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Do the 2018 Oscars Represent Progress For Women in Hollywood?

With its carefully planned outfits, jokes, and acceptance speeches, the Academy Awards ceremony tends to be a reflection of the current zeitgeist in the U.S. And for better or for worse, a major topic of conversation this year is—as it was in 2017—women.

Last year’s ceremony took place roughly a month after President Donald Trump’s inauguration and the historic Women’s March on Washington. Meryl Streep got a standing ovation—in part because she’d called down the president’s ire for critiquing him in her 2017 Golden Globes speech (he tweeted that the Streep is “overrated.”) And a number of actresses wore Planned Parenthood pins to show their support the organization after Trump threatened to defund it (he’s quietly making good on that promise).

A year later, Hollywood has traded Planned Parenthood pins for ones bearing the Time’s Up campaign logo. The focus has narrowed from women’s rights more generally to the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the workplace. It’s an evolution that echoes the larger women’s movement: While last January’s Women’s March was criticized for lacking a specific focus, the Time’s Up campaign is about combatting “sexual assault, harassment, and inequality in the workplace.” The A-lister-backed effort includes a legal defense fund “for those who have experienced sexual harassment or related retaliation in the workplace.”

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While it would seem that Hollywood is becoming more aware of gender issues and that steps are being taken to create a more female-friendly film industry, the data says otherwise. The representation of women on screen actually declined in 2017, according to San Diego State University’s (SDSU) It’s A Man’s (Celluloid) World report. Female leads comprised 24% of protagonists in the 100 top domestic grossing films last year—five percentage points fewer than in 2016. That’s despite the release of top-grossing films like Wonder Woman and Girls’ Trip last year. And while only 32% of films featured 10 or more female characters in speaking roles, 79% had 10 or more men that met the same criteria.

Behind the scenes, signs of progress are equally hard to find. According to another SDSU study, Celluloid Ceiling, women comprised 18% of directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 grossing films in 2017, a number that’s on par with women’s representation in 1998—two decades ago.

There are, of course, some bright spots. Rachel Morrison is the first woman nominated for an Oscar in cinematography, for her work on Mudbound. Greta Gerwig has become the fifth woman ever nominated for her directing—an achievement that’s particularly notable given that her film, Lady Bird, is about a teenage girl. (The only female Oscar-winning director in history, Kathryn Bigelow, won for The Hurt Locker, a war movie lead by an all-male cast.)

All in all, though, the conversation about gender that’s dominating awards season for the second year in a row is, at least for now, mostly just that: a conversation. Those are good to have, but not nearly enough.