The Best Picture nominees at this year’s Oscars have one thing in common: if they’re not about a broody, flawed, male genius, they’re made by one. Maybe the Academy should announce the Best Picture winner by scribbling it down furiously on an Ivy League dorm window with a Sharpie.
Whether it’s Alan Turing or Stephen Hawking or Martin Luther King, Jr., a drumming prodigy or a Navy SEAL or a theatrical powerhouse, six of the eight movies nominated for the Best Picture Oscar have the same agenda– a glimpse inside the dark and twisty mind of an exceptionally gifted man who is not like most mortals. The other two movies, Boyhood and The Grand Budapest Hotel, are passion projects of men who have long been heralded as geniuses themselves — Richard Linklater and Wes Anderson.
In the aftermath of the mostly-white, mostly-male Oscar nominations earlier this year, many pundits lamented the fact that the Oscars seemed so focused on the “complicated genius” profile. Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post even wrote a hilarious fake movie script that incorporates all the tropes of movies about geniuses. In a single line, she sums up the message of pretty much every Best Picture nominee this year: “Being a genius like me is hard.”
But the focus on genius is more than just a weird coincidence — it also could explain the lack of diversity at the Oscars this year, especially for women.
So all the Oscar films are about male geniuses — who cares? What’s wrong with grandiose celebrations of male intellectual accomplishments? Some of the world’s greatest triumphs were won with the brains of super-smart ubermenches! Well, for one thing, scientists have shown that genius-obsessed environments may be toxic for women. According to a new study published in January in Science, women and minorities are underrepresented in academic fields that are seen to value “innate brilliance” over hard work, like physics and math (ahem, Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing.) That’s because women are often stereotyped as not having the “spark of genius” that seems essential to that field. Even outside the academic sphere, professions that are wrapped up in an aura of “genius” don’t seem to be particularly hospitable to women. Just look at classical music, which reveres prodigies like Beethoven and Mozart — and four out of five of American orchestra conductors are male.
So is it a coincidence that an Oscar season that is so fixated on “genius” is also so feeble when it comes to women and minorities? Probably not. Between Ava Duvernay’s Best Director snub, the all-male nominations for screenwriting and the fact that no Best Picture nominees had a female lead, this year’s Oscars is considered one of the worst for women in recent memory. Considering the all-white acting nominations and snubs for Selma in all categories but two, this Oscars season is a low point for racial diversity as well.
For the Academy, it’s also an image problem. Considering all the bad press this year’s Oscars has gotten for the worst representation of women and minorities in almost 20 years, the fixation on genius doesn’t seem so brilliant after all.