Women Can Win Oscars, But Only if They Play One of These Roles

Have you ever wondered how to win an Oscar for Best Actress? According to this new infographic, it's quite easy: play someone's wife, girlfriend or sister.

Yes, it seems as though the way for Hollywood's elite actresses to win top prize is to portray a strong woman, just so long as that woman is defined by her relationship to the other characters on screen.


Image credit: Jan Diehm for the Huffington Post

Let's look at the facts: Jennifer Lawrence played Bradley Cooper's love interest in Silver Linings Playbook. Reese Witherspoon won for her role as Johnny Cash's wife in Walk the Line. Halle Berry played yet another girlfriend in Monster's Ball. While these were all powerhouse performances, none of these '"lead"' actresses were protagonists of the film for which they won.

This is quite a trend. Over 30% of Best Actress Oscar winners over the years have fallen into this category. The other 70%? While some of those winners have portrayed historical figures, a good 4.5% of them have portrayed prostitutes or mistresses.

As Feministing points out, "The Academy really likes to reward women for playing characters defined by their familial relations to others, and will also give them pats on the head for playing maids, housekeepers, prostitutes, or mistresses — other roles defined by their relations to others."

So when women aren't defined by their relationships to the male characters in the film, they are placed in a submissive or domestic parts. It's a depressing fact only made worse when you look at the type of roles for which actors win Best Actor.


Image credit: Jan Diehm for the Huffington Post

From historical, law and military figures to fictional characters in historical events, male actors are honored for a playing a wider variety of roles. What's more, their roles are rarely dependant on the female characters in the films. In fact, many male actors have won for titular roles: Phillip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, Jamie Foxx in Ray, Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump and the list goes on.

2014 doesn't look to be a step in the right direction either. While this year may boast the oldest crop of actresses to be nominated by the Academy, there isn't a great variety in the type of characters they played. Sandra Bullock seems to be the main exception for her stunning performance in Gravity. Not only is she an astronaut, she is also the protagonist of the film. This year's front-runner Cate Blanchett may also be the protagonist of Blue Jasmine, but she is being honored for her portrayal of a New York wife adjusting to life with her sister. Wife and sister — it's no wonder she is a lock to win.

It's not surprising that women are pigeonholed in such a way. When we look at the low number of female writers and directors working in Hollywood, it stands to reason that female characters would only be defined by their relationship to men, or placed in roles with which men are comfortable. We can only hope that more roles like Bullock's come out of the woodwork; then maybe we can have a crop of actresses with roles as varied as their male counterparts. 

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Melissa Hugel

Melissa is a freelance writer and blogger. She has written for the Scottish Book Trust and regularly contributes to Edinburgh based Illicit Ink. A keen interest in all things pop culture, Melissa studied history and film at McMaster University, and has an MA in creative writing from Edinburgh Napier University.

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