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Lies, Damned Lies and Cinemetrics: What Do the Numbers Say About Oscar's Gender Gap?

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire February 27, 2014 at 12:27PM

Can mathematically analyzing movies yield valuable insights, or does it measure the trees and ignore the forest?
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Gravity

In the New York Times, Kevin Lee breaks down this year's Oscar nominees using a technique called cinemetrics, which applies the tools of quantitative data analysis to factors like the time a character spends on screen and the length of a film's individual shots.

He finds, among other things, a pronounced disparity in the amount of screen time given to the nominees for Best Actor as opposed to Best Actress:

Whether by sight or sound, Ms. Bullock occupies 87 percent of "Gravity's" running time, more than any other nominee this year and well above the average among her competitors for best actress. One disquieting finding from my research is that this year’s lead actors average 85 minutes on screen, but lead actresses average only 57 minutes. (When you add in supporting categories, all competing actors averaged 59 minutes, while all competing actresses averaged 42 minutes.) Last year’s results were even more imbalanced: nominated male stars averaged 100 minutes on screen to the lead actresses' 49 minutes.

The imbalance is even more pronounced when you consider that two of the five Best Actress contenders -- Sandra Bullock in "Gravity" and Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine" -- clearly dominate their films, which means that the others -- "American Hustle"'s Amy Adams, "Philomena"'s Judi Dench and "August: Osage County"'s Meryl Streep -- are really pulling the average down. (Dench is no stranger to this phenomenon: She won an Oscar for 1998's "Shakespeare in Love," in which she appeared for less than eight minutes.)

But Lee is on much shakier ground when it comes to the issue of shot length, especially when it comes to mixing it with gender politics:

The disparity in depictions of men and women extend to how long we look at them in each shot. Take the front-runners in the four Oscar categories for acting: shots of Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine" and Lupita Nyong'o in "12 Years a Slave" last twice as long on average than those of Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto in "Dallas Buyers Club." These findings may lend mathematical support to a theory advanced by the film scholar Laura Mulvey in her influential 1975 essay "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," that "in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female," with the male gaze dominating the dynamic.

Given that Woody Allen is consistently found to the highest average shot length of any contemporary mainstream filmmaker and "12 Years a Slave" is full of long takes, like the excruciating one of a choking Chewitel Ejiofor dangling from a noose, that focus on men as well as women -- and, frankly, that "Dallas Buyers Club"'s Jean-Marc Vallee is a much more conventional director then either Allen or "12 Years"' Steve McQueen -- it's far more likely that the disparity in how the camera treats Nyong'o and Blanchett versus McConaughey and Leto has to do with differences in cinematic style than gender. (It would be more interesting to explore how, or if, the camera treats different characters within the same film: the average shot length of "Dallas Buyers Club"'s Jennifer Garner versus McConaughey and Leto, or "12 Years"' Nyong'o versus Ejiofor.)

David Bordwell, perhaps the most prominent and judicious advocate for quantitative film study, says as much in Lee's article, and points out that shot lengths are governed by genre as well. Those have gender implications in turn -- men star in action movies and dramas about isolated protagonists, where women are more likely to be situated in the midst of a romantic or melodramatic ensemble -- but it's only one factor in a complicated equation. 

Like the Bechdel Test, these kinds of analyses tend to be more revealing across a broad spectrum than when applied to an individual film, and they have to be filtered through a critical understanding of the film as a whole (which is, to be fair, largely what Lee has been doing in his series of video essays on the nominees). Otherwise, it's too easy to make numbers say anything you want them to say, which means they say nothing at all.


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