Picture 360

Infographic: How to win a Best Actress Oscar (spoiler alert: play a wife)

Picture 360

Hey ladies! If you want to win an Academy Award for Best Actress, get cast as a wife, mother, sister, daughter, or girlfriend STAT! Fellas! If you want to win an Academy Award for best Actor, get cast as a husband, father, brother, son, or boyfriend STAT an important historical figure. That’s the lesson from these two fascinating infographics at The Huffington Post.

One demonstrates the roles for which women win Best Actress Academy Awards.


The other infographic reveals the kinds of roles that earn men the Award for Best Actor.


There isn’t much analysis. But here are some things I figured out after looking at the infographics.

The most common Best Actress-winning roles (30.2%) for women are those of wife, mother, sister, daughter or girlfriend. For example, Halle Berry as a mother and girlfriend in Monster’s Ball, Emma Thompson as a wife and sister in Howard’s End, Sally Field as a wife/widow and mother in Places of the Heart.

The most common Best Actor-winning roles for men (25.6%) are for historical roles. For example, Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Milk (which he did totally deserve), Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln, Collin Firth as King George VI in The King’s Speech. You may notice a pattern here, too. The male actors play characters who are so central, the films are named after them, literally in the first two cases, and figuratively in the third. The female characters, however, aren’t, apparently, important enough to determine the title of the film.

Now there are historical roles which earn women Oscars, but the category of husband, father, son, brother or boyfriend doesn’t even exist for men.

Women can also win Oscars by playing prostitutes or mistresses (4.7%). Men, however, have not won Oscars for portraying prostitutes or… masters? What the word for the-dude-someone’s-having-an-affair-with? Women are also able to score an award by playing a housekeeper or maid. No butler category for men.

But don’t worry! All’s fair in Academy Awards. Men get their own special categories. For instance, several have one awards for “law or military” roles (10.5%) and others have won playing “career achievement” roles.

What are the take-aways here? 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. Men, on the other hand, are rewarded for playing important historical figures or whatever the hell they want, and will get encouraging punches in the arm for playing men who have career achievements under their belts–particularly in the male-dominated spheres of law or the military.

So, when it comes to life–I mean, the silver screen–men should pursue high-achieving, leadership roles while women should pursue familial, domestic, sexual roles if they want to succeed. Clearly this applies to acting roles only and has no effect whatsoever on the sanctioning or gendering of social roles in the real world. Obviously not…

Screen Shot 2013-10-28 at 11.13.50 PM Katie Halper has been bothered by women’s roles ever since she was a child. She was very disturbed by the way Sandy changed for Danny in Grease and the seven brides were kidnapped and raped in a technicolor cute and funny way in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.


Born and raised on the mean streets of New York City’s Upper West Side, Katie Halper is a comic, writer, blogger, satirist and filmmaker based in New York. Katie graduated from The Dalton School (where she teaches history) and Wesleyan University (where she learned that labels are for jars.) A director of Living Liberally and co-founder/performer in Laughing Liberally, Katie has performed at Town Hall, Symphony Space, The Culture Project, D.C. Comedy Festival, all five Netroots Nations, and The Nation Magazine Cruise, where she made Howard Dean laugh! and has appeared with Lizz Winstead, Markos Moulitsas, The Yes Men, Cynthia Nixon and Jim Hightower. Her writing and videos have appeared in The New York Times, Comedy Central, The Nation Magazine, Gawker, Nerve, Jezebel, the Huffington Post, Alternet and Katie has been featured in/on NY Magazine, LA Times, In These Times, Gawker,Jezebel, MSNBC, Air America, GritTV, the Alan Colmes Show, Sirius radio (which hung up on her once) and the National Review, which called Katie “cute and some what brainy.” Katie co-produced Tim Robbins’s film Embedded, (Venice Film Festival, Sundance Channel); Estela Bravo’s Free to Fly (Havana Film Festival, LA Latino Film Festival); was outreach director for The Take, Naomi Klein/Avi Lewis documentary about Argentine workers (Toronto & Venice Film Festivals, Film Forum); co-directed New Yorkers Remember the Spanish Civil War, a video for Museum of the City of NY exhibit, and wrote/directed viral satiric videos including Jews/ Women/ Gays for McCain.

Katie is a writer, comedian, filmmaker, and New Yorker.

Read more about Katie

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  • http://feministing.com/members/moremadder/ Anne

    I don’t doubt that female roles are often relegated to mother/sister/wife, but characterizing Scarlett O’Hara that way? I don’t see that . I have not dug further into the info graphic, but that one leaps out as clearly wrong.

  • http://feministing.com/members/whalermeg/ Meaghan W

    I think it’s worth noting that most (but not all) of those around that cluster are from pre-1980, so things have changes in the past 20 years

  • http://feministing.com/members/andejoh/ John

    Why you hating on Mary Poppins? Julie Andrews played the main character for which the film was named. She was a bit more than a nanny so that could very well be a mischaracterization anyway. I remember it as a magical film in my youth. You’re probably too young, but you should watch it.

  • http://feministing.com/members/nicketysplit/ Nick

    Hey Katie and Feministing,

    I agree with you that Hollywood reinforces sexism by making films that feature women in problematic, normative roles. However, I feel like your analysis of this specific infographic is a little misleading and not rigorous.

    My issue with this post is that correlation does not imply causation. The fact that 30.2% of Oscar-winning roles are of the category “wife, mother, sister, daughter or girlfriend” does not mean that playing a wife/mother etc. is more likely to get you an Academy Award. There are many categories that correlate strongly with your likelihood of netting a statue, such as: release date of film (many Oscar-nominated roles come from later in the year), age (the median age of Oscar winning females is in the early 30’s), and size of production company (actresses in independently released films rarely win or are nominated).

    Of course, all of these correlations can be explained by the behavior of major studios, which is fiscally motivated — and, of course, influenced by sexist attitudes as well. You seem to fault the Academy for honoring certain types of roles, but is there any comparison between the types of roles that are nominated and the types that win? A sample size of 85 winners, out of thousands and thousands of roles, is not sufficient to draw conclusions about the nature of women’s roles in film. A comparison between nominated roles and total film roles in any given year might be more indicative of the Academy’s issues — for instance, if only 10% of total female roles fell in the wife/mother etc. category, and yet 90% of the roles nominated for an Oscar fell in the same category, that might be cause for legitimate suspicion.

    Of course, such data could never be reliably collected. Right now, it seems to me that your post faults the Academy for “liking to reward” the types of roles that may simply constitute the bulk of roles produced. Your criticism is not invalid per se — obviously the Academy and major film studios share similar goals and players — but it does feel misdirected to me.

    Perhaps I am being nitpicky. After all, I agree with your critical conclusions about the condition of cinema, and I only take issue with your methodology. But misuse of mathematics and statistics is no small matter. Enemies of social justice and equity are always “creatively interpreting” math to mislead and confuse.

    I sincerely hope that you and all contributors and editors at this prestigious and forward-thinking blog try not to commit the same offense in the future. Thanks for reading!


  • http://feministing.com/members/dandersen/ Duane

    This is a disingenuous infographic. The category of wife/mother/daughter seems arbitrary as many others in the other categories are also wives and mothers… and they are all daughters, aren’t they?

    Problems with the info-graphic: 1) there is no husband/father category for men, even though some roles are clearly defined by their relationship with their family (such as Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer, 1979, listed here as “other”; 2) Only two in the wife/mother category are post 1990 and none of the men who have won for military roles have won since the early 70s, so Katie’s takeaway doesn’t take current trends into account; 3) Many of the roles in other female categories largely function in their “relationship with others”… such as Helen Hunt in As Good as it Gets who was largely defined by her role as a mother, and was also a daughter and girlfriend (but here is in the Other category)… she was also a waitress; 4) The, reverse of that, by somehow diminishing important and ground breaking roles for women such as Joan Crawford’s Mildred Pierce (1945) about a woman who discovers her independence after her cheating husband leaves, by placing them in a category defined solely by being the mother/wife is to diminish the importance and complexity of such roles.

    Clearly there are not a lot of great roles for women in Hollywood. Clearly women roles in film are still frequently defined by their relation to others as opposed to doing great historic and heroic deeds. Clearly women past 35 years old are under represented. And, yes, the Oscars tend to praise women who play the classic “prostitute with a heart of gold” role…. but this infographic is too random in its categorizing to really illustrate any of these issues.

  • http://feministing.com/members/domingo/ Becca

    “Now there are historical roles which earn women Oscars, but the category of husband, father, son, brother or boyfriend doesn’t even exist for men.”

    Yes…because the infographic is sloppy and sexist. All this shows an increasingly detached Feministing crew reposting stuff without actually taking two minutes to actually think about it. Sally Field played a badass farmer in “Places of the Heart” who was also a mother, widow, Christian, and did I mention badass? But in infographic world, she is a wife/mother/widow.

    And when men play boyfriends, sons, fathers, husbands, etc. they get classified as “Other” (Humphrey Bogart 1951, Gregory Peck 1962). Yeah, he was Atticus Finch, just as Sally Field’s character was also a farmer. Like her character, Atticus was also a parent. What’s really happening is that the categorization on HuffPo is sexist, not Hollywood.

    And yet the information is reposted as if it is magically factual! Hollywood is super sexist, transphobic, racist, xenophobic, and awful, but this infographic doesn’t do anything to combat that or even critically evaluate it.

    And that is the stuff that stopped me from donating and leads me to visit Feministing less and less. Elegy for Dr. V? Incredible, amazing, absolutely one of the best things I’ve read thus far on the internet. This article? Tabloid at best.

  • http://feministing.com/members/domingo/ Becca

    And I get that you could try and argue about the primary role these characters played in moving the plot forward and how they motivated the action and such, but that means you’d have to rearrange a whole lot of the men and women, because that would mean a ton are misplaced.