Transforming The Academy’s Female Winners into Losers

March 26, 2010
By | 8 Comments

For those who track female participation and success in the media industries (and for more general audiences, too) 2010 has been a distinctive year with women’s conspicuous presence and attainment celebrated in such venues as the “Brits” (the British Music Awards) and the Oscars (which saw the crowning of a first-ever female directorial winner in Kathryn Bigelow and a popular best actress win for Sandra Bullock).  Now the proposition that the Academy’s female winners are in a more profound sense losers has emerged as a media talking point.  “It may be every actress’ dream to win a Best Actress Oscar,” trumpeted People magazine in a much-discussed article, “but unfortunately it may come at the cost of the men in their lives.” People’s posing of the question “Is there an Oscar curse?” citing such famously broken-up stars as Reese Witherspoon, Halle Berry, Kate Winslet and even Julia Roberts (reaching back nearly ten years to her win for Erin Brockovich in 2001 and subsequent split with boyfriend Benjamin Bratt a few months later) generated a platform for avid discussion on morning television and follow-on in magazine and newspaper articles and the Internet.

This debate, shaped by the depressingly durable notion that a woman’s high-profile public success must inevitably be indicative of a disrupted work/life balance, has played out, I suggest, in a moment when many are inclined toward the view that the recession is taking a particular toll on male subjectivity. The notion of a “mancession” may or may not be economically plausible, yet it remains striking how few templates there are for visualizing/mourning female job loss and in more oblique ways the sense that the recession has disproportionately hurt men may have established considerable traction. In any case, diverse forms of popular culture seem preoccupied with the idea that men are losing ground that they should take back. Here I must confess that some of my thoughts in relation to this column were sparked on my flight from Los Angeles after SCMS, where my seatmate rapidly flipped the pages of Jon Krakauer’s bestseller When Men Win Glory (an account of the death of Pat Tillman) while an infant in the next row was outfitted in a tiny camouflage ensemble with “Boys Rule” scripted on the back. This admittedly highly impressionistic “evidence” is of course far from empirical but it feels germane to the conversation about the Oscar “curse” and the continual cultural impulse to mete out  “punishment” to high profile women.

For my part, I hope that celebration of Bigelow and Bullock’s wins isn’t overshadowed by speculation about the mindset of the former’s ex-husband James Cameron or press accounts that while the latter was filming her Oscar-winning role on one coast her husband was sleeping with a tattoo model on the other. Substantive discussion about the persistence of structural patriarchal features and their normalization in the mass media are occluded by the kind of coverage the People article represents. (Indeed the magazine’s attempts to mystify the very phenomenon it sought to pinpoint by designating it a “curse” is indicative of a postfeminist disengenousness and even bears faint traces of the supernaturalization of female experience that could be said to play out in a variety of current forms, notably the ubiquitous vampire romance). At a time when so many accolades are being directed toward women I hope we might soon see a diminishing of the kinds of female cautionary tales currently continuing to accumulate in postfeminist recessionary culture.


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8 Responses to “ Transforming The Academy’s Female Winners into Losers ”

  1. Kelli Marshall on March 26, 2010 at 9:28 AM

    Great post! Can we add to your “evidence” the onslaught of (and I hate this term) “bromance movies” — in which women exist primarily on the sidelines, if they even exist at all?

    Yeah, I’ll admit it: I’m probably seeing HOT TUB TIME MACHINE tonight. =)

  2. Mary Beltran on March 26, 2010 at 4:47 PM

    An interesting and timely post, Diane! Your point about the “mancession” in particular is intriguing and well taken. I think the phenomenon also underscores how gendered star promotion still can be, with critical and financial success actually a troubling element that female star promotion has to negotiate and explain away.

  3. Lawson on March 26, 2010 at 7:04 PM

    Brilliant, perceptive post, thanks!

  4. Tim Anderson on March 27, 2010 at 11:24 AM

    Your post reminds me of that popular book of the 1990s, BACKLASH, by Faludi. Somehow the “curse narrative” is residue of the 1980s “women who want success can’t have a successful homelife” narrative that was so well mobilized by anti-feminist groups. The “Oscar curse” is, as you point out, a narrative punishment, a thinly veiled “lesson” that can never really be learned. Like my mom used to say, “man wants to cheat, he will. You can be ten thousand miles away or ten minutes away, it doesn’t matter. Don’t blame the woman who loves him if he does…”.

    One thing about Jesse James: I think after Tiger Woods, Jesse is receiving a little more scrutiny than usual and some blame. Admittedly, this is due to the fact that a) the initially reported mistress was Bullock’s absolute opposite. Bullock, the all american cheerleader of Hollywood, receives an Oscar for a film about the possibility of racial integration, is positioned opposite the mistress, a tatooed stripper who reportedly has “White Power” beliefs (trust me, this is all over Twitter). b) The pattern od multiple mistresses is so Woodsesque that James is slowly being repositioned as a heel ueber alles (sorry, couldn’t resist). I wonder if that means anything for women, or men, or anyone.

    • Deron Overpeck on March 27, 2010 at 12:18 PM

      I don’t know if he’s “slowly” being repositioned — most of the reports I saw were already portraying him as a horrible cad and suggesting that Bullock should give him a Michigan handshake and tell him to hit the bricks (as my stepdad used to say). Tiger Woods’s transformation into manwhore was much slower — partially because of the confusing reportage of the events, partially because of Wood’s image as an upstanding citizen and pre-Obama testament to America being a post-racial society. If anyone knew who Jesse James was, other than as Sandra Bullock’s husband, they knew him as that guy who does motorcycle stunts on that basic cable show. In other words, James was always marginally tolerable; I’ve seen several interviews with Bullock in which she was asked, more or less, “Seriously — him?”

  5. Diane Negra on March 27, 2010 at 6:47 PM

    Yes, the association of Michelle McGee with Nazi iconography in certain photos (whatever her beliefs) adds a level of creepiness to the story and resonates even more wierdly in relation to Bullock’s Germanness (reinforcing the sense that she is both opposite and doppelganger to Bullock). It seems (as I think you’re suggesting Tim) that like the Tiger/Elin Woods case there are racial components to the fascination with this adultery tale. And I certainly agree that the Woods story has upped the premium on popular culture’s male adultery narratives.

    My sense is that Jesse James’ persona constituted as it is by associations with heavy metal, machinery, red meat and an inherited “authentic” retro-masculinity sourced in his claims to being a distant relation to THE Jesse James put him in a precarious place in terms of his marriage to an “America’s Sweetheart” figure. I seem to remember a short comedy sketch from a few months back (i.e. pre-Oscar) that depicted James as somewhat “henpecked” and having to get the groceries in from Whole Foods or risk angering his wife. At the end of the day I think his perceived creative and economic subordination within his marriage to Bullock is being positioned an explanatory of his adultery.

    Tim, it sounds like your mom was a very philosophical lady!

  6. Diane Negra on March 27, 2010 at 6:55 PM

    PS — I decided to look for the Whole Foods/Jesse James skit on YouTube and found instead:

    Hitler Finds Out Jesse James Cheated on Sandra Bullock

    Which I’m not recommending exactly but it is certainly pertinent.

  7. Jeffrey Jones on March 30, 2010 at 1:59 PM