In the past few weeks of January, news headlines, social media and essentially every aspect of my digital media sphere seem to have been dominated by Oscars news. Even for someone who considers herself relatively removed from the world of cinema, it’s impossible to ignore the buzz. Discussions about whether the Netflix Original “Marriage Story” deserved its nomination, if a remake of Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” would be inherently Western culture-centric and therefore ill-advised — and, perhaps the most prominent story — the conspicuous absence of nominations for women in major categories.
Lack of female voices in creative fields is by no means a new development — in October of 2019 when the Museum of Modern Art expanded its holdings to represent 28 percent of works by female artists, this was seen as a major improvement in gender parity. Many stories in this same vein have taken their turn in the depersonalizing spotlight of the 24-hour news cycle.
Yet, somehow, each time one of these stories highlighting the lack of female voices breaks, it triggers a familiar response in me — lots of complicated emotions, but primarily deep-seated, visceral disappointment. Lack of representation for female artists is not a new phenomenon, and I’m obviously pleased that these situations are getting called out. Why, then, does this subject continue to feel so fundamentally upsetting?
Over this past winter break, my mother talked me into attending a jazz concert in which some acquaintances from high school were playing. I was less than thrilled about the prospect of attending for a multitude of reasons: an ex-boyfriend would be there, I hadn’t seen most of these people in years. Yet something else about the idea of attending — something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on — made me uneasy.
I went, subject to my mother’s pleading, and because I was quite frankly bored by this point of break and had exhausted all my hometown entertainment options. The band was good, predictably — a conglomerate of students and recent grads from prestigious music schools across the country. Around me, the primarily male crowd bobbed their heads in time to the music, contributing enthusiastic “yeah”s and “alright!”s if a soloist played a particularly intricate lick.
Sitting in the corner, I felt myself unable to engage with the energy around me. My attention fixed on the bass player — a young woman remarkably good at staying on the beat and capturing the intricacies of difficult chord changes. I watched as she bit her lip and squinted at the music, her foot tapping and fingers plucking away at a steady rhythm. I knew her vaguely — my sister had roomed with her at a jazz camp and she was studying at a well-renowned conservatory.
Her presence on the stage fascinated me. She was one of two women in the sixteen-piece band, with the other playing trumpet in the back row. How must she feel, surrounded by men to every side of her? More interesting to me — how had she even made it onto the stage in this performance?
In high school, I played piano in my school’s jazz band. Freshman year, when a boy a year older asked me to join his combo, or small jazz ensemble, with five other people, I jumped at the opportunity. I played at gigs, a few of them even paid, and went to jazz camp in the San Jacinto mountains during the summer. I was a jazz person, I decided. This was my niche, at least for the moment.
Yet I found myself unwittingly beginning to occupy a particular role in this world I’d entered. The boy who asked me to join the band called me “sweetheart,” insisting he’d tutor me in the aspects of jazz I was still uncomfortable with. The few girls in the jazz ensembles I played in were relentlessly bombarded with male attention, and not the wanted kind. The dynamic in our school band was clear: The boys were there to be musicians and improve and the girls were there to make the band look more visually appealing. My high school band director didn’t do anything to dispel this notion, emphasizing his preference for women to wear “classy dresses” rather than pantsuits for performances and egging on boys in their pursuit of girls in the class.
When I went to jazz camp during the summers, not a single instructor was a woman. I watched my male peers laugh at instructors’ jokes, saw the gleam in their eyes as they watched the instructors perform and knew that my friends were seeing all the possibilities of who they could become.
I never had the opportunity to see any of that for myself.
Sure, I’d never intended to be a serious jazz musician. But could my aspirations have been changed if I’d felt that I had a real place in the field? Jazz never felt as if it was made for me. It was made for the men around me, the boys following in their footsteps. I was just lucky if I got to tag along for part of that ride.
Watching that bass player in the performance venue, all I could think about was all the times she must have been called “sweetheart” or hit on in some other weird and insulting way, all while trying to do her job or perform the music she loved. I imagined all the times she’d been asked to wear a flattering dress for a performance. I thought of her taking master classes with the almost-exclusively-male teachers, having nobody to see her future self mirrored in.
In the 92 years the Academy Awards have existed, five women have been nominated for the Best Director category. Five — in almost a century. This statistic also doesn’t even begin to touch upon the discrimination toward women of color in the industry: In 2020, only one woman of color was nominated for any category, Cynthia Erivo for Best Actress. It’s also worth noting this nomination is for Erivo’s portrayal of Harriet Tubman — which, as Vox aptly addresses, feels a bit too much like a bad joke.
I can’t help but wonder if those women in the film industry, in their directing classes or internships or workshops, were also called “sweetheart” by peers. If they also had almost exclusively men to look up to. If they also were painstakingly aware of the space they occupied in any given room, surrounded by men who never had to doubt their place there.
If the continued lack of female representation feels simultaneously deeply familiar and fundamentally unsettling to me — a woman who has but dabbled in the creative fields — what must it feel like to women for whom this is their profession, their life?
It’s clear that creative industries around us inherently value male voices more than female voices. That these are the projects, the films, the solo performances that society uplifts, at the expense of their female peers.
I wish there had been more women, particularly women of color, nominated for the Oscars, but that’s such a small piece of the story. Before the films are made, a woman has to decide she wants to be a director and pursue a future in the industry. She has to practice her craft, to apply for tough jobs and internships, to decide this is her space and she’s going to climb her way to the top of it. And if the atmosphere surrounding the film industry is anything like the jazz sphere — and I have a nasty feeling that it is — women have a long, unpleasant road ahead before we get anywhere close to gender parity.