Women in the Spotlight at the 84th Annual Academy Awards

Women dominated the cinema in 2011 with the wickedly hilarious Bridesmaids and the emotionally triumphant The Help. This year’s Oscar nominations reflect the groundbreaking contributions of women to contemporary film.

Comedy lovers rejoiced with the announcement of this year’s Academy Award nominees, which departed from the academy’s bias toward dramatic, tearjerker flicks. This year, Bridesmaids—which stands apart for its rare, all-female ensemble and use of slapstick comedy—joins the chuckle-worthy Midnight in Paris and The Artist in obtaining major nominations.

Contemporary comics are challenging the traditional perception of women in comedy. As the late Christopher Hitchens articulated in his 2007 Vanity Fair article “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” there is a common view that women’s nature is somehow incompatible with humor. However, with the emergence of talented comedians like Tina Fey (who has answered these critics with characteristic wit), Wanda Sykes, and Sarah Silverman, this stereotype is evolving.

Bridesmaids, an outlandish and exuberant portrayal of a group of women attempting to carry out their wedding-party duties, has landed two Oscar nominations, including best original screenplay by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo and best supporting actress for Melissa McCarthy.

Following the announcement of her Oscar nomination, Kristen Wiig called fellow female comedian Ellen DeGeneres during a taping of The Ellen DeGeneres Show. After pleading for a sequel (and asking for a part), DeGeneres offered heartfelt praise: “It is so great to see movies like that, that I believe in. There are a lot of movies out there and when something is smart and funny and it makes you laugh that hard—we need movies like that right now.”

Another female ensemble, The Help, was nominated for four Academy Awards this year: best picture, best actress, and two nominations for best supporting actress. These include nominations for Viola Davis, being considered for a best actress award, and costar Octavia Spencer, for best supporting actress. A win by either actress would make Oscar history, because African American actresses have so rarely been honored at the Academy Awards. In 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first black actress to win an Academy Award for her performance in Gone with the Wind, but it took 50 years for another black actress (Whoopi Goldberg in 1990, for Ghost) to grace the stage for an acceptance speech.

Since then, few actresses of color have been nominated and even fewer have won the coveted Oscar statuette. This year’s ceremony has the potential to add to the short list of black female award winners, in spite of controversy over the story’s treatment of racial tensions.

Based on Kathryn Stockett’s novel by the same name, The Help takes place in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi, as a young white woman, Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, returns home from college to pursue journalism. Her first assignment prompts her to learn more about the lives of the black maids working for white families in her community; she ultimately writes a book exposing the racism that they face.

The Help has provoked a conversation about racism yesterday and today. Ida E. Jones, national director of the Association of Black Women Historians, issued an An Open Statement to the Fans of The Help, urging viewers to read more widely about the civil rights movement and understand its historical context. The uplifting, simplified story shows that more nuanced roles for black actresses are sorely needed. Despite this, there is no denying that both Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer delivered stellar, Oscar-worthy performances.

Find out who takes home an Academy Award by tuning in to ABC on Sunday, February 26, 7 p.m. EST.

Film fans should also look for programs at NMWA this spring—a series of films inspired by the French paintings on view in Royalists to Romantics begins on March 4 with Dangerous Liaisons, and an environmental film festival March 19–20 will feature exciting recent films. For more information, visit www.nmwa.org.

—Chelsea Beroza is the publications and communications intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts