Joyce Fegan: Oscars celebrate a single story in a complex world

Joyce Fegan: Oscars celebrate a single story in a complex world

We are the stories we read, the shows we watch and the films we see. Together they form a big part of our grand cultural narrative.

But what stories get told? Who tells them? What issues are presented? And what get’s reviewed and revered?

Apparently stories about psychopaths, criminals, cars, stunt doubles, and war. All from the viewpoint of the white male protagonist — the seemingly universal experience.

Sunday night, the red carpet will be rolled out in Hollywood and the golden statuettes will be presented to the good and glamourous storytellers of our time.

Joaquin Phoenix’s psychopathic Joker has 11 nominations, First World War One movie 1917 has 10 and so too does Netflix mafia tale The Irishman.

Movies with far fewer nominations, or none at all, include Harriet with just two, Just Mercy with none, and Queen & Slim also with none.

Those films have received critical acclaim, and praise from ordinary decent cinema-goers, but nominations less so.

All three centre around the lived experiences of black people in the racially divided states of America.

Little Women, on the other hand, has five nominations, and as the title suggests, it centres around the lived experience of women.

The problem here was that it didn’t get a nomination in the best directing category, but women seldom do.

The Oscars is in its 92nd year and so far only five women, all white, have ever been nominated for a golden statuette for directing.

Of those five women, just one, Kathryn Bigelow, has won.

In Little Women, there is an interesting line.

“Writing doesn’t confer importance,” Jo March, the protagonist, played by Saoirse Ronan says, “it reflects it.”

One of her sisters, Amy, played by Florence Pugh, disagrees.

“Writing things,” she says, “is what makes them important.”

In a world where the stories that get widely told, be that through books, films, or box sets, tell us who we are — nominations seem to reflect importance?

Amy March would probably disagree, arguing that the making of something is what makes it important.

Jo March in Little Women had been writing stories about pirates and such, to no great publishing success, before turning her hand to depicting “domestic joys and struggles”, to great success.

Since its publication in 1868, Little Women has never been out of print, its initial print run sold out in two weeks and over the course of three centuries, it’s been translated into 50 languages.

Joyce Fegan: Oscars celebrate a single story in a complex world

The headline of a recent article in the New Yorker read: ‘Retitling ‘Little Women’ to Entice Men to Go See it.’

The headline did not read: ‘Retitling ‘The Irishman’ to Entice Women to Go See it.’

In 152 years’ time, it’ll be interesting to see if three hour-long The Irishman has stood the test of time, that Little Women has more than surpassed.

Yet we’re still concerned that not enough men will be interested in the portrayal of the domestic struggles and joys of a family, and we’re less concerned that a story of violent and criminal men will attract a universal audience.

The Irishman didn’t need to worry that its title might alienate a lucrative audience. Women have pockets in their clothes nowadays too.

What about Harriet, about slavery, or Just Mercy, about racial discrimination and injustice? Are those stories, and they’re great stories, not important to the Academy?

It depends on the worldview or lived experience of the voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

And who are they?

As of 2019, the membership of the Academy is 32% female and 16% people of colour, up from 25% and 8%, respectively, from 2015.

The producer of Little Women, wondered if the screening DVDs of the film that got sent out to the voting members were all watched.

“I don’t think that [men] came to the screenings in droves, let me put it that way,” Amy Pascal said, “and I’m not sure when they got their [screener] DVDs that they watched them.”

Her speculation is backed up bystatistics.

RSVPs for the first screening of Little Women in October, as well as more recent screenings hosted around Los Angeles since, were skewed about two to one in favour of women cinema-goers.

However, Pascal doesn’t think it’s a deliberate dismissal of her film by men.

“It’s a completely unconscious bias. I don’t think it’s anything like a malicious rejection,” she said.

So why do we, in the main, flock to stories about psychopaths, criminals, cars, stunt doubles, and war?

Stories, if you look through the list of Oscar nominations, that have been told from the view of the white male protagonist.

We live in a diverse world made up of all sorts of colours, creeds, genders, and abilities.

But we do not see these viewpoints reflected in the stories of mass consumption, in the stories that are revered and reviewed, and in the stories that are nominated for 10 and 11 Oscars.

Maybe one of Ireland’s greatest storytellers, Marian Keyes, knows the answer. She has after all, sold more than 33m books in her career.

In an interview this week, on British writer Elizabeth Day’s How to Fail podcast, Keyes made an interesting point.

If a man writes a book about emotions he’s writing about the human condition. If a woman writes a book about emotions she is writing a fluffy soap opera.

“But they are identical, the subject matter is identical and the execution is identical. But men cannot be seen as writers of fluffy soap,” said Keyes.

Netflix’s Marriage Story proves her point. It is written and directed by a man, Noah Baumbach, and is the recipient of six Oscar nominations.

Had a woman made it, would we consider as important or insightful? No, we’d probably write it off as a rom-com.

Keyes made another important point. Her life is pretty good.

“There is so much more that exists on the spectrum of sexism than the likes of me not getting a review in the Observer. There are far bigger manifestations of misogyny,” she said.

The storyteller is right.

The world of movies and books is a gilded and glamourous one, far removed from say the life of a person trying to better themselves by fleeing their home to hopefully enter a country that will afford them a better quality of life, or the zero-hour contract worker who holds down two jobs to cover rent and childcare.

This what another storyteller, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, has argued.

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

We need to be careful about consuming just one story of our really complex world.

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