Sunday, March 1, 2015



This week’s Oscars exemplified the male domination of Hollywood, an industry where actresses still get lower pay, less meaty roles and fewer big-budget films than actors

By Anna MM Vetticad

“We’re more than just our dresses. We are so happy to be here and talk about the work that we’ve done. It’s hard being a woman in Hollywood, or any industry.” The words came from Oscar 2015’s Best Actress nominee Reese Witherspoon on the red carpet earlier this week as she elaborated on the #askhermore campaign in conversation with a television reporter.

#Askhermore is an online hashtag movement initiated by the US-based non-profit organisation, The Representation Project, which calls out journalists for persistently asking women on red carpets only — or at least primarily — about their gowns, while quizzing the men almost entirely about their work. The demand: ask her more.

Accepting her Best Supporting Actress Award later that evening, Patricia Arquette received a rousing response when she raised another point of inequality. “To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights, it’s our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America,” she said, as front-row occupants Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez roared their approval.

For Indian viewers, it was important to witness Streep’s reaction. Drawing-room conversations among film buffs across this country about male-dominated Indian film industries inevitably include comments such as, “Look at the kind of roles Hollywood is still offering Meryl Streep.” In reality, this legendary actress has often spoken about gender discrimination in Hollywood. As for the substantial, well-written roles she steps into year after year, one Streep doth not a feminist summer make.

Look no further than this year’s Oscar nominations for proof of how meaty roles and big-budget mainstream films are usually reserved for men in Hollywood. Of the eight Best Picture nominees, seven were male-led stories with women in supporting roles, some significant, some not even that: American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma and Whiplash.

Substance attracts awards juries. And so, four of the eight nominated films yielded Best Actor nominations for their heroes. The eighth film was The Theory of Everything, the story of internationally renowned physicist Stephen Hawking’s relationship with his first wife Jane Wilde. Not surprisingly, this high-profile film with its male and female leads standing shoulder to shoulder, got acting nominations for both its hero and heroine.

This is not a new development at the Oscars or other Hollywood awards. The reasons for these trends are twofold. First, the world’s most widely viewed film industry prefers to tell the stories of men or tell universal stories from a male perspective. Second, producers prefer to invest in male-led films.

The myth that women-centric big-budget action, sci-fi or other mass entertainers do not make big money like films in the same genres helmed by male characters has been repeatedly busted over the years. The Angelina Jolie-starrers Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) and Salt (2010) both earned more than double their mega budgets. Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2 starring Uma Thurman collected almost six times their combined budget worldwide. In a vastly different genre, The Devil Wears Prada (2006) with Streep raked in $326 million across the globe, which was almost 10 times its budget. (Figures courtesy

It is not the contention of this column that the male-centric stories being told by Hollywood are not worthy of being told. The point is that across genres, the stories of women too deserve to be told and have the potential to earn equivalent sums as often as male-focused films do, if Hollywood were to tell such stories consistently over a period of time, market these films as heavily and build up female stars in commercial entertainers in the same way it builds up its male stars.

Sometimes, stories with promise are staring us in the face. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Best Picture Oscar winner this year is the captivating account of a fading movie star who once played the superhero Birdman with great success on screen. Would it have been less enthralling if it had been about a former Birdwoman? Is not the biography of Alan Turing’s colleague in The Imitation Game — the genius cryptographer Joan Clarke — a film begging to be made?

Richard Linklater’s Oscar-nominated Boyhood is the coming-of-age tale of a little boy from a troubled family, shot over a period of 12 years with the same cast. Interesting though he is, the child at its centre is often overshadowed in the first half of the film by his more dynamic sister Samantha played by the young acting dynamite Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter). As the film progresses though, Samantha is relegated to the background by the script.

It is a wonder — and yet it is not — that it did not occur to the wonderfully inventive Linklater Senior to make a companion film to Boyhood. I am not pointing fingers at him here. It is but natural for people to tell stories that they relate to the most. This then is what happens when more men are making films than women, and more men are getting money to make the films they instinctively want to make. I don’t know about you, but I am dying to see a Girlhood revolving around Samantha over those 12 years with the same cast. Wish Linklater had been keen on it too.

(Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. Twitter: @annavetticad)

(This column by Anna MM Vetticad was first published in The Hindu Businessline newspaper on February 28, 2015)

Photograph courtesy:   

Note: This photograph was not published in The Hindu Businessline


  1. Ummm...Wild, Big Eyes, Cake, Still Alice, Hunger Games, Divergent, Lucy to name a few? So they weren't nominated for Oscars, and sure the number of meaty roles for men outnumber those for women, but you make it sound like there's a dearth which there isn't. In fact, Hunger Games and Divergent are blockbuster franchise films that have female protagonist so while it's far from equal, it's definitely not this famine strong female oriented films. Even if you look at last year, Gravity, last year's big blockbuster rested on Sandra Bullock's shoulders, Cate Blanchett had a great role in Blue Jasmine - then there was August Osage County with great roles for Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep, the year before that Zero Dark Thirty just to name a few. The point is a filmmaker should make what comes naturally to him/her. Some years there's more than others. The point is if I want to tell a story, whether I choose to tell the story from a male/female perspective is my call depending on what comes naturally to me. It's not fair for someone to sit there and tell me "why do male stories only come naturally to you?" or "why do female stories come naturally to you?" they just do. If Kill Bill came naturally to Tarentino, then he should make Kill Bill, but he shouldn't alter what comes naturally to him to make it Kill Belinda with a male protagonist. Similarly, with Django a male driven story was one he felt like telling, I see no reason he should alter the gender. In Selma, a female director chose to tell a story about a man, because that is what she felt like telling. If she wanted to tell the story about Martin Luther King, why shouldn't she? Why should she say "oh wait, we make too many movies on men, even though I want to tell his story, I'll pick Rosa Parks instead"?

    1. Dear Anonymous,

      My column has already covered all the questions you have raised, but I'll go over them one more time:

      (1) At no point in this article have I said "why do male stories only come naturally to you?" with reference to any male director.

      I'm afraid that is a misquote you have plucked right out of your imagination.

      Quite to the contrary, I said: "It is but natural for people to tell stories that they relate to the most. This then is what happens when more men are making films than women, and more men are getting money to make the films they instinctively want to make…"

      (2) There is really no need for you to list a bunch of big-budget female-led entertainers since I've already done so in the column: Kill Bill Volumes 1&2, Salt, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. The point is that big producers tend to support the view that women-centric sci-fi and action films tend not to make money the way such films do when they are telling male-focused stories. The point also is that films like the ones I've listed prove them wrong but they still persist in propagating this myth.

      Third, you are selective in quoting facts. To counter my examination of the Best Picture Oscar category you have dipped into the Best Actress and Supporting Actress categories to cite strong roles for women (August Osage County, Blue Jasmine). Well of course in these categories you would find such films - because they are categories specifically for women - last year, this year and every year.

      The fair comparison would have been with the Best Picture category last year. Guess what? 6 of the 9 nominated films in 2014 were male-centric, 2 gave equal importance to their male and female characters, and only one was a woman-centric film. No, Gravity did not rest on Sandra Bullock's shoulders. It rested on Bullock and George Clooney's shoulders.

      Despite all this since you believe that I "make it sound like there's a dearth (of strong roles for women) which there isn't", then I can only assume that you believe 50% of humanity -- meaning, women -- should be satisfied with whatever comes their way and should not point out that they are inadequately represented in Hollywood films.

      Are you not being extremely patronising to women? I'd urge you to consider that question.

      Thanks for writing in.



    2. You're getting caught up in the technicalities of my argument and missing the point I'm making - by your 50% of humanity logic, you can make the argument about many factions of people then, why just women (other groups would be less than 50% of course, but you get the point). Also I listed big budget entertainers to illustrate that while some producers may have the mindset you mentioned, there are producers who are willing to invest in large budget films with female protagonists. Now if you expect a 50/50 ratio, then why not an equal number of prominent roles for all other groups of people? I get that your article is specifically addressing women, but if you're gonna pull the percentage of humanity card then that should be all inclusive. Also, I beg to differ with you on Gravity, I felt it rested on Sandra Bullock's shoulders (neither here nor there but pointing it out regardless). Then there's me pulling quotes from my imagination - well that was based on my interpretation of what you had written, so if that is not what you meant then fair enough, my bad. And again, I go back to my point on Selma, in response to your actual quote "It is but natural for people to tell stories that they relate to the most. This then is what happens when more men are making films than women, and more men are getting money to make the films they instinctively want to make…" - this filmmaker, a woman, got money to make a film she instinctively wanted to make, and made a film on Martin Luther King Jr. Maybe she didn't get the memo that women don't get money to make the films they instinctively want to make so she should take this opportunity to tell a female centric story instead.

    3. No, I've not missed the point you are making. The point you are making clearly is that women should stop fussing about not getting the representation they ought to get in Hollywood stories, and you are then citing the very examples I cite in my column to claim that women should be happy enough that those films were made, instead of asking why so many more are not. Talk about being patronising and condescending. It is not "some producers" who have the gender-biased mindset I've described, most do, and it is only "some" who are willing to invest in big-budget, women-centric films. As for your question about representation for other marginalised groups of people, since I have written about the subject in the past, it is directed at the wrong person. Do you raise the question of such representation because you genuinely care or merely because you want to make a point to me? Are you really not aware that African Americans, the LGBT community and other groups routinely speak up about this issue? Are you actually not aware that there was a huge amount of criticism directed at this year's Oscars because African Americans were virtually excluded, the noms for Selma notwithstanding? Would you now be as patronizing towards African Americans as you have been to women in your post, and say: Hey, stop grumbling; you do have Selma this year after all! For the record, I don't think Selma deserved to be nominated -- the point is not to give nominations to films that don't deserve it, as an act of tokenism; the point is to make more films -- big films, small films, moneyed films, niche films, massy films -- that are representative of the real world out there. As for your sarcastic comment about the memo to Selma's director who happens to be a woman, it shows a very limited understanding of my comment. I did not say anywhere that all women will and should make films about women or that all men make films about men. What next? Will you ask me if Quentin Tarantino, Vikas Bahl and Navdeep Singh are women in drag? I find it hard to believe that you haven't actually understood that.


    4. Yes I would be equally patronizing to all other groups. And yes I am fully aware of the criticism of the Oscars (which I felt was unwarranted for the record). In fact, had the situation been the other way around and you had written this piece on men, I would've been equally patronizing towards men as well. The whole notion about fussing about what does exist or does not exist in creative content (and only in creative content) is something I have a problem with (I mean it as it relates to the groups of people you have mentioned and the roles that they tend to get). And contrary to what you interpreted, I'm not saying that you said all women will and should make films about women. What I am saying is that you insinuated that lack of prominent roles for women might be because not enough women get the money to make the films they want. My point is even if they do, doesn't mean they will make a woman oriented film. The two aren't necessarily connected.

    5. Dear "Anonymous",

      If, as you admit, you would be equally patronising to all marginalised groups, then that makes you a patronising human being who is either out of touch with the real world and/or impatient with anyone questioning the status quo. I can understand. It must be so irritating to find people rocking your comfortable boat. And how laughable that you would even briefly visualise a situation where a journalist with any degree of knowledge and social consciousness would write an article claiming that men are poorly represented in Hollywood stories. The only thing more amusing than that is someone considering for a second that any sane, sensitive journalist would write about the poor representation of white Christian American men in Hollywood films or an article on the poor representation of upper-caste, Hindu, north Indian men in Hindi films.

      Your sentence, "The whole notion about fussing about what does exist or does not exist in creative content (and only in creative content) is something I have a problem with…" is again a revelation that you are out of touch with or indifferent to what's going on out there. You are reading a film column by a film journalist published in a national newspaper and re-published on her film blog - if it would not be about creative content what would you expect it to be about? But if you believe the world raises issues of representation "only in creative content", then exactly what do you think reservations for SCs, STs, OBCs and others in our country are all about? It's about representation. As is positive discrimination in any country that practises it. Where and how did you get the idea that objections are "only" raised about lack of representation "in creative content"?

      And again, where did you get the notion that I "insinuated" that lack of prominent roles for women might be because not enough women get the money to make the films they want. I didn't "insinuate" it, I stated it clearly: that one reason why less women-centric films are made is because less women make films and less women get money to make the films they instinctively want to make. If, as you say, you have understood that I'm not saying this means every single man would only make films on men and every single woman would only make films on women, then your example of Selma is pointless. As pointless as if you were to say: Didn't Quentin Tarantino make the Kill Bill films? Yes he did, and I've cited his Kill Bill films in the column with a detailed explanation for the context in which I'm citing them.

      It should be obvious that this article is talking about the larger trend, not exceptions.

      I'm sure you got my point a while back, so I'm ending this discussion here. Thank you for writing in.



  2. Nice writeup Anna. Just to push back a little.

    The Angelina Jolie-starrers Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) - Female Trope/ gamer fetish

    Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2 starring Uma Thurman - japanophile fanboy objectification of women (and feet)

    and so on.

    A bechdel test might be a good first measure.