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How Selma and Women's Inequality Got Tangled at the Oscars

02/26/2015 03:58 pm ET | Updated Apr 28, 2015
Stephen Saks via Getty Images

My Oscar night boycott arose in part because of the Academy's shameful treatment of Selma. But I have also grown weary of the uphill battle for equality for women of all colors.

My husband and I saw Selma on the heels of the electrifying, Tony-award winning play, All The Way, which explored LBJ's first year as president. Seattle playwright Robert Schenkkan won the 2014 Tony Award for best play for this Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioned work. We were steeped in the mid-'60s before we experienced Ava DuVernay's vision of a pivotal moment in civil rights history.

Positioning knotty social issues as though they are actually complex, instead of simplistic, is what made both the play and the movie rewarding.

That criticism that served only one purpose: distraction.

Pick nits with the director and you can avoid (ignore) the substantive issues spotlighted in the movie.

These distractions effectively derailed discussion about an unequivocally horrific time in our history. One that we seem to willfully relegate to hear-see-speak no evil while simultaneously watching it play out today in places like Ferguson.

Raise your hand if you knew, before seeing this movie, that there were multiple marches in Selma, marches that were started and aborted before the successful one of March 21, the one we know and celebrate?

Raise your hand if you were able to watch these scenes unmoved to tears, anger or mortification that these acts of violence against peaceful protesters were done in your name?

This is a movie criticized for historical inaccuracy?

Was DuVernay shunned because she's black, she's a woman, or her protagonist was a martyred black man? We'll never know, but I believe her gender played a role in the Academy's cold shoulder.

And after seeing She's Beautiful When She's Angry, I began to internalize just how far we have not come, baby.

That's when my anger grew beyond the unjust treatment of Selma as an important reflection of shameful history.

Here are some facts about women's inequality

First, the Academy.

The 6,028 voting members of the Academy: 94 percent white, 77 percent male. Of the 43 people on the board of governors, only six are women. Not unlike its cousin up the road in Silicon Valley, the demographics of "success" are white and male.

In its 83-year history, only one woman has been named Best Director, Kathryn Bigelow.

But the problem is bigger than the Academy and it's broader than unequal pay.

Research from San Diego State University's Martha Lauzen draws back the curtain on how Hollywood makes movies. In 2012, 78% (195) of the top 250 films had no female writers. Last year, 79% had no female writers. There's more: 99% had no female composers, 96% had no female cinematographers, 96% had no female sound editors, 78% had no female editors. Zero. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

Looking at the top 100 movies of 2012, women had fewer speaking roles than in any year since 2007. Less than a third of the speaking roles were female characters .

And that's just Hollywood. A pattern of exclusion and unequal compensation is the norm, not the exception.

An analysis of the New York Times home page showed that men are quoted 3.4 times more often than women. U.S. newsrooms are about 1/3 female. And overwhelmingly, managers are men. So are newspaper opinion columnists.

Only a third of the nation's doctors and lawyers are women, and they make less money than the men. At the earnings peak -- ages 45 to 50 -- women earn 62 cents for every dollar that male doctors make (based on median earnings). The pay gap extends to nurses and other health care professionals.

Indisputable facts that reflect entrenched norms, yet allude to them at your own peril.

"It's time to have wage equality once and for all. And equal rights for women in the United States of America." ~ Patricia Arquette

This truth was also met with nit-picking distractions.

We can argue about the outsized compensation of celebrity culture (let's not forget sports and fashion) separately from the stark fact that, even there, women are treated differently from men. All women, black or white, straight or gay.

Distractions, people.

And this time it's not external divide-and-conquer, like we saw with the attacks on Selma from LBJ's alumni. It is internal sniping that can only result in maintenance of the status quo.

That's another way in which DuVernay's movie was powerful. She showed us how King moved forward despite similar -- although far less public -- sniping.

Arquette spoke the truth. DuVernay spoke a truth. Yet the Academy and the institutions it represents -- including those outside moviedom -- sit stubborn and inviolate.

This is why I boycotted the Oscars: I object to distractions from painful truths.

Distraction as a method of preserving the status quo is at least as old as the Roman Empire. (Probably older.)

In the face of distraction, facts alone do little to spur action. For that, we need focused anger.

"First, you've got to get mad. You've got to say, 'I'm a human being, goddammit, my life has value.'" ~ Howard Beale, Network (1976)

It didn't hurt Sunday night's ratings to have only one angry white woman of a certain age refuse to turn that dial (so to speak).

We won't get Hollywood's attention -- or any other institution of power -- until all of us are angry.

We. Must. Get. Mad!

Then, we act -- with feet, with fingers and with pocketbooks.

Support movies (and other media) that feature realistic women characters (not objects) and those made by women producers and directors. If a tight budget means you'd need to pass on the latest derivative blockbuster, thoughtfully consider saying no to pablum.

Tell your friends what you are doing and why. On social media, in blog comments, during phone calls, at coffee chats. Ditto those elected to represent you. And a timely letter-to-the-editor couldn't hurt; neither will a touch of humor!

Speak up, knowing you are not alone and so that others might feel less alone.

Of course, Hollywood is only one brick in the wall. For some of you, it won't be the first you tackle. That's OK.

It took nearly a century for women to wrestle the right to vote from those who withheld franchise. Why should we be surprised that equal pay and true equality haven't arrived simply because President Kennedy put pen to paper in 1963?

We can turn that law into reality if we put our collective minds and hearts to it and ignore attempts to pull us off course with distractions.

But first, we've got to get mad.

A longer version of this appeared first at WiredPen; see that post to learn how to get involved or for historical information about the women's movement in America.