The Oscars have long represented a way for the American film industry to celebrate and market its achievements.
Even when there are surprising wins, like this year’s top awards sweep by South Korean film Parasite, the Oscars tell us more about the values of the industry or what it wants to say than what might objectively be called a “best” picture or achievement.
Indeed, the optics of this year’s Oscars represented liberal “inclusion” at its peak, with Janelle Monáe and Billy Porter kicking off the show. There was also a land acknowledgment by Maori Indigenous screenplay award-winner Taika Waititi and many of the announcers were white women or people of colour — in a year of a largely white and male nominees.
Nevertheless, it was surprising that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences snubbed Greta Gerwig in the category of best director for her film Little Women considering the movie’s critical acclaim and that Gerwig is already one of only five women ever nominated for a Best Director Oscar (for Lady Bird).
Individuals who persist Our mutual interests in researching and teaching contemporary media culture, feminism and the representation of girls and women in popular culture lead us to to ask why Little Women has been undervalued by representatives of the academy.
Gerwig’s omission from the best director category reinforces the film’s assertion that creative women are not celebrated as much as their male counterparts.
And recognition of the film in other categories shows the ways that Hollywood tends to support new retellings of classic novels that reproduce ideologies like capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy over time, even as these ideologies shift and are cloaked anew.
Explicitly feminist take
Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has been re-imagined by every generation since its publication. It was a Broadway play in 1912, a ballet in 1969, an opera in 1998 and has been made into dozens of television series and films.
Gerwig’s adaptation gives us perhaps the most explicitly feminist take to date on the classic novel, highlighting the value of women’s joy and labour.
The story is a perfect vessel for adaptation: it can be tweaked to take on the weight of current culture while maintaining a veneer of the past. Contemporary audiences can find inspiration in the characters’ feminist resolve while feeling safe in the knowledge that many of the struggles they face are relics of the past.
Little Women’s only 2020 Oscar win was for best costume design (Jacqueline Durran), reinforcing the nostalgia of the film’s appeal. We buy a ticket for Little Women not to leave the problems of 2020 outside the theatre, but to see them represented safely in the past.