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Heroines of Cinema: 10 Feminist Highlights of Awards Season

Photo of Matthew Hammett Knott By Matthew Hammett Knott | Indiewire March 3, 2014 at 2:6PM

There are many reasons to hate awards season. But for me, its greatest value has always been the potential platform it offers to progressive films, voices and characters. Let's not kid ourselves - 90% of the time, awards shows are a platform for vast egos and cinema at its most conservative. But at the same time, those few minutes at the podium (or more, if you're hosting) can provide a privileged few with the chance to speak out on matters that are more than worth highlighting in public forums. Some women know this. Some we more or less expect it from. But the ways they find to speak up and represent continue to impress and inspire, as the following list should attest.
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There are many reasons to hate awards season. But for me, its greatest value has always been the potential platform it offers to progressive films, voices and characters. Let's not kid ourselves - 90% of the time, awards shows are a platform for vast egos and cinema at its most conservative. But at the same time, those few minutes at the podium (or more, if you're hosting) can provide a privileged few with the chance to speak out on matters that are more than worth highlighting in public forums. Some women know this. Some we more or less expect it from. But the ways they find to speak up and represent continue to impress and inspire, as the following list should attest.

10. Ellen DeGeneres and Cheryl Boone Isaacs take over the Oscars
She may not have whipped out the feminist zingers in the manner of her fellow awards hosts further up this list, but sometimes what matters equally is representation, and this year Ellen returned as one of only two women to have ever solo-hosted the Oscars. With Cheryl Boone Isaacs also installed as the Academy's second female and first African American president, women were more in charge this year than ever, marking a frankly necessary change following Seth Macfarlane's infamous activities last year.

9. Julie Delpy describes Oscar voters as "old white men who need money"
There are many people, including some on this list, who do a good job of claiming disinterest in awards season while expertly playing the game. There are others who fall into the category of "literally don't give a shit". Double Oscar nominee Julie Delpy is inarguably one of the latter. In an interview with So Film, she described Oscar voters as "90% white men over 70 who need money because they haven't done anything in a long time. You just need to give them two or three presents and they're in your pocket". Delpy is well aware how such gendered statements cause her to be perceived, but far from shying away from them, she wrote more than one feminist diatribe into her character's mouth in "Before Midnight". Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film didn't win last night, but Delpy can be sure she made her mark nonetheless.

8. Helen Mirren calls out TV's dead female body fetish
Nothing was more like a coronation this season than Helen Mirren's BAFTA fellowship award - that is, until she used the resulting publicity rounds to highlight TV's obsession with female murder victims. Agreeing with David Hare's critique of the current lust for blood on our television screens, she pointed out that "most of these victims are young women", showing that while she may be a Dame and a national treasure, she has no intention of being regal in her opinions.

7. Sandra Bullock googles herself
She may have missed out on the major awards, but Sandra Bullock turned an acceptance speech at the Palm Springs Film Festival into a viral hit when she talked about what she had learned through googling herself. After cataloguing the depressingly inevitable criticisms of her age and looks, she reveals that it was watching films, or rather "watching fabulous women, who may or may not be over 40, giving groundbreaking performances and breaking my heart" that restored her faith in the world.

6. Shonda Rhimes gets real about diversity at the DGA
It takes guts to stand in front of a room dominated by white men and talk about the reality of Hollywood being a “white boys club”. Thankfully, Shonda Rhimes has guts to spare. Accepting the DGA's diversity award alongside Betsy Beers, she was a paragon of graciousness before admitting "we're a little bit pissed off there still needs to be an award", which we can hope made all those "white boys hiring one another" sit up and listen.

5. Lupita Nyong’o celebrates black beauty at the Essence Awards
The objectification of Lupita Nyong’o over the past few months has been fairly unwholesome to watch, with parts of the press eager to discuss her name, her fashion sense and very little else (the Daily Mail insist on calling the Yale graduate an "exotic beauty"). Thankfully, Nyong'o herself has used her platform to make a more meaningful contribution. At the Essence Awards, she gave a powerful speech about feeling "unbeautiful" as a child on account of her dark skin, and how the representation of black women in the media helped her on a journey towards acceptance. For anyone who has ever doubted that it matters, here is your evidence:


4. Emma Thompson speaks the truth during the Hollywood Reporter actress round table
You can count on Emma Thompson to speak out about feminist issues - in fact she's been the star of a previous column as a result. So it was delightful to see her back on the circuit this year, and she didn't disappoint when she participated in this year's Hollywood Reporter roundtable. On fiery form throughout, among many highlights was her anecdote regarding the type of part she used to be offered. "There was a patch of time when I was in my 30s and just started [being offered] a whole string of roles that basically involved saying to a man "Please don't go and do that brave thing. Don't! No, no, no, no, no!". That's a trope, the stock woman who says "Don't do the brave thing". I said no to all of them. I'm so proud".

3. Tina and Amy rule the Golden Globes
The award for best one-liner of the season may well go to Tina Fey for her observation that Gravity is "the story of how George Clooney would rather float away into space and die than spend one more minute with a woman his own age". This was only one of several classic zingers offered by Fey and her co-host Amy Poehler at the Globes, as they told it how it is for women in Hollywood while remaining, almost to a fault, generous and warm-spirited throughout.

2. Cate Blanchett at the Oscars: "The world is round, people!"
Best Actress winner Blanchett proved her feminist credentials early in the season when she called out a red carpet camera man who panned up and down her dress, asking "Do you do this to the guys?". And she was no less forthright when the biggest platform called, using her acceptance speech to send a memo to "those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the centre are niche experiences". Cate's message? "They are not. Audiences want to see them, and in fact, they earn money". Cue applause.


1. Meryl Streep and Emma Thompson come out as "rabid, man-eating feminists"
To be fair, it's not like the past few years have left us in much doubt as to Meryl Streep's proclivities when it comes to gender issues. But it's been a while since we've had a chance to see her team up with her old mucker Ms Thompson. How often do you get to see two grown women larking about on a public stage, removing their high heels "as a feminist statement" and decrying industry legends like Walt Disney as the gender bigot he was? Sadly no footage has emerged of Streep's tribute to Thompson at the National Board of Review, but read this transcript, and you will be left in little doubt that the answer is not often enough.

Heroines of Cinema is a bi-weekly column on Indiewire. Matthew Hammett Knott is a writer and filmmaker based in London. Follow him on Twitter.

This article is related to: Heroines of Cinema, Academy Awards, Academy Awards, Awards Season Roundup