EDITOR'S NOTE: For this week's "For Your Consideration," guest columnist Matthew Hammett Knott contemplates a series of questions regarding the significance of potential Academy Award winner Kathryn Bigelow's gender.
Is Kathryn Bigelow a female director?
What a stupid question. Of course, I assume you realize I am not querying her biological anatomy, but even so, whatever my parameters, surely the answer is “Does it matter?”. Whether in terms of cinematic style, significance or persona, surely defining Bigelow as a female director is at best irrelevant and at worst seriously counter-productive. I don’t see any articles asking “How male is James Cameron?”. But before I sit down and shut up, allow me to elaborate.
Why are we even discussing Kathryn Bigelow’s gender?
One reason in particular - Bigelow has racked up so many of the early critics awards and nominations this season that she has now become the first female frontrunner for a best director Oscar. If she were to win, she would be the first ever woman to do so in eighty-two editions of the Academy Awards. It would be one of the most significant milestones in Oscar history.
So her gender is what makes her significant?
It‘s what could make her historically significant. What makes her significant as a contemporary director is her work, including this year’s "The Hurt Locker." Bigelow is not the only woman to have made a well-reviewed film this year - Jane Campion, Lone Sherfig, Claire Denis… the list goes on. But Bigelow appears to have ignited the beginnings of an awards sweep, and that can be blamed on her craft, not her gender.
So her femininity is irrelevant to the films she makes?
It‘s not irrelevant to discussion. "The Hurt Locker" is an action film, a genre typically the preserve of male directors. Many critics have expressed delight that Bigelow is receiving such acclaim for a film that is so atypical to the type of films women are usually allowed to direct. Yet there are two sides to the story - film critic Caryn James recently suggested that “the many nominations for Bigelow play into the old idea that women get ahead by behaving like men, in this case making a movie voters might expect a man to have made”. It’s a genuinely double-sided issue, and whilst even the waverers would probably still like to see Bigelow win the Oscar, there are many who can’t help wishing that such a historic award would go to a film or a woman with explicit feminine or feminist concerns.
So you’re saying that while Kathryn Bigelow is achieving great things for women behind the camera, she’s doing nothing for them in front of it.
It’s certainly true that "The Hurt Locker" does nothing to forward the representation of women on screen. But that doesn’t mean we should beat Bigelow up about it. The film is an undeniable triumph in terms of what it sets out to achieve. Furthermore, whilst I would never argue that it is a “feminine” film, it’s worth recalling that it has achieved more acclaim that any of the numerous films about the Iraq war directed by men this decade. So it’s probably not fair to say that she’s just succeeding by behaving like the boys.
So does that mean we can just shut up about her gender now?
Yes… and no. In an ideal world, it would be a fact barely worth mentioning. But the status quo for women in Hollywood is far from ideal, and part of the route towards equality and opportunity involves expanding the perception of what it is possible for female filmmakers to achieve. I recently had a conversation with a teenager who simply assumed "The Hurt Locker" was directed by a man. In which case, periodically highlighting Kathryn Bigelow’s gender may be no bad thing.
As for the subject matter of her films, it’s not something I want to take her to task upon. But given that they themselves are not working to forward the position of women in cinema, I do hope that in at least some of her virtually-inevitable forthcoming acceptance speeches she chooses to acknowledge her gender and the significance of what she has achieved. I also hope that she, and indeed any woman with power in the film world, uses her muscle to promote other women both behind the camera and on screen. However, this must remain a personal hope, not an exhortation, as if there is one thing which has helped Kathryn Bigelow to achieve the position she has, it is not by being told what to do.
Matthew Hammett Knott is a London-based writer and guest columnist for this week's "For Your Consideration." Check out the previous editions of the column:
For Your Consideration: Re-Assessing The Major Categories
For Your Consideration: How Much Does Oscar Love a Musical?
For Your Consideration: 10 Surprises From The Spirit Award Nominations
For Your Consideration: A Guide To The Oscar Precursors
For Your Consideration: 25 Things The Academy Got Right In The 2000s
For Your Consideration: The 50 Most Despicable Oscar Snubs of the 2000s
For Your Consideration: Assessing The Major Oscar Categories
For Your Consideration: Oscar's Gay Tendencies
For Your Consideration: 11 Underdog Performances
For Your Consideration: History Repeats as Major Foreign Films Left Off Academy List
For Your Consideration: 10 Things The Fall Fests Told Us About Awards Season