In March of 1993, I was a high school senior, soon to enter the predominantly (but not exclusively) female enclave of Sarah Lawrence College. Coincidentally, that year, the Academy Awards themed their ceremony “Oscar Celebrates Women and the Movies,” putting their own spin on what the media was calling “the Year of the Woman,” which began in 1992 when a record-breaking number of women (four) were simultaneously elected to the U.S. Senate (including the first black woman, Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun).
Being a future actress (or so I thought at the time) and avid watcher of the Oscars, I remember clearly that year’s ceremony, which opened with a photo of the (then) 67 living female Oscar winners—with the sole black one, Whoopi Goldberg, posed in the center (for color, I guess)—and a musical number choreographed to Kool & the Gang’s “Ladies’ Night” by Debbie Allen.
But despite supposedly celebrating women in the movies, in his opening monologue, even Oscars host Billy Crystal had to concede that 1993 wasn’t a particularly great year for women’s roles in film. Twenty-five years later, the 90th Academy Awards—with a major assist from best actress winner Frances McDormand—proved that representation and respect are still major issues for women in Hollywood, as also evidenced by the rise of the #TimesUp and #MeToo movements.
Though they have admittedly improved since 1993, outside of the two gender-specific acting categories, this year’s Academy Awards could still only boast 47 women out of 198 nominees, contending in 17 of 20 categories. Only four won, and notably, Greta Gerwig’s directorial nomination was the first nod to a female director since Kathryn Bigelow won for The Hurt Locker eight years ago, making Gerwig only the fifth to ever be nominated. (Fun fact: Despite director Dee Rees’ incredible work on Mudbound, there still has yet to be a woman of color nominated for the directorial prize, and Rees was the first black woman to be nominated in a writing category.)
So outside of the acting categories, where were women truly the big winners Sunday night? In the commercial breaks, where several ads captured female imagination, influence and ingenuity. The three standouts of the night came courtesy of Nike, Twitter and Walmart, all heavily featuring women of color—black women in particular.
Nike came through with a poignant and powerful 30-second spot titled “Until We All Win,” featuring Serena Williams, who officially returns to competitive singles’ tennis this week at the PNB Paribas Open, six months after giving birth. In a voiceover, Williams pointedly addresses her critics, characterization as an “angry black woman,” and the racism, colorism and sexism she has faced despite being one of the world’s premiere athletes, saying:
I’ve never been the right kind of woman. Oversized and overconfident. Too mean if I don’t smile. Too black for my tennis whites. Too motivated for motherhood. But I am proving, time and time again, there’s no wrong way to be a woman.
The spot was effective and surprisingly emotional, given its brevity. Athletes or not, black women everywhere undoubtedly related to Williams’ message and experiences—at least, I know I did. But as Williams told Adweek, part of her impetus for doing the commercial was her infant daughter, Alexis:
I want my daughter to be truthful and honest, strong and powerful; to realize that she can impact those around her. I want her to grow up knowing a woman’s voice is extremely powerful. As females, we need to continue to be loud and make sure we are heard.
But one of the major standouts of Oscar-night advertising was Twitter’s #HereWeAre spot, featuring a cast of famous and not-so-famous women of varying types, races and abilities, including Issa Rae, Ava DuVernay and filmmakers Julie Dash and Jennifer Brea. Over a poem penned and performed by “NuyoJewricanqueer” poet Denice Frohman, the spot begins: “I heard a woman becomes herself the first time she speaks without permission. Then every word out her mouth, a riot ... ”
But however impactful Twitter’s women-centric message, it also struck many as deeply hypocritical given the company’s ongoing ineffectiveness and seeming reluctance to stop online harassment on its platform, most of which is directed at female users. Since comedian Leslie Jones famously went public in 2016 with evidence of the horrific abuse she suffered on Twitter after appearing in the all-female reboot of Ghostbusters, the social media company has done little to ensure the safety of its users, much to the chagrin of those who still experience abuse.
But it’s really no surprise that women were the target audience of Academy Awards advertisers. Despite composing a meager 26 percent of nominees, the Oscar audience (which reached a record low this year) is traditionally over 60 percent female. And according to a 2015 Fortune article, women are also considered “the world’s most powerful consumers,” expected to reach a projected $18 trillion in global spending this year (pdf).
Black women make up 14 percent of American women, and as indicated by the 2017 Nielsen report “African-American Women: Our Science, Her Magic,” our brand loyalty is specifically driving black spending power and (finally) garnering us acknowledgment as key influencers in the mainstream.
So while it’s no surprise that the majority of the commercials broadcast on Oscar night were targeted toward women, it’s also no surprise that black women were featured more heavily than in years past. For instance, although Mudbound did not win any of the four categories it was nominated for, director Dee Rees still emerged a winner last Sunday, both appearing in an ad for Samsung imploring viewers to “make something” and further stoking the Afrofuturist imagination with a spot for Walmart, one of three one-minute commercials the big-box brand commissioned from female directors for Oscar night 2018, themed around the ubiquitous Walmart blue box.
In the spot, Rees delivers us an all-black, all-female cast—including what appears to be a same-sex couple as parents—featuring two-time 2018 Oscar nominee Mary J. Blige and shot by Mudbound and Black Panther cinematographer Rachel Morrison (also a nominee this year). Though the ad featured an intergalactic theme, it was ultimately a down-to-earth and normalizing take on a black family, as well as a timely addition to the wave of black-helmed sci-fi narratives currently in our midst. Most important, it was extremely well received by viewers.
But despite Oscar advertisers’ clear understanding of the power of the female dollar, whether that actually translates into tangible female power remains to seen—especially at the Oscars. It would certainly be nice to see black women winning more than few and far-between supporting actress awards.
Y’all little ads were cute, though.