The Oscar goes to: Men who play criminals and women who play wives

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Hollywood has never been kind to women. An optimist could theoretically argue that the Academy Awards for acting represent a rare bright spot for gender equality in show business—after all, an equal number of men and women win every year. (Them's the rules, pal!) But even there, sexism is readily apparent.


Eighty-eight Oscars each have been awarded in the categories of Best Actor and Best Actress since 1929. We looked back through the history of the Academy Awards to find out more about the roles that have brought victory to performers. What do these characters do for a living—and how do their professions differ between men and women?

The results are less than encouraging. Take a look at the top five Oscar-winning jobs for both sexes:

Best ActressBest Actor
1. Wife (16%)1. Criminal (13%)
2. Entertainer (14%)2. Military (11%)
4. Widow (11%)3. Entertainer (10%)
4. Blue Collar/Service (11%)5. Arts and Literature (8%)
5. Socialite/Heiress (8%)5. Royalty/Nobility (8%)


You read that right. Just under 16% of all Best Actress roles have been wives, whereas nearly 13% of Best Actor roles have been criminals, a category includes everyone from con artists to Hannibal Lecter.

Also, number 6 on the list for Best Actress, coming in at 7%? Prostitute.

(To be clear, if a female character were a high-powered businesswoman who also happened to be married, we didn't label her as “wife"—the categories of spouse and widow or widower were only applied when they were vital to a character's identity, typically in the absence of a career. For those of you playing along at home, all but 19 of these Oscar-winning roles were assigned to just one occupational category.)

At the Oscars, women have been consistently rewarded for portraying characters who conform to traditional gender roles. And when they do work outside the home, they're often limited to blue collar jobs like waitress and housekeeper. Here's a full breakdown:


Entertainers—including musicians like Reese Witherspoon's June Carter in Walk the Line and actors like Jean Dujardin's eponymous The Artist—are well represented among Best Actors and Actresses alike, but widows and socialites are consistently popular roles for women. Of Best Actors, only one has played a widower (Art Carney, in 1974's Harry and Tonto) and one a socialite (Jeremy Irons, in 1990's Reversal of Fortune).

No Best Actress winners have won for playing military members or journalists, occupations that account for 10 and three Best Actors, respectively. Likewise, no Best Actors have won for playing boyfriends or prostitutes, though there are two girlfriends and six prostitutes in the annals of Best Actresses.


The 2015 Oscars brought about an encouraging moment of gender parity, when the Best Actor and Best Actress statuettes went to Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) and Julianne Moore (Still Alice), respectively. The two performers played characters who are both scientists and professors.


What about this year's Best Actress nominations? Frontrunner Brie Larson has been recognized for playing an abduction victim, Saoirse Ronan a shop clerk, Cate Blanchett a wife and girlfriend, Charlotte Rampling a wife, and Jennifer Lawrence an entrepreneur. If Lawrence were to win for Joy, she'd be the first Best Actress to have played an entrepreneur or business owner since the 1940s—a profession that five Best Actors have portrayed since 1994.

It's important to acknowledge that the Academy Awards are an institution that spans nearly a century—historical data may have more to say about the state of the Oscars' past than about its present. But that doesn't give Hollywood a free pass. We must still do better.


Molly Fitzpatrick is senior editor of Fusion's Pop & Culture section. Her interests include movies about movies, TV shows about TV shows, and movies about TV shows, but not so much TV shows about movies.