Is the Academy's Push for Representation a Template for Our Politics? (Guest Blog)



For the first time in the history of the Academy Awards, two women were nominated for the Best Director.

We wouldn’t blame anyone for a lack of wholehearted celebration during this award seasons, especially when considering last year’s reckoning on racial justice and the not-too-distant #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite movements still ring true. But hear us out…

The 93rd Academy Awards — a postponed mélange of extravagance and entitlement, placed against a backdrop of national and economic crisis — might be a fruitful test for establishing lasting and sustainable political reform.

This year’s Academy Awards, much like the 2020 election cycle, were hailed as a historic moment for the improved inclusion of women.

The difference between these two “record-breaking” events is that the Academy of Motion Pictures has taken intentional steps to change its systems and actively increase representation, while our electoral system continues to be mired in antiquated norms and processes hindering chances for women and people of color.

On one level, the Oscars have built-in strategies to guarantee that women have equal opportunity to win: gender categories (or quotas) ensure women win Oscars for acting, and multi-winner, ranked-choice voting for the nomination process gives voters more power to support a range of choices.

Both of these methods employed by the Academy of Motion Pictures have well-documented benefits for increasing women and minority political representation.

With women holding 27 percent of seats in the House of Representatives, the U.S. is ranked 67th in the world for women’s representation, alongside Mali and Kazakhstan. Despite record-breaking election cycles, the U.S. remains continually outpaced by 70+ countries, including most of our democratic allies — allies that do not have better women running but better systems for women to run in. These systems include fair representation voting systems and gender quotas to ensure women win.

The U.S. uses a winner-take-all electoral system, where candidates can, and often, win with less than a majority of the vote, especially in crowded fields. This system strengthens the political white, male, status quo, and disadvantages women and people of color by protecting incumbents and fostering divisive and costly elections. To combat these issues, RepresentWomen advocates for a shift toward fair representation voting systems, like the single transferable vote used by Oscar voters.

For decades, electoral reform activists have pointed to the single transferable vote, also known as Fair Representation Voting, as a solution for the problems rampant in American democracy, to level the political playing field for women by:

  • Encouraging political parties to recruit more women and people of color to run.
  • Increasing voter options and giving voters the chance to balance their tickets between men and women candidates.
  • Inspiring healthy competition for seats ensuring incumbents are not guaranteed re-election based solely on being incumbents.
  • Incentivizing positive and issue-focused campaigns which has anecdotally been shown to encourage more women to run for office.
  • And, cutting the cost of campaigns. The majority of women run in open seats and as challengers with smaller donor networks and fewer financial resources, the lower cost of ranked-choice campaigns will greatly benefit them.

It’s true. While the Oscars have not been a role model for accurate and adequate representation in the past, the Academy has implemented reform to change the makeup of its electorate and improve the representation of women and people of color.

In 2019, the Academy added 842 new members, including actors, casting directors, costume designers, directors, etc. The newly added membership comprises 50 percent women and 29 percent people of color, bringing the total membership overall to 32 percent of women and 16 percent of people of color.

This “incremental, sustainable change,” as cited by Kirsten Schaffer, executive director of Women in Film, is not perfect, but is a step in the right direction and a significant cause for hope and even celebration.

More recently, through a series of internal process reforms, the Academy’s Aperture 2025 initiative is a direct reflection of the film industry’s commitment to diverse representation. This inclusion initiative sets new standards that encompass quotas and recruitment mandates for both representation on screen — in the types of stories being told and the actors involved — and behind the scenes. It also dictates what films qualify for Best Picture.

For a film to qualify, it must meet at least two standards across four categories: “Onscreen Representation, Themes and Narratives,” “Creative Leadership and Project Team,” “Industry Access and Opportunities,” and “Audience Development.”

Other Oscar Award categories will not be held to these same standards, but the contenders for Best Picture typically filter down to other feature-length categories. While these mandates will not go into effect until the 96th Oscars in 2024, we already see their impact in this year’s nominations.

In the nearly 100 year span of the Oscar Awards, there have been a grand total of seven women directors nominated. Before this year, there were only five, with Kathryn Bigelow as the sole woman to win Best Director for the “The Hurt Locker.”

Along with the historic and diverse slate of nominees, this year’s winners also included many firsts for the Academy. Chloe Zhao, the first woman of color nominated for directing, screenwriting, editing, and best picture; made history as the first woman of color to win Best Director, and the second woman ever.

Emerald Fennell, nominated for screenwriting and best picture, is most likely the first director nominated for a film made while in the last trimester of pregnancy. On Sunday, Fennell won for Best Original Screenplay.

Additional historic firsts for the 2021 Oscars include: Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson became the first Black women to be nominated for and win the Academy Award for Best Makeup & Hairstyling for their work on “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” And for her performance in “Minari,” Yuh-Jung Youn was the first Korean actress to win for Best Supporting Actress.

If the Oscars were to give out a new award for “most historic first,” this year would be packed with diverse and profound candidates and winners. But it also serves as a solemn reminder to all those years before. Today, where each “first” for women is also met with the lasting memory and status of “none.”

If the entertainment industry can recognize this need for reform to increase diversity and succeed, politics should follow suit. The United States is founded on the ideal of representative democracy – of the people, by the people, and for the people – yet with each election cycle we fail to uphold that standard for women. Systems matter and ours has never worked for women.

It’s time we address the systemic barriers that women continue to face in politics. By studying innovative strategies adopted around the world and across industries, RepresentWomen identifies the best practices for improving women’s elected representation and advocates for their overdue implementation in the U.S.’ political system so that we can reach gender balance in politics, in our lifetimes.

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