In 1928, at the first Academy Awards, there were 15 categories. Men won in 14 of them, but Janet Gaynor managed to sneak away with the award for best actress.
Given that it was only eight years since women had won the right to vote, one could argue that liberal Hollywood was being progressive in its recognition that women were occasionally appearing in movies, too.
After 80 years, we have naturally advanced since the days when women won only 6 percent of Hollywood's most coveted awards. Today, they direct only 6 percent of all Hollywood films. Of the 24 "regular categories" of Oscars, women have also been eligible to win best supporting actress since 1936.
Costume design was added in 1948, and makeup in 1981, both arenas in which women excel, for obvious reasons: We are skilled at being pretty, and we like to make other people pretty, too.
This is why beautiful women pretending to be ugly, or men, have such a high statistical probability of winning best actress: It takes real virtuosity to overcome our biological urge to ornament.
A woman has never won best director, and only six women have ever won best picture (all of which were shared with male co-producers). We do all right with screenplays, as women have been graciously permitted to write for a couple of centuries now.
Although supposedly we no longer believe that separate is the same as equal, we still segregate entertainment awards along gender lines.
When it comes to sex, apartheid is invisible; the Oscar for leading performance by a person who is female is hotly anticipated, although it is not, of course, as important as the Oscar for leading performance by a person who is male, as Sunday night's show demonstrated.
The best actress category persists because we would not want to risk the possibility that no women would win an Oscar.
The problem is that awards which do not segregate on the basis of gender tend to overlook women altogether. There is no Nobel prize for women's literature: women go head to head with men. And they have won 10 times in 107 years.
Women do badly in awards in which attractiveness does not count, which is why they are so under-represented among producers, directors and Nobel laureates. By the same token, beautiful women on display are used to sell everything in our culture, and the Oscars are no exception.
The author is a senior lecturer at the University of East Anglia The Guardian
(The Guardian via China Daily February 28, 2008)