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A quirky Oscars milestone also represents Hollywood’s insidious gender bias

The Oscars love to give awards to very young women and middle-aged men.

24th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards - Arrivals Dan MacMedan/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

This year’s Oscar nominations reached a quirky bookend of a milestone. As entertainment journalist Dave Karger pointed out on Twitter, this year’s nominations feature the youngest and oldest nominees in the actor categories in decades. And that milestone points to one of the more insidious manifestations of Hollywood’s gender bias.

All the Money in the World’s Christopher Plummer is, at 88 years old, the oldest nominee ever in any of the four acting categories. (The oldest female nominee in the acting categories is Gloria Stuart, who was 87 when she was nominated for Titanic in 1998.) Meanwhile, at 22, Call Me by Your Name’s Timothée Chalamet is the youngest Best Actor nominee since 19-year-old Mickey Rooney was nominated for Babes in Arms in 1944 — but he’s just about the standard age of the winners for Best Actress.

Jennifer Lawrence was 22 when she won her Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook. Last year’s winner, Emma Stone, was a few years older than Chalamet at 28. The 2016 winner, Brie Larsen, was 26. Natalie Portman and Reese Witherspoon were both 29 when they won their Oscars. The youngest Best Actress nominee ever is Quvenzhané Wallis, who was 9 years old when she was nominated for Beasts of the Southern Wild in 2012.

The Oscars have created a pattern where it is as rare for a 22-year-old man to be nominated for Best Actor as it is for a 9-year-old girl to receive the equivalent nomination. And that is not because women lose their acting ability after they turn 30, or because men only come into their own once they turn 30. It’s because meaty, revealing roles for women — the kind the Academy likes to reward, the kind that look good on an Oscar reel — are few and far between for actresses over 30. Older actresses who might be at the peak of their abilities are given few options to show what they can do, while older actors are given plenty of serious, flashy parts in which they will be celebrated.

That pattern is slowly changing. This year’s acting nominations are stacked with women over 40: Meryl Streep is 68, Frances McDormand is 60, Allison Janney is 58, Laurie Metcalf is 62, Octavia Spencer and Sally Hawkins are both in their 40s. As Nicole Kidman half-ironically remarked at the SAG awards, “How wonderful it is that our careers today can go beyond 40 years old.” But this year could well be an aberration rather than a sign of changing patterns; there are decades of entrenched norms in the ways movies are written and cast and celebrated to overcome.

As structural inequalities go, this might seem petty. Actresses of all ages do get representation at the Oscars, after all, while people of color remain largely shut out. (Though this year represents a small step forward in that department as well, with four black acting nominees.) And age discrimination in casting is not the kind of monstrous behavior that was unmasked with Harvey Weinstein, with producers and directors routinely sexually harassing young actresses. But the two patterns are intimately connected.

The system that treats women like sexual objects to be exploited by men like Weinstein is the same system that decides older women can no longer be viable sexual objects and then discards them.

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