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Golden Globes: Why it matters that three women are nominated for Best Director

Carey Mulligan in 'Promising Young Woman'
(Image credit: Focus Features)

The nominations for the 78th Golden Globe Awards were announced this week to the usual fanfare. The notoriously peculiar and suspect Hollywood Foreign Press Association has always operated by its own series of rules, leading to nominees that veer wildly between delightfully surprising and utterly inexplicable. This was certainly no different during this unprecedented year of change, with the organization still managing to perplex critics and industry figures alike. This is a season where James Corden and Jared Leto got nominated for slated performances as the widely mocked Emily in Paris racked up more nominations than Sound of Metal, Da 5 Bloods, and The Good Lord Bird. All in all, it was a very Golden Globes-esque morning.

There was one truly refreshing exception, however. In the Best Director category, no fewer than three of the five nominees are women filmmakers, two of whom are women of color: Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman, Chloé Zhao for Nomadland, and Regina King for One Night in Miami...

Regina King on the red carpet at the American Music Awards.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

For the first time in the history of the HFPA, more than one woman made it into the category, and white men are now the minority! It was totally unexpected and many feared that the group would snub even the most high-profile women, something they’ve done numerous times over the years. It became such a glaring issue that Natalie Portman famously called them out over it during the ceremony in 2018. Over 78 years, only eight women have ever been nominated for the top title, and only one has ever taken home the award (that was Barbra Streisand in 1984 for Yentl.) That’s marginally better than the Oscars but those numbers are still disheartening, another sign of how maddeningly incremental the fight for gender parity in the entertainment industry remains. To put it in even blunter terms, the same number of women have been nominated for Best Director as men named John.

The Golden Globes themselves have never been as valuable a marker of Oscar success as they’ve been sold as, but it still matters a lot that they focused so heavily on female directors this season. As much as awards predictors grumble about the HFPA and its endlessly weird logic, we still count the Globes as a crucial part of that narrative of prestige that builds up to the climax of Oscar night. That often difficult to define notion of prestige matters arguably as much as the quality of the films themselves, maybe even more so in the narrow vision of those who dictate the winners and losers. Women have struggled for a long time to be viewed in such a manner, and the Globes are partly responsible for that.

Movie awards have little to do with merit, as much as we kid ourselves about “deserving” winners and the like. It’s a race of public relations, campaigning, and an exhausting adherence to decades’ old industry standards and expectations. It’s not enough for a film to be “good.” It has to be successful by other standards, such as commercial viability (for all of the whining that awards season never focuses on films people have actually seen, they remain a decidedly middlebrow affair. You won’t see a lot of super low-key indie titles in the mix for that reason.) It also benefits to fit preconceived ideas of an “awards movie”, for example, stories of real-life people overcoming difficulties, war movies, splashy tales about Hollywood, biopics, and so on.

These are (often poorly defined and questionably invoked) demands that women filmmakers have struggled to meet thanks to industry-wide misogyny and a lack of opportunities available to them. Yet, when they overcome all of those barriers, the goalposts just keep moving. Greta Gerwig did everything that the HFPA wants its potential nominees to do and she was still overlooked both for Lady Bird and Little Women. The same goes for acclaimed money-making titles with real awards bait energy, from Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood to Lorene Scafaria’s Hustlers, Dee Rees’s Mudbound, and Lulu Wang’s The Farewell. You can tick off all the boxes and still be ignored, and it’s hard to not bring gender into the equation when that happens. Awards season is primarily built on playing it safe, and women are still the “risk”.

Frances McDormand in 'Nomadland'.

(Image credit: Searchlight Pictures)

In a year where the competition remains fierce but sizeably smaller due to the multiple delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, we have a rare opportunity to shake things up and pave a radical new route for the industry. The HFPA, by and large, decided not to take that road. There was a noticeable shutout of filmmakers of color with films like Da 5 Bloods, Judas and the Black Messiah, and Minari, while more expected prestige bait like Trial of the Chicago 7 flourished. This is an organization that ignores Steven Yeun but celebrates James Corden for one of the most lambasted performances of 2020. Change is slow. Yet that trio of female directors getting their dues is something that could shine a light for future storytellers.

These are three wildly different filmmakers who have crafted narratives of thematic and stylistic flair that could not be more diametrically opposed: Regina King’s biopic exploring Black masculinity and the precipice of change for the American civil rights movement in the mid-1960s; Chloé Zhao’s 21st century Grapes of Wrath, a quietly devastating and wholly naturalistic drama of the true face of economic anxiety; and Emerald Fennell’s furious reinvention of the rape-revenge fantasy for the post-Weinstein age, a prickly and deeply discomfiting takedown of systemic misogyny and a culture of sexual violence. For maybe the first time in the awards conversation, women filmmakers got to be themselves and not a tokenized representation for their entire gender. They are contenders against one another because the field is truly diverse in a way that we seldom see. That the HFPA decided to recognize that, especially given their reticence to change, is a minor miracle.

And they’re not the only names in the conversation. There’s Josephine Decker for her surrealistic reimagining of the biopic with Shirley. Eliza Hittman’s deeply empathetic yet realistically blunt drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always is sweeping critics’ prizes. Kelly Reichardt, one of the true icons of modern indie minimalist cinema, received the reviews of her career for First Cow. Radha Blank made a splash at Sundance with The 40 Year Old Version. Kitty Green created maybe the first truly brilliant story of sexual harassment in the post-Weinstein age with The Assistant. All of these women have the goods to be real awards players and lead the way for long-term change in Hollywood at large.

A little gold man doesn’t define a director’s skills, nor does not being nominated for one cement their status as a bad filmmaker. What it does do, however, is act as a handy beacon for how the film industry perceives itself and how it wishes the rest of the world to embrace it. When they ignore women directors so uniformly, despite countless opportunities to embrace them, it’s not difficult to conclude that they don’t consider half the planet’s population as part of their future. The Golden Globes may not change a lot of hearts and minds, but they did offer a shake-up of the status quo this year, and their contemporaries should follow suits.