The Unfortunate Truth About Female Oscar-Winning Characters

While separate categories for actresses have ensured that women have always been fairly represented in acting categories at the Oscars, I found that a closer look at the winning characters can throw up a couple of potential issues.

Initially for a bit of fun, I decided to find out what jobs Oscar-winning characters did, starting from the first Academy Award winners in 1930 when there were no Best Supporting Actor/Actress categories. Something quickly became apparent: it was going to be much easier categorizing what female characters did for work, because very often they didn’t do anything at all. In fact, Best Actress/Supporting Actress characters, were more than twice as likely to not have a job as their male counterparts.

Since the turn of the millennium strong female characters like Margaret Thatcher and Erin Brokovich that were known precisely for their work have won women Best Actress awards. Perhaps the high number of roles in which women didn’t work were limited to earlier decades in the Academy’s history? In fact, over the past 20 years 20% of Best Actress winners played characters that didn’t work. In contrast, every Best Actor character had a job.

This year, three of the five nominees for Best Actress played characters that didn’t work — Cate Blanchett portrayed a rich socialite, Charlotte Rampling’s character was retired and Brie Larson, who won, played a woman who had been kidnapped by a man. This is not to say that Larson didn’t deserve to win, or that stories told involving female characters that do not work for one reason or another are worth less than those with women who do work. But why is it that the celebrated roles with characters that don’t work are so often women (all five Best Actor characters this year had jobs)?

This issue is amplified amongst black award winners. From the seven characters that have earned black actresses an Academy Award are two maids, two unemployed women (one finds work in a diner), and a slave. Meanwhile all eight black male characters have worked.

In the days after Alan Rickman passed away people used one of his own quotes to explain why he had failed to pick up so much as a nomination for an Academy Award: “Parts win prizes, not actors”. If this is true then perhaps we need to ask why more prize-winning parts with working female leads aren’t being written in the first place — a glimpse at the list of people that have won Oscars in writing categories (here’s a hint: they’re mostly men) might suggest why.

Stephen Pritchard

Stephen Pritchard writes for the UK-based job search website Adzuna. You can follow him on Twitter here.