

1917

Female

Director

Writing

Editing

Cinema.

Lead Actor

Supp. Actor

Lead Actress

Supp. Actress

Male

nominee

Once

Upon

a Time...

The

Irishman

Jojo

Rabbit

Marriage

Story

Little

Women

Ford vs.

Ferrari

Joker

Parasite

1917

Female

Director

Writing

Editing

Cinema.

Lead Actor

Supp. Actor

Lead Actress

Supp. Actress

Male

nominee

Once

Upon

a Time...

The

Irishman

Jojo

Rabbit

Marriage

Story

Little

Women

Ford vs.

Ferrari

Joker

Parasite

1917

Female

Director

Writing

Editing

Cinema.

Lead Actor

Supp. Actor

Lead Actress

Supp. Actress

Source: Academy Awards Database.

Two years ago, Gerwig became the fifth woman in Oscars history to land a best director nomination for “Lady Bird.” Kathryn Bigelow, director of “The Hurt Locker,” remains the only woman to have ever won.

There are other factors that make it even less likely for “Little Women” to win. Over 82 percent of past winners were nominated for film editing, while 79 percent were nominated for both director and editing. Only one film ever, 1932’s “Grand Hotel,” grabbed best picture without nominations for either.

Last year’s winner, “Green Book,” was not nominated for director, but did make the cut for editing. This year, only “Little Women” and “Marriage Story” missed out for both categories.

Notably, film editing is another behind-the-camera category where women tend to be underrepresented. One female film editor was nominated this year, Thelma Schoonmaker for “The Irishman,” while only 15 women have ever won the Oscar. The most recent was Margaret Sixel for 2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road.”

Rachel Morrison is the only woman to have ever been nominated for an Oscar in cinematography. (Invision/AP)

No female cinematographers, sound mixers or visual effects artists were nominated this year. Historically, only one woman, Rachel Morrison for 2017’s “Mudbound,” has ever been nominated for cinematography. Three female visual effects artists have received nods, with two of them winning: Suzanne M. Benson for “Aliens” and Sara Bennett for “Ex Machina.”

Illustration of film reel, serving as a divider on the page

Little women, a lotta men

Now it comes down to two. Neither “Little Women” or “Marriage Story” seem to have a great chance. However, what makes “Little Women” especially notable? Well, quite frankly, it is because Hollywood still tends to both nominate and reward films that feature male leads. “Little Women,” as a movie with an almost entirely female cast, defies that.

Almost 64 percent of previous best picture winners included nominations for lead actor. On the other hand, a little less than 31 percent had nominations for lead actress. But it goes beyond nominations. Over the past 20 years, including this year’s ceremony, only 22 of the 143 best picture nominees were female-led. (Not including films with both a male and female lead.) Just two have nabbed the win: 2003’s “Chicago” and 2017’s “The Shape of Water.” “Little Women” is the only female-led nominee this year and is unlikely to bump that number up to three.

“Best Picture” nominees and winners over the past 20 years

Less than half of the 143 total nominees during this time had a female lead, either solo or co-leading with a male actor. Since the 2010 Oscars ceremony, the academy has expanded the number of nominations for best picture from five to a possible 10.

Winners

Female lead

pictures

Both genders

lead

Male lead

Winners

Female lead

pictures

Both genders

lead

Male lead

Winners

Female lead

pictures

Both genders

lead

Male lead

Data from 2000 to 2019 award seasons. (Oscar ceremonies honor the award season from the previous year.) Winner for 2019 season will be announced Feb. 9th.

Source: Academy Awards Database, IMDB.

“Marriage Story” stars Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, nominated for lead actor and lead actress respectively. But Driver's nomination bumps up the movie’s winning chances based on historical data. Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh were respectively nominated for lead and supporting actress for “Little Women,” but the movie has no male lead. “Little Women” is an exception in both Hollywood and the Oscars for featuring so many, well, women.

It is important to note the lack of nominations and awards for female-led films is a wider issue of representation, not necessarily of quality. According to University of Southern California's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, only 33.1 percent of on-screen speaking roles belonged to women in 2018. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is not any better when it comes to its members, a.k.a the Oscar voting pool. In 2019, only 32 percent of members were women.

Women still speak on-screen much less than men

Percentage of female speaking roles in films over the years.

20

30

40%

2007

2010

30.9% avg.

2013

2016

2018

33.1

40%

33.1

30.9% avg.

30

20

2007

2010

2013

2016

2018

40%

33.1

30.9% avg.

30

20

2007

2010

2013

2016

2018

Source: Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, “Inequality in 1,200 Popular Films” report, September 2019.

Illustration of film reel, serving as a divider on the page

#OscarsStillSoWhite

These numbers help explain why it can be so hard in general for female-led films to be nominated — there are simply so few being made in the first place — and possibly why it is so hard to win as well. The fact that “Little Women” seems unlikely to win the top prize is not a consideration of how good it is, but rather a reminder of the still present diversity issue in Hollywood and that the academy primarily celebrates movies that match decades-old standards.

Similar issues of representation plague another notable best picture nominee: Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite,” which became the first foreign-language film to ever win best cast in a motion picture at the Screen Actors Guild Awards last month. While nominated for six Oscar awards, including the ever important director and film editing, the critical darling did not receive a single acting nod. Many noted this was a troubling trend for movies with a mostly Asian cast.

Critics have also pointed out the lack of diversity among other nominees. Cynthia Erivo was the only black actor to receive an acting nomination this year for her role in “Harriet.” “The Farewell” was shut out by the Oscars despite Awkwafina winning the Golden Globe for lead actress in a comedy. (She was the first woman of Asian descent to win the award in history.) Lupita Nyong’o and Jennifer Lopez were also overlooked for their work in “Us” and “Hustlers,” causing controversy.

“Parasite” wins best cast in a motion picture at the SAG Awards. (Invision/AP)

Cynthia Erivo arrives at the 92nd Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon. (Invision/AP)

However, things might be changing as the academy becomes more aware of its own problems. While still lacking in diversity, a 2016 pledge to double the number of women and minority members by the end of 2020 has slowly improved numbers. In 2015, 25 percent of Oscar voters were women and 8 percent were people of color. But last year, 32 percent were women, and 16 percent were minorities.

The 2009 introduction of a new preferential Oscars voting system also helped make the process more balanced by asking voters to rank the nominees from best to worst. One film must be ranked first by more than 50 percent of the ballots to win. This is meant to ensure the most widely liked movies win, instead of potentially polarizing films.

But with only a few years’ worth of evidence, only time will tell if these efforts will bear fruit. So ask us if anything has changed in another 10 years. In the meantime, this year’s Oscars will just be more of the same.

Shelly Tan

Shelly Tan is a graphics reporter and illustrator specializing in pop culture. She designs and develops interactive graphics.

Daniela Santamariña

Daniela Santamariña is a graphics reporter for newsletters covering politics at The Washington Post. Before joining The Post in 2019, she was an editor for National Geographic.

About this story

Illustrations by Sean Morris for The Washington Post.

Film posters: Universal Studios, 20th Century Fox, TSG Entertainment, Warner Bros. Pictures, Sony Pictures, Netflix and Neon.

Data compiled from the Academy Awards Database and IMDB. Statistics about representation on-screen from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.

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