Does the Academy Think Little Women Directed Itself?

Time to throw this year’s Oscar nominations into the fireplace.

Greta Gerwig kneels down to talk to Meryl Streep, who's sitting on a couch in a movie et.
Greta Gerwig with Meryl Streep on the set of Little Women. Wilson Webb—CTMG Inc.

Little Women must be a wondrous motion picture indeed. When the Academy Award nominations were announced Monday morning, that august body saw fit to recognize the film for Best Picture, Best Actress (Saoirse Ronan), Best Supporting Actress (Florence Pugh), Best Adapted Screenplay (Greta Gerwig), and Best Costume Design (Jacqueline Durran). Yet all this goodness must somehow have assembled itself without any guiding hand at the helm: Gerwig was left off the Best Director slate, which—as has been the case all but five times in the 92-year history of the award—was made up entirely of men.

I’ve long considered myself an awards-neutral critic, unable to get too worked up about “snubs” and “nods” and people or movies getting “robbed.” It’s the Oscars, Jake, and to bother getting publicly outraged about the injustice of any individual omission, it seems to me, is to be just a different kind of cog in the giant consensus machine that grants the curious institution of the Academy so much more cultural weight than it deserves. But come on, Academy voters—really? 2019 was a year in which the number of mainstream films made by women started to reach critical mass: Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet, Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart, Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, Claire Denis’ High Life, Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and Mati Diop’s Atlantics were all either well-reviewed, successful at the box office, or both, and several of them were recognized in Monday morning’s nominations in categories other than directing. To respond to a year like that with the studious exclusion of anyone female from the award that above all others confers authorship and authority, the one that attributes a film’s success to the unifying vision of an individual, starts to look like nothing else but rank condescending sexism.

Gerwig seemed like a near shoo-in for inclusion on the list, even given the Academy’s notorious racial and gender blind spots. Like Kathryn Bigelow, the only woman ever to have won the award, she is an attractive white woman with a partner who also works in the industry. Mind you, these aren’t in themselves reasons for voters to have recognized Gerwig’s work, but they seemed like conditions that might have gotten her past the velvet rope of the institution’s well-known biases.

Naming Gerwig to the category would also have made Oscar history in a way that would have given Academy members an always-welcome chance to pat themselves on the back: Having been nominated for Lady Bird in 2018 (when she lost to Guillermo del Toro for The Shape of Water), she could have been the first woman in history to get a Best Director nomination twice. But apparently women can only have a little recognition, as a treat, and Gerwig’s quota of one nomination having been checked off the list, she may now safely be ignored.

Here I am, falling into exactly the fist-shaking pose toward the Academy that I just wrote off as counterproductive and pointless. Little Women is a box-office smash that’s made more than 100 best-films-of-the-year critics’ lists and seems destined to become a beloved classic. Gerwig is a brilliant young artist with a great career in front of her; directing nomination or no, she’s had an extraordinary year, and she will get to sit at the ceremony and see her writing, her fine cast of actors, her exquisite eye for costume design, and her movie itself honored by the industry. So why did Monday morning’s announcements have me muttering curses into my coffee?

I admit it (and this is why the gears of the awards-season machine are so hard to escape): The Oscars are always about something more than the Oscars. It just feels like a bad omen to kick off 2020, a year in which the question “Can a woman win?” is about to raise its head in a much more significant field of endeavor, by pointedly not recognizing an otherwise hyperqualified woman for the specific capability of being able to lead: to run a film set, to run a campaign, to run a country. For the past few years, American women have watched over and over again, the hope slowly ebbing from our eyes, as women with experience, talent, energy, brains, and preparation lose out over and over again to men who—to keep things general and very, very civil—display a glaring lack of all those qualities. We are getting extremely tired of being set aside in some weird logic-free space where our work is somehow appreciated while we, as its creators, remain invisible, even as dudes reap all the recognition and power: the heavy gold statuette, the next prestigious directing gig, the leadership of the free world.

Go ahead and accuse me of making too big a deal of this, of universalizing one director’s exclusion into a sweeping statement about societal misogyny. Soon enough I’ll be back to my usual Zen quietude vis-à-vis the Oscars (at least until I see Gerwig on the red carpet and start shaking my fist again, even as I clock the details of whatever she’s wearing). In the meantime I will limit myself to the observation that Little Women, a film explicitly about the importance and difficulty of claiming female authorship in a male-dominated world, was among the very best movies of 2019, and was not magically fashioned by woodland fairies but written and directed by a living female human.