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Natalie Portman’s Oscars Cape: Supportive or Virtue Signaling?

By: Claire Armstrong

Lulu Wang, Greta Gerwig, Lorene Scafaria, Melina Matsoukas, Marielle Heller, Mati Diop, Alma Har’el, Céline Sciamma. All names missing from the list of Best Director Nominees at the 2020 Academy Awards, but present on the Dior cape Natalie Portman wore on the red carpet. In an interview on the carpet, Portman stated, “I wanted to recognize the women who were not recognized for their incredible work this year in my subtle way.” However, the situation surrounding Portman’s Oscars attire has evolved into something far from subtle.

Several days after the awards, Portman received a harsh critique from actress Rose McGowan, an actress and activist who was one of the first to accuse Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault. In a social media post, McGowan called Portman a “fraud,” saying her statement looked “More like an actress acting the part of someone who cares. As so many of them do.” She wrote, “I find Portman’s type of activism deeply offensive to those of us who actually do the work. I’m not writing this out of bitterness, I am writing out of disgust… I just want her and other actresses to walk the walk… Stop pretending you’re some kind of champion for anything other than yourself.” McGowan and others have also pointed out that Portman has rarely worked with female directors, and that her production company, Handsomecharlie Films, has only ever hired one female director: Natalie herself. 

Portman quickly issued a response to the backlash, saying “The past few years have seen a blossoming of directing opportunities for women due to the collective efforts of many people who have been calling out the system… The gift has been these incredible films. I hope that what was intended as a simple nod to them does not distract from their great achievements. It is true I’ve only made a few films with women. In my long career, I’ve only gotten the chance to work with female directors a few times… Unfortunately, the unmade films I have tried to make are a ghost history.”

It does seem a little suspicious that Portman, who owns a production company and whose career spans over thirty years, has been unable to work with more than a few women. Considering this, it can be hard not to see her Oscars attire as hypocritical virtue signalling. However, does Portman’s imperfect track record mean that she cannot speak out in support of female directors? Recently, McGowan has spoken out once again, saying that in criticizing Portman, she “lost sight of the bigger picture.” “My critique should have been about Hollywood’s ongoing culture of silence,” she tweeted. It’s likely that for Portman, her public shaming at the hands of Rose McGowan was a bit of a wake-up call, a reminder that although she wears the names of women on her sleeves, she may still be complicit in that culture of silence. Hopefully, this conversation will cause more members of the film industry to consider how they, too, can support female filmmakers, so maybe at next year’s Oscars, we will see a woman’s name inside the Best Director envelope.