When Hildur Gudnadottir walked up to the stage at the Oscars last night to receive her award for Best Original Score, I squealed. Then I texted my 19-year-old daughter, "A female composer won Best Score for 'Joker'!!!"
My daughter is a music composition major with ambitions to become a film composer. I knew how huge last night's award was because when we researched that career choice, we discovered how unbelievably male-dominated the film scoring industry is.
Most people with a keen interest in movies can name a few film composers off the top of their heads—John Williams, Hanz Zimmer, Howard Shore, etc. But very few can name even one female film scorer, or even recognize one by name. When my daughter and I watched the film scoring industry documentary, Score, we were dismayed to find that of the nearly 50 composers interviewed, just two were women.
But sadly, that ratio lines up pretty closely with the actual statistics. A report from the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film shows that of the top 250 domestic box office films of 2018, 94 percent were scored by men. In addition, a 2018 University of Southern California study found that of the top 1,100 fictional films from 2007 to 2017, male composers were included in credits 1,200 times—and female composers just 16.
Such drastic underrepresentation can't possibly be due to a lack of interest in the field, since there are plenty of women in other musical careers. There's nothing inherently gendered about music, so it's not about talent or ability, either. As Captain Marvel composer Pinar Toprak said in an interview, "Music, and art in general, it's genderless because emotions are genderless."
However, history has not seen music as genderless. Some of this underrepresentation may be due to our automatic connection between orchestral music and male composers, thanks in large part to a long history of female composers being unable to have their work heard. (One example: Felix Mendelssohn's sister, Fanny, was every bit his musical equal, yet she was discouraged from publishing her compositions. When she finally did get her work published, it was under her brother's name. Mozart's sister was also a child musical prodigy, her talents largely overlooked by society and history.)
Perhaps there are also some self-perpetuating assumptions in the industry. The most famous and successful composers have always been men (notably, almost exclusively white men), therefore men may automatically be seen as the most able composers. As in many male-dominated industries, male domination itself becomes a defining factor of the field without even trying. Instead of a "glass ceiling," female composers face a "sound barrier" purely because of their gender—one that, despite some chipping away, seems very hard to break.
That's why this Oscar win by Gudnadottir—as well as her other wins, such as being the first solo female composer to win a Golden Globe for Best Score—is a big deal. That's why Pinar Toprak being the first woman to score a Marvel film was a big deal. That's why my daughter seeing such examples of both excellence and recognition is a big deal.
As Gudnadottir said her speech, "To the girls, to the women, to the mothers, to the daughters, who hear the music bubbling within, please speak up. We need to hear your voices."
This win will help smooth the way for aspiring female composers like my daughter to have their voices heard.
Check out Gudnadottir's acceptance speech: