At the Academy Awards on Sunday, Portman wore a Dior cape bearing the names of women directors not nominated for Oscars, including Hustlers helmer Lorene Scafaria, Lulu Wang of The Farewell, and Greta Gerwig, who directed 2019’s Little Women.
“I wanted to recognise the women who were not recognized for their incredible work this year in my [own] subtle way,” Portman told a reporter on the red carpet.
McGowan, an activist for the #MeToo movement who spoke out about an alleged rape by film producer Harvey Weinstein, wasn't impressed by Portman's display. Though the meaning behind the cape was largely celebrated in the media some outlets, like The Mary Sue, accused Portman of not doing enough work to support the cause she publicly represents.
In a lengthy Facebook post, McGowan criticized Portman for her allegedly performative feminism, stating that Portman has only worked with two women directors during her long career, one of which was herself. McGowan also alleged that Portman’s production company only hired one female director — Portman herself.
“I was at a Women in Film event that you spoke at once, Natalie. You reeled off depressing statistics and then we all went back to our salads,” McGowan continued in the post. “I quickly realised you and the other women speakers (and that joke of an organization) are just... frauds. You say nothing, you do nothing.”
In a statement to Refinery29, Portman responded to McGowan’s accusations, saying that she agrees with McGowan that she is not “brave,” unlike the “women who have been testifying against Harvey Weinstein.”
Though Portman said it’s true she only made “a few films with women [directors]” she has worked on shorts, music videos, and commercials which boasted female helmers.
Across these mediums, Portman claimed she worked with women directors Marya Cohen, Mira Nair, Rebecca Zlotowski, Anna Rose Holmer, Sofia Coppola, and Shirin Neshat.
Portman seemingly suggested that she has also tried to make multiple films with women directors that did not come into fruition, calling these unmade projects “a ghost history.”
“As Stacy Smith of USC has well documented, female films have been incredibly hard to get made at studios, or to get independently financed. If these films do get made, women face enormous challenges during the making of them,” Portman added.
She also shared that she helped get female directors hired on projects “which they were then forced out of because of the conditions they faced at work," though she did not specify which projects these were.
"So I want to say, I have tried, and I will keep trying,” she concluded. “While I have not yet been successful, I am hopeful that we are stepping into a new day."
The 2020 Oscars were not the first time that Portman spoke out about the lack of celebration for women directors. At the 2018 Golden Globes, Portman made headlines for announcing the people up for Best Director as “the all-male nominees.” Some criticised the move as dismissive of the fact that a person of colour, Guillermo del Toro, was nominated and would go on to win the award as well as Best Picture. Del Toro, however, told IndieWire that the move was “great,” and that there was “phenomenal work being done by female directors.”
As Portman and McGowan have both documented, there’s still a long way to go in terms of women representation behind the camera. Whether fashion statements at awards shows are empty gestures or a way to bring attention to a vital issue, however, depends on one’s opinion.