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2014 Oscars: How Were Women Portrayed in the Films Nominated for Best Picture?

Here’s our last post about the Oscars before the actual ceremony takes place today at 8:30 PM on ABC. (For the first time ever, you can also stream the Oscar telecast online.)

We look at the way women were portrayed in the Best Picture nominated movies, from David O. Russell’s American Hustle to Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. (The only movie we didn’t get a chance to look at was Nebraska.)

American Hustle

The two most prominent women in American Hustle were played by Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence, both of whom have earned an Oscar nomination for their performances in the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories. Amy Adams plays Sydney Prosser, Irving Rosenfeld’s mistress who dons a fake British accent for much of the movie.

Jennifer Lawrence, meanwhile, plays Rosenfeld’s wife Rosalyn. She reads more like a parody of a Real Housewife, complete with a ridiculous Long Island accent that slips in and out, than an actual person. Sydney and Rosalyn have one conversation, albeit during a major scene, but the topic is Irving. The movie arguably passes the Bechdel test during a scene in which Rosalyn and a politician’s wife have a conversation about Rosalyn’s nail polish.

Both characters are extremely sexualized, but Sydney is a much more well-realized character than Rosalyn, who is portrayed as a dingbat.  Grade: C+

Captain Phillips

Other than Catherine Keener, who only shows up in the first five minutes of Captain Phillips to have an NPR-style conversation with Tom Hanks’ character about their kids’ generation and the future they will inherit, the only female to appear in the movie (and very briefly) is an unnamed female army doctor. Neither character plays a huge role in the film or receives any significant backstory. Grade: F

Dallas Buyers Club

Rayon, a transgender woman, is played by Jared Leto – a heterosexual cis male. Other characters use the pronoun “he” when referring to Rayon, and the character only appears in the movie for about 20 minutes. So we’re not sure if this truly qualifies as representation, since no transgender actors were cast in the movie and director Jean-Marc Vallée said he never even considered hiring a transgender actor.

Given that Rayon identifies as female, it passes the Bechdel test because Rayon interacts with another female character, Eve (Jennifer Garner), and they both talk about something other than a man. There aren’t any other significant female characters other than Rayon and Eve. The film is primarily focused on a straight white male, played by Matthew McConaughey, and Rayon is mostly used as a device for the main character to get past his homophobia and bigotry. Grade: C


Sandra Bullock plays the main protagonist in Alfonso Cuaron’s space thriller, Gravity. As Dr. Ryan Stone, Bullock must figure out how to navigate a dangerous and unfamiliar environment in order to return to Earth. Her character receives a significant proportion of the screentime. Bullock gives a career best performance in Gravity, as well, drawing a lot upon Ryan Stone’s backstory as a mother whose child passed away.

While it fails the Bechdel test, it’s important to keep in mind that the test isn’t a good indicator of whether or not a movie is feminist. Grade: A/A-


There are three notable female characters in Her (arguably four, but since Scarlet Johansson’s Samantha is a computer with a disembodied voice, who’s to say what the AI identifies as). Rooney Mara plays Catherine, main character Theodore Twombly’s (Joaquin Phoenix) soon-to-be ex-wife. Though she barely shows up in the film, the characterization she gets is refreshing; she isn’t demonized or put entirely at fault for the divorce, and what little glimpses we get of their relationship and its aftermath is layered. On the other hand, Theodore’s friend Amy, played by Amy Adams, is mostly there to be supportive of his relationship with Samantha. Olivia Wilde makes a short appearance as a human love interest for Theodore, but when their date crashes and burns, that character is never seen again.

Her‘s female characters are interesting in their own ways. But despite the film’s title, this movie was mainly about Theodore – so all of these women are presented only in relation to how they affect his story. Rating: C


Judi Dench plays an Irish woman whose child was forcibly taken from her by the Catholic church when she was a teenager. Years later, with the help of a journalist played by Steve Coogan, she sets out to reunite with her child.

The title character, Philomena, receives a significant amount of screentime and backstory. Other female characters including various nuns and an editor played by Michelle Fairley appear, as well. Although most of the conversations in the movie revolve around a male character, Philomena’s son, the movie passes the Bechdel test because Philomena engages in conversations about religion and faith with some of the nuns. Grade: A

12 Years a Slave

Although the story of 12 Years a Slave is mostly focused on Solomon Northup, several female characters play a prominent role in the movie. You have Solomon’s wife and daughter who are never too far from Solomon’s mind, a slave named Eliza (Adepero Oduye) whose children are taken from her, the wife of Solomon’s first slave master, the cruel and vindictive Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson), and of course Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). 12 Years a Slave narrowly passes the Bechdel test in a scene where Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard) talks to Patsey about dealing with overbearing masters. Grade: A

The Wolf of Wall Street



The worst treatment of women is in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street. Although the movie calls out many of the characters’ misogyny, the movie itself engages in that very same misogyny, as well. There is a significant amount of female nudity and the objectification of the female body for the male gaze. Although Margot Robbie does a good job of playing Naomi, the most prominent female character in the movie, it’s clear that the movie isn’t interested in exploring the character past what she means to Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio). Grade: F