In Joy, Jennifer Lawrence portrays a divorced mother of three who starts her own company, eventually becoming a self-made millionaire and all-around boss. In other words, Lawrence plays the familiar Strong Female Character. It’s a fun story—and, as it turns out, the only Oscar-nominated lead actress role that depicts a woman as career-minded.
As Mark Harris of MONEY’s sister publication Entertainment Weekly noted, this year’s best actor nominees are being honored for portraying an astronaut, a trapper, a screenwriter. And the women? Besides Lawrence, he cites a mom (Brie Larson in Room), a lady (Cate Blanchett in Carol), a wife (Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years), and a girl (Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn, though to be fair she is also a student and bookkeeper).
It’s a stark reminder that when big, important films tell the stories of the fairer sex, we’re still grappling with the Madonna-Whore complex. As Variety pointed out last year, on-screen women are “the girlfriend, the mother or the wife. Their value is determined in relation to the people they bed, marry or birth.” Ronan’s character may be a bookkeeper in Brooklyn, but her job is not the focus of her story. That distinction belongs to which man she should marry.
This isn’t to say that motherhood or falling in love aren’t worthy experiences with the potential to inspire rich, nuanced storytelling, or that women’s stories should only be told if the characters are working in a male-dominated field. It’s to point out that for many, the acceptable position for a woman in society is still mother, wife, sister, not screenwriter, artist, astronaut. And that belief is reflected back to us in our popular culture, most insidiously in what we deem to be “good” popular culture. I enjoyed Brooklyn as a story about love, assimilation, and finding yourself. But it’d be nice for young girls to watch films that show there’s more to life than falling in love.
The situation does get a bit better when you look at the Best Supporting Actress noms. Rachel McAdams plays an investigative journalist in Spotlight; Jennifer Jason Leigh is an outlaw in Hateful Eight; Kate Winslet is a marketing executive critical to the success of one of the world’s most revolutionary companies. Apparently job prospects are a bit more varied if you’re not the heroine of the story. Better still if you’re helping a misunderstood male genius reach his full potential.
Women are the primary breadwinners in 40% of U.S. households. More and more men are opting to stay home while their wives work. Where are those stories?
The portrayal of women isn’t the only controversy to stem from this year’s Oscar nominations. For the second year in a row, #OscarsSoWhite has been trending on Twitter, pointing out the depressing lack of diversity in the acting nominations. None of the 20 acting nods went to people of color. Only one director, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, is not white (of course, they’re all male).
Again, all of these stories are worth sharing; its not an either-or proposition. But they can’t be the only ones that are told.