Racial diversity was definitely the biggest story of the 2016 Academy Awards. #OscarsSoWhite started trending again because no black actors or actresses were nominated for awards, and host Chris Rock never let the audience forget it.
But as badly as 2016 failed on racial diversity — and as very, very far as Hollywood still has to go on gender diversity — 2016 was a surprisingly good year for women at the Oscars.
Sara Bennett became the first woman visual effects supervisor to win an Oscar, for Ex Machina. Visual effects is a heavily male-dominated industry, and Bennett shared the award with her otherwise all-male team. But she was only the second woman to win an award in that category (the first being Suzanne Benson for Aliens in 1986) and the third to be nominated.
Spotlight became the first film with two woman producers to win Best Picture. Films with even one woman producer don't win all that often; it's happened just eight other times since 1974, when Julia Phillips became the first woman producer to win a Best Picture award, for The Sting. And while this is a lower bar than it should be, Spotlight was also noteworthy for its accurate portrayal of the craft of journalism — including a woman journalist who doesn't sleep with her sources to get information.
Women won or shared a win in the categories of Documentary Short, Live Action Short, Production Design, Makeup, Costume Design, and Film Editing. Not all of these categories are traditionally male-dominated (namely Costume Design), but men still win them more often than not. Seeing women win in all of these categories in one night was impressive.
But the biggest winner of the night may have been women's stories.
At least two women will always win an Oscar every year — one for best lead actress and one for best supporting actress. But too often, even the best lead actress really plays a supporting role in a story about a man. And when she is the true protagonist, the movie she stars in often doesn't get nominated for Best Picture. (The last time that happened was probably Natalie Portman's 2010 win for Black Swan.)
But this year Brie Larson won Best Actress for Room, a movie about a mother and son trying to survive as kidnapping victims that was also nominated for Best Picture.
And Room wasn't the only 2016 Best Picture nominee that featured a woman's story as the main driver of the plot; we also had Mad Max: Fury Road and Brooklyn. In 2015, none of the Best Picture nominees had a woman protagonist.
Stories about women and girls also took center stage in Pixar's Inside Out — which won Best Animated Feature and based its plot around the emotions of an 11-year-old girl — and both Oscar-winning documentaries, Amy (a biography of the late Amy Winehouse) and A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness (an exposé on "honor killings" in Pakistan).
It's sobering that so many of the women's stories told by Oscar nominees this year dealt with violence. Sexual assault took center stage when Vice President Joe Biden introduced Lady Gaga's performance of "Til it Happens to You" from The Hunting Ground — and crucially, both male and female survivors joined Lady Gaga for the powerful conclusion of that number. Violence against women specifically was also a theme of the winning films Mad Max, Room, and A Girl in the River.
Yet also present in those films was the idea of women's power in the face of that violence. During her speech, two-time Best Documentary Short winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy noted that the prime minister of Pakistan has vowed to change the law on honor killings since her film came out.
"This is what happens when determined women get together," Obaid-Chinoy said.
Again, Hollywood still has a long way to go. Too often, as Vox's Todd VanDerWerff put it, "it's still best to be a mediocre movie about a white guy" if you want to be nominated for an Oscar. Women of color in particular are underrepresented, especially this year. Many critics were disappointed that the lesbian romance Carol was snubbed for Best Picture, although it got deserved acting nods.
But while white-guy hero's quests are still the norm, the Academy usually has more good options centering on women and people of color than it realizes. Hopefully #OscarsSoWhite will push it in better directions on diversity, and hopefully 2016's quasi-Year of the Woman is the start of something better and not just a blip.