The XX Factor

Are the Oscars Biased Against Female Directors?

Ava DuVernay, snubbed for Selma.

Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

The Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its 2015 Oscar nominees this morning, sparking analysis over the films it has blessed (Birdman, Boyhood) and those it has snubbed: namely, Selma, which was nominated for Best Picture and Best Song, but failed to yield a Best Director nod for Ava DuVernay. Since the Academy switched up its rules in 2010—allowing for up to 10 Best Picture nominations, but sticking with just five directors—a handful of directors of nominated films have ended up in the rejection bin every year. Joining DuVernay this year are American Sniper director Clint Eastwood, Whiplash’s Damien Chazelle, and The Theory of Everything’s James Marsh; Bennett Miller got a nomination for directing Foxcatcher, though the film was ignored in the Best Picture category.

The omission of DuVernay stings more than the others. She would have been the first black woman nominated for best director in Oscar history, and just the fifth woman, following Lina Wertmüller for Seven Beauties, Jane Campion for The Piano, Sofia Coppola for Lost in Translation, and Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker. Instead, she’s been added to the list of female directors who have seen their films get nominated while they’ve been snubbed: Randa Haines for Children of a Lesser God in 1987, Penny Marshall for Awakenings in 1991, Barbra Streisand for The Prince of Tides in 1992, and Valerie Faris (who shared directing credit with Jonathan Dayton) for Little Miss Sunshine in 2007. When the Academy switched up the rules in 2010—allowing for 10 Best Picture nominations, but sticking with just five directors (a similar arrangement to the one it used in 1931 to 1943)—the list of left-out women expanded: Lone Scherfig for An Education in 2010; Debra Granik for Winter’s Bone and Lisa Cholodenko for The Kids Are All Right in 2011; Kathryn Bigelow for Zero Dark Thirty in 2013. And in two cases, female co-directors have been denied credit as their male partners snagged nominations, sparking controversy and speculation over the extent of their contributions . In 2004, Fernando Meirelles was nominated for City of God, but his co-director, Kátia Lund, was not; in 2009, Slumdog Millionaire co-director Loveleen Tandan—who started as a casting director but was promoted to a co-director when her role expanded during filming—was left out, while Danny Boyle went on to win. Tandan has expressed embarrassment at the suggestion that she should be honored alongside Boyle, saying, “It would be a grave injustice if the credit I have should have the effect of diminishing Danny Boyle’s magnificent achievement.” But Lund seemed pissed. ”If I was not directing,” she told the New York Times in 2004, “what was I doing?”

Vanity Fair sees this as a “troubling pattern” for female directors”; HitFix calls it a “disappointing Academy statistic.” But in the academy’s history, male directors of nominated films have been snubbed over 180 times. That was particularly true between 1931 and 1943, when eight to 12 films and just five directors were nominated each year, but it’s also happened consistently when the categories were well matched. In fact, there are only five years in Oscar history when a director of a Best Picture-nominated film wasn’t snubbed. Among the dissed are Francis Ford Coppola for The Conversation, Martin Scorsese for Taxi Driver, and Bruce Beresford for the Best Picture-winning Driving Miss Daisy. The year Bigelow was rejected, Ben Affleck was also robbed of a Best Director nomination for Argo, which went on to win Best Picture. And Wertmüller actually accomplished the opposite feat: While she snagged a directing nomination for the Italian Seven Beauties in 1977, her film was not nominated for Best Picture; it was nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

Still, there is some ammunition to the argument that the Academy may be particularly biased against female directors. Every Academy voter can vote in the Best Picture category, but individual categories like Best Actor and Best Director are voted on by their peers. A 2012 survey conducted by the Los Angeles Times found that overall, academy members are 94 percent white and 77 percent male, and that their median age is 62. But some branches are even less diverse than others: Women make up 19 percent of the academy’s screenwriting branch and 18 percent of its producers branch, but only 9 percent of its directors branch. Perhaps a body that’s 77 percent male is slightly more likely to recognize women-driven films than one that’s 91 percent so.

I suspect that the outrage over omissions like DuVernay’s doesn’t hinge on the idea that female directors are being ignored while their films are being celebrated. The central problem is that female directors and their work are so disadvantaged across the board in Hollywood, from mentorship to funding to awards. And each year that the Academy fails to nominate a woman—in 2010, Bigelow became the first, and so far last, female director to win—the frustration mounts. It doesn’t help that the industry’s most powerful body sees no need to improve. Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, herself the first black woman to gain that role, told Vulture today that the Academy doesn’t have a diversity problem “at all.”