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by Peter Knegt
January 7, 2010 4:53 AM
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For Your Consideration: Is Kathryn Bigelow a Female Director?

Kathryn Bigelow on the set of "The Hurt Locker." Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.

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

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12 Comments

  • K.G. | December 20, 2010 2:10 AMReply

    @Dan Markette

    First of all, Bigelow's win IS a big deal because she's the only 3rd female director in the history of the movies to have actually won an Oscar. Second of all, you obviously haven't seen THE HURT LOCKER, even though it might not be considered regular Oscar material, it certainly deserved more attention than the limited playdates it got when it first came out. And, yes, it is a good film, and deserving of the hype. Itis a pretty good war film, very nervewracking and tense in parts. Plus, she's one of the best directors out there, bar none, if you're ever bothered to see any of her movies.

    Yeah, men and women are different--that's old news--but the thing is men have always used those differences to justify their sexism and keeping women out of the real corridors of power,especially in Hollywood. And also, male directors get to make whatever the hell kinds of films they want to make, and if they make a big flop, they STILL get to keep making films no matter how much money is lost off said flop. Look at Bigelow's own career as a case in point---after STRANGE DAYS--her near-masterpiece---didn't do too well at the box office, she didn't make another film for 6 years after that. Same with Mimi Leder (the director of DEEP IMPACT) when her 2nd film PAY IT FORWARD flopped, that pretty much ended her film career (I think she mostly does T.V. now).

    My point, if women had at least half the power that men did in deciding who gets to direct and the kinds of films that are made, this subject would not even be a big deal. Your silly statements about male/female differences don't obscure the fact that it's sexism still holding female directors back in the business--period.

  • paulacrick | January 9, 2010 10:19 AMReply

    sorry, the article is not pointless because it has facilitated discussion on an interesting subject and that is a great achievement for any piece of writing.

    forgive me, i work in the industry and I'm a woman. I grew up in a warzone.

    did you enjoy the film? did you tell your mates to go and see it?

    because winning oscars in today's multi platform environment may not be that big a deal. I remember when Top of the Pops ruled and being number one in the charts was a big deal.

    What is a big deal is this, money is power and women who produce big budget films have power. women have been doing this for decades. action and science fiction films demand a big budget whereas rom com's/drama's/biography/true stories etc. do not DEMAND a big budget.

    by trying to put a gender in a genre you are cutting women out of the high stakes table.

    War's affect men and women. bombs, guns and mines; kill.

    Why shouldn't women tell war stories? why shouldn't they drink brandy with the boys after dinner. I can't help feeling the notion of women making women's films is a Victorian notion.

  • films42 | January 9, 2010 4:29 AMReply

    To MHK: Thanks for helping fight the good fight, continuing the dialogue, posting the Jezebel piece, etc. It's just as Dargis says:

    J: On whether the prominence of women-directed films in 2009 will change anything, even if they're not statistically significant compared to other years:

    MD: It's pretty shitty right now. Anything positive can only help a little bit. How's that for optimism?

    Did giving an Oscar to Hattie McDaniel help? People who actually study such tings have no doubt that the answer is definitely YES:

    http://www.films42.com/feature/MargoJefferson.asp

    Of course, Rome's not built (or rebuilt) in a day, but every crack in the ceiling (glass, marble, celluloid, etc) helps to bring that ceiling down. So to Kathryn Bigelow, I say again: You Go, Girl!

  • paulacrick | January 9, 2010 1:31 AMReply

    it is a really pointless article for two reasons. if Bigelow wins the oscar for best film she is the first female director to win it. full stop.

    secondly, hattie mc daniel was the first black actress to win an oscar and that was playing a slave and then a "free darkie" in the same film. it took another 40 years or so for another black actress to win an oscar Whoopi Goldberg for playing a poor black victim of incest, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abusing relationships (both films written and directed by white men).

    The oscar in 1939 did absolutely nothing to .."promote other African Americans both behind the camera and on screen".

    women have been making fantastic films in hollywood for a long time, big films with big fat box office.

    the really interesting point that men do not seem to understand is that women just get on with it... we don't need applause every time we yell "action!".

    we've been pulling the strings for years and it's totally cool if the outsiders don't know it. didn't Julia Phillips produce Close Encounters? oh yes, she refused to grow a penis but she knew how to swallow her "lunch"... that's how you get a movie made.. learn to swallow.

  • matthewhammettknott | January 9, 2010 12:48 AMReply

    natachavonbraun and paulacrick - my article presented various, conflicting arguments, for your consideration, but I am fairly confident it is not rendered stupid or pointless by your reasoning.

    As for the position of women in Hollywood, paulacrick, your argument based on Julia Phillips can clearly not be serious, but I refer you nonetheless to a fantastic (and female) assessment of the status quo:

    http://jezebel.com/5426065/fuck-them-times-critic-on-hollywood-women--why-romantic-comedies-suck

  • Peter Knegt | January 8, 2010 10:35 AMReply

    @natachavonbraun: I'm not sure you understood the point of the article, as it does not seem to wholly suggest anything you criticize it for.

  • natachavonbraun | January 8, 2010 10:21 AMReply

    This was a stupid article. It's not enough that she actually got a job directing and made a greatmovie out of it, she has to advance the plight of women filmmakers and actresses to deserve her status. What if she grew a penis? Would that be enough for you?

  • matthewhammettknott | January 7, 2010 11:40 AMReply

    @films42 - I can assure you, I'll be screaming with you!

  • films42 | January 7, 2010 10:58 AMReply

    Two problems with your analysis, Matt.

    1.) The statement "Bigelow appears to have ignited the beginnings of an awards sweep, and that can be blamed on her craft, not her gender..." totally ignores the fact that this very same film failed to ignite much of anything when Sprit Award nominations were announced last year. The film is exactly the same film, so what changed? Here are some thoughts:

    http://www.films42.com/oscar_picks/OscarCampaign2010.asp

    2.) While it is, of course, ironic that there are NO significant female characters in "The Hurt Locker," your assertion "...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..." is simply wrong. Kathryn Bigelow created strong women leads in "Blue Steel" & "The Weight of Water," as well as strong supporting roles for women in "Point Break" & "Strange Days." Since Oscars often honor a body of work as exemplified in a significant achievement in one specific year, there is no reason for any woman anywhere to have any qualms whatsoever cheering for her come March.

    Me, I'll be screaming my head off with delight if she wins (& yes, as a voting member of the Chicago Film Critics Assoc, I've already seen every one of the likely competitors):

    http://www.chicagofilmcritics.org/

  • milesmaker | January 7, 2010 9:19 AMReply

    I have these same conversation on whether or not someone's a Black Director...

    Miles Maker
    Story Author | Visual Artist (film/video/)
    Socially mobile in real-time via Twitter:
    @milesmaker
    @mobisoaps
    @directingactors
    @BlogTalkCinema

  • Dan Markette | January 7, 2010 8:29 AMReply

    We never artificially assigned anything. It is nature and in nature men and women are different.

    I am so tired of people being afraid to say what is obvious in these times. Face it, we are different, women generally make different films and that is fine. Im glad we arent all the same. Blacks make different films, they go to see different films. WHO CARES? Deal with the facts of life and stop being scared of what nature made. Who is it you are afraid of anyway??

    Im also tired of the media making such a big deal out of issues like these. Does it matter if a woman wins an award in film? Why is this "history"? You further the whole problem with fairness by creating this undeserved buzz based on gender. The film wasn't that great guys. Just because a woman made a male-type film, lets not all freak out about it.

    And to think a movie like this could get attention or oscars when Avatar and Inglorious Basterds are on the same list. Really sad. Lets hope it goes where it should go.

    Enjoy it now Bigelow, it's not happening again, and when a girl actually does something more deserving later on, you (the media) have made it tougher for her.

  • jeffreybeaumont | January 7, 2010 5:29 AMReply

    Many of the films that typically win Academy Awards could be characterized as "men behaving like women." See the work of Stephen Daldry, Stephen Frears, John Madden, Rob Marshall, Ang Lee, Anthony Minghella, even Clint Eastwood and James Cameron sometimes. Going back as far as the 1920s, musicals and melodramas have always been hallmarks of Academy recognition.

    My own feeling is that "women behaving like men" and "men behaving like women" can only be a positive thing, as it breaks down the traditional roles we have artificially assigned the genders.