“All women are superheroes” said Sigourney Weaver late into an aimless and desperate production of the Academy Awards. She was not alone—Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, lady superheroes of competing corporate franchises portrayed by the deeply earnest Gal Gadot and Brie Larson, stood alongside the veteran action actress.
The superwomen read some blustering, barely coherent text with all the good intentions in the world, including a belabored set-up about an all-woman fight club and a dull punchline about women in the industry being asked what it’s like being a woman in the industry. Then, the trio introduced Eimear Noone, the first woman conductor at the Oscars, who—in a horrifying move that surely wasn’t Noone’s choice—only led the orchestra for the Best Original Score nominees, and nothing else for any other part of the ceremony. It was a clear instance of tokenism: as long as we can see her, she can conduct.
Alas, Sigourney lied. Not all women are superheroes. In fact, none of us are—superheroes aren’t human beings, which is the point. Nor are all of us simple, mortal heroes; I don’t have the numbers but I’m willing to bet that plenty of us ladies are cowards or otherwise shitty, just like all the other genders. What Sigourney meant, if we’re being generous, is that, by and large, across cultures, women are expected to be better, to be brave in ways that are rarely recognized as brave. But what that cringeworthy introduction to Noone’s abridged moment demonstrated is that Hollywood thinks feminism is exactly what it isn’t: primetime girl power. In this glitzy universe, equality means a shiny statuette for the gals who fight their way to the top; not a demand for a just society that does away with patriarchy and all other forms of unfair dominance and inequity, including racism, imperialism, heterosexism, and capitalism.
Finally, in a move that uncomfortably made it seem like the award presentation was planned around the result, the winner of Best Original Score happened to go to Joker and thus to the only woman nominated, composer Hildur Guðnadóttir. With the announcement, Guðnadóttir technically became the first woman to win Best Original Score, since the first two women to win in 1996 and 1997 won for categories (briefly) split between musical or comedy and drama. Unfortunately, because of the bizarre superhero presentation and token-conducting moment, an undoubted triumph for Guðnadóttir had the patronizing tinge of “empowerment.” Surely, Guðnadóttir (who also scored the acclaimed miniseries Chernobyl and swept awards season for her work on Joker) won on the strength of her artistry not simply because Oscar members were clamoring for the veneer of social justice—that was the ceremony producers’ task. But by framing her award with the embarrassing proclamations made by Sigourney and co., the Academy ended up undermining more than one musician, for clout.
Guðnadóttir understood the gendered significance of her win, and in her speech expressed a desire that this award encourage more girls and women to pursue music as authors and not only as instruments. It’s a fine message but one that notably leaves things up to those girls and women, who will face many more obstacles than a prejudiced Academy membership on their way to composing music.
That’s what the Academy doesn’t want you to know: They could be doing so much more than handing out trophies.