I knew from Seth MacFarlane’s opening boobs song that this year’s Academy Awards, and the choice itself of MacFarlane as host was tremendously revealing about male gender anxiety. Dana Stevens, who wrote in Monday’s morning’s Slate that there was the air to last night’s Oscars of male anxiety about their losing power to women, and Amy Davidson, who wrote in The New Yorker that the show’s “misogyny involved a specific hostility to women in the workplace,” hit the nail on the head.
What no one has yet mentioned is that beyond MacFarlane’s tasteless jokes, the nominations and award winners, themselves, reflect how Hollywood, and society as a whole, is resistant to women having too much ambition.
Society still doesn’t like a woman who comes across as too ambitious, too celebratory of her success. That’s why the Onion tweeted that Quvenzhane Wallis “seems kind of a cunt” after she pumped her fists and smiled at the end of her nomination for best supporting actress.
And that’s why Anne Hathaway is in a bind, and comes across as unlikeable despite her best efforts. She’s a fabulous actress but one whose ambition seeps through her pores. She tries to tone down her desire to win and it seems false. Hathaway gushed on the red carpet, and at the podium, about her husband, as if that was way more important than her acting efforts, as if, like the princess roles she has played, she was a princess saved by a prince. Yet the way Hathaway named at least ten people in her “management team” in her acceptance speech suggests that she is not naturally expounding upon her glowing love of her husband: she’s a savvy industry-player who self-consciously plans out her words. She is trying to tap into an image that appeals to Hollywood and the ticket-buying public--that she’s a non-threatening waif, a Disney princess come to life.
Indeed, Hollywood only rewards women for playing a certain kind of woman. Hathaway won the Oscar for playing a woman forced to prostitution to support her children. It’s in an altogether different guise than Julia Robert’s, but again it’s that Oscar-winning role that Hollywood loves -- “the hooker with the heart of gold”, that beloved archetype that only exists in fiction. Hollywood doesn’t mind an ambitious woman if her career is selling her body.
Jennifer Lawrence’s supporting actress win for her role in “Silver Linings Playbook” is just another variation of the “hooker with the heart of gold”. Lawrence’s role is a man’s fantasy of a new widow, a woman who works through her grief by sleeping with everyone in her office, men and women alike, and then, instead of being ashamed, or regretful, likes to frankly talk about it with Bradley Cooper’s Pat, her new love interest. She’s not ashamed of being a slut, she tells him she likes all her parts, including the dirty ones. That might seem feminist, to own one’s sexuality, but not to call oneself dirty because one is sexual. Further, even though she is portrayed as strong-willed and smart, she uses those smarts to manipulatively snag the man and only shows her brain power when she delivers a speech to Pat Sr. (Robert de Niro) about how whenever she was with Pat Jr., the Eagles won. Again, a male fantasy: a babe who even knows sports and cares about football as much a man. And she doesn’t express any interest in an actual career beyond competitive dancing. Her only goal besides the dance competition is to get Pat to fall in love with her. But the Academy, which is 71 percent men, likes a female character whose end goal is not her own career advancement but a man’s love. Again, it’s Disney Princess archetype.
Which brings me to “Zero Dark Thirty”. I don’t think the Academy snubbed Kathryn Bigelow because of the film’s honest depiction of torture. That strikes me as just a cover. "Zero Dark Thirty" is not really about Osama Bin Laden, either. Really the entire film is a woman’s fantasy about being taken seriously in her workplace, it’s just this woman’s workplace is the CIA, and Jessica Chastain’s overpowering ambition and drivenness is off-putting to the white male establishment.
Indeed, “Zero Dark Thirty” is a female version of a James Bond movie: unlike Bond, which is the product of pure male fantasy) this government agent is serious and doesn’t waste her time sleeping with eye candy. Surprisingly for a Hollywood film, Jessica Chastain’s CIA agent Maya never expresses any love or sexual interest in anyone. She is too focused on her commitment to finding Osama Bin Laden. In one of many tasteless jokes, McFarlane said the film celebrated “a woman’s ability to never, ever, let anything go” because it is Maya’s career determinism that causes anxiety to men. The film is about a beautiful, smart woman’s total commitment to her career; her animating passion has nothing to do with men.
At the end of “Zero Dark Thirty”, there’s a high-level CIA boardroom meeting to plan what step to take to capture Bin Laden, and a male colleague says, let’s ask Maya what she thinks. She has finally proven herself. The CIA Director (James Gandolfini) joins her at the cafeteria table not because he wants to sleep with her but to tell her he’s impressed with her smarts. We’re not used to scenes in which the male boss and female underling connect without sex entering the picture. The whole film is a woman’s fantasy to be taken seriously in the workplace.
And it doesn’t end with everything wrapped in a bow. The film suggests that women really can’t have it all. Sure, Bin Laden is killed, but Maya gets in a helicopter and cries, because now that her mission is accomplished, she doesn’t know where home is. She doesn’t have a family; she has sacrificed everything. Bigelow is not interested in propounding some false rosy-eyed idea that women can have it all.
That this woman’s fantasy of career success made it to the big screen at all is because it’s made by a female director, a rare commodity in Hollywood. Last week’s awards ceremony, and the Academy’s snubbing of Bigelow by not even giving her a nomination, proved that the Academy is afraid of women’s ambition. As “Brave’s” Academy Award demonstrated: the only powerful women with ambitions of their own that Hollywood at this point thinks are award-worthy are computer-animated.