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BarbieGate: Why All Oscars Snubs Are Not Created Equal

It’s been barely 48 hours, and already the Oscars snubs have gone through multiple news cycles featuring a variety of hot, cold and truly outré takes, with even a former U.S. presidential runner-up weighing in.

At the center of it all are Barbie’s leading ladies Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie, who were left out of the best director and best actress races, respectively. The widespread indignation has been somewhat understandable: Here was a legitimate awards contender that also was the box office champ of 2023 (in other words, finally an Oscar movie that most people had seen and therefore had opinions about), the film carried a surprising and subversive feminist message of which Gerwig and Robbie were credited as the chief architects — and, most crucially, Ken (Ryan Gosling) was nominated and the actress who played Barbie (Robbie) wasn’t. Those factors combined to form an irony too perfect for the viral outrage machine known as 21st century social media to resist.

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In the immediate aftermath of the nominations (back in the more innocent hours of Tuesday morning), it felt like the Barbie snubs might turn out to be a blessing in disguise, with public fury on behalf of the women scorned clearing a path for the film’s overall fortunes on Oscar night. But the outsized hand-wringing — which seemed to ignore that Gerwig and Robbie were still nominated for Barbie (as co-screenwriter and producer, respectively) and also gloss over supporting actress America Ferrera’s surprise nom as the very human woman Gloria — has quickly transmuted any goodwill into toxicity.

Which is a shame, because there are valid points to be made about Gerwig and Robbie’s omissions, particularly in the case of the former, who is the only director whose first three films — Lady Bird, Little Women and now Barbie — have all been nominated for best picture, according to The Hollywood Reporter’s Scott Feinberg. Yet Gerwig’s specific contributions at the helm have only been recognized once (for Lady Bird). That’s enough of a data set, relatively speaking, to legitimately interrogate why the Academy’s directors branch, which is responsible for determining the nominees in its category, consistently has not responded to her work the way the rest of the Academy’s membership has. It’s worth noting, again according to Feinberg’s reporting, that the directors branch is currently 75 percent male.

Yet it’s too simple to chalk up Barbie’s snubs to mere sexism on its surface. (For one, Gosling and Robbie did not compete head-to-head for their acting nominations.) And claiming misogyny also erases Justine Triet’s accomplishment; the Anatomy of a Fall director is the only female nominee in the category. A harder but better question to answer is whether the Academy is biased against considering certain types of work, both in front of and behind the camera, as more “awards-caliber” than others (a point Feinberg made in his post-nominations analysis). Although many actors themselves will say that comedy is harder than drama (as Robbie and Lily Gladstone both did on THR’s Actress Roundtable this year), the Oscars traditionally gravitates toward gravitas, with its taste in comedies skewing more blatantly offbeat (this year’s Poor Things, last year’s groundbreaking Everything Everywhere All at Once).

It’s within that framework of genre bias that you can begin to interrogate the role of gender bias. The very point of Barbie — both the movie and the stereotypical incarnation of the doll that Robbie’s character embodied — is to project perfection. And because Barbie was always intended to be an avatar of human womanhood, by extension she represents the expectation of women to be flawless, effortlessly so: to do everything backwards and literally always in heels without breaking a sweat. With the caveats that artistic awards are always an exercise in subjectivity and that infinite factors are at play in determining them, a good question to ask is why a man playing a blond avatar of perfection felt like a braver feat than a woman doing the same? Perhaps the true irony of the Barbie snubs was that Gerwig and Robbie made being easy, breezy, beautiful look too easy.

That said, one irony of the backlash to the Barbie snubs is that it has attempted to pit women against women. (Barbie Land would never!) One column has been excoriated for appearing to diminish the performances of the nominated actresses in defense of Robbie. Furthermore, an increasing chorus online is pointing out a second irony: Despite Barbie’s own onscreen diversity and inclusiveness, the obsession over its awards snubs is an example of white feminism at its worst, in which slights toward two white women are centered at the expense of acknowledging women of color both nominated (such as Gladstone and Ferrera) and not (such as Past Lives star Greta Lee).

Speaking of the latter, as the person literally assigned to track how artists from historically excluded backgrounds fare at awards shows, I also believe it’s somewhat reductive to label the snub of any given performer as racist, homophobic or ableist. (For one, I personally wonder if Past Lives — and Lee’s nuanced bilingual work — was too subtle and quiet for some, and if May December’s intentional camp caused some voters to miss Charles Melton’s grounded performance in it.) I do, however, believe that these forces still apply to the ecosystem in which these individual choices exist.

It’s not just a matter of unconscious bias, although that does continue to plague how audiences and voters engage with films that center and are told from the perspective of nonwhite characters, as The Woman King director Gina Prince-Bythewood explained to THR. After Lee and Melton failed to make the nominations cut this year, some half-joked on social media that the Academy must have considered its job done when it comes to Asian representation after 2023’s EEAAO sweep. It’s possible that those wins may have eliminated some of the urgency behind casting a potentially historic vote for those who had Lee or Melton on the bubble, but ultimately what’s discriminatory here is not their failure to make it into the field of five, but rather how rare it is for Asian actors, Latino actors, Indigenous actors, disabled actors to even get on the board in the first place. As Viola Davis said in her iconic 2015 Emmys speech, “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

Half of the 20 actors nominated for the Oscars this year have been to this dance before; they are also all white. It’s hard to succinctly describe the types of roles for which they’ve been recognized, because they are so diverse in range and each so multidimensional: stifled domestic partners, tortured teachers, vainglorious artists, schemers, dreamers, reanimated naïfs. By contrast, Lee has been a professional actor for nearly half of her life (she’s 40) and Past Lives is her first lead role. There was nothing in the past to nominate her for, and her experience isn’t unique among performers from historically excluded backgrounds. With at-bats few and far between (both for the individual performer and for the community they represent), the snubs hit different. (In contrast, while there are arguments to be made for the merits of also-snubbed Leonardo DiCaprio’s work in Killers of the Flower Moon, is there any doubt he’ll be in the conversation again as soon as his next project is released?)

In December, Lee received the breakout in film award at the Unforgettable Gala, the annual honors for Asians in entertainment. “After a whole career made from playing supporting characters who were supporting other people’s stories, I got to be the center of my own story for the first time,” she said. “I got to do what I’ve watched my peers and my favorite artists get to do all the time: I got to play a character who’s just dealing with love and fate and the choices that make a life. I got to play a regular person who’s just trying to understand what it means to be alive. And now that I know what it’s like, it might be really hard to go back.”

That’s the fear — that this enchanted experience was just an anomaly for these artists who made their way from the fringes into the spotlight this year and surprised with their range, only to fall short of the ultimate recognition. But Lee’s words can also be deployed as a plea and call to action for writers, casting directors, producers and studio executives that might be interested in drawing out the untapped potential of performers who have heretofore been placed in a box, limited and unable to express their full humanity.

Sound familiar?

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