For an industry that is viewed reductively by much of middle America as being politically left-leaning to the point of being out-of-touch with the rest of the country, Hollywood has shown a stagnant lack of progress in terms of gender equality. Actresses’ careers are in jeopardy as soon as they hit 35, it always seems like there’s a dearth of good roles for women, and much of the business behind the camera is dominated by a boys’ club. Particularly striking are the lack of female directors. There could be many determining reasons for a lack of female representation in one of the industry’s most coveted titles – a history of sexism, a self-canceling cycle of young female filmmakers who lack interest in such positions because of the existing dearth of women, etc. – but the truth is undeniable. One struggles not only to think of female directors, but especially of female auteurs. For the few women that have made a career directing, too small a fraction of them have had visibly great careers. From Sally Potter to Mary Harron to Catherine Breillat, even the greatest of these have had to ensure giant obstacles and in the end few actually paid attention to their work.
While the Oscars are indeed a largely meaningless affair whose accuracy in picking the most resonant films of any given year are more often than not contradicted by the test of time, Kathryn Bigelow’s win for Best Director on Sunday night is not without its own significance. Yes, the Oscars are a popularity contest in which we watch the wealthiest and most overexposed in Hollywood pat each other on the backs and drink in their own honor, but lucky for us it is exactly this audience (not, by contrast, the viewers at home) that needed most to see Bigelow win.
While male filmmakers – anybody from James Cameron to Pedro Almodovar – have consistently made movies with women at the center with varying degrees of success, the output of successful female filmmakers have largely been relegated to movies for women. With the occasional exception of films like Bigelow’s Point Break or Harron’s American Psycho (or the more introspective femininity-themed arthouse fare of Potter or Breillat), successful female directors are characterized far more visibly by the likes of Nora Ephron or Nancy Meyers. I am in no way am blanketly criticizing these films, for they are tailor-made for a specific audience and do indeed achieve a connection with that audience, and are often far better than the competing He’s Just Not That Into You school of romantic comedy, but they do exemplify the limitations for successful female directors. Ephron and Meyers have achieved continued, unparalleled success in their niche filmmaking, while movies that have a more critical engagement with femininity fall into obscurity (Harron’s Notorious Bettie Page) or are even potentially harmful to advancement in femme-centric filmmaking thus far (Jane Campion’s In the Cut).
Unlike most of her peers, Bigelow has made a career or making films with male leads, or working in what are typically considered male genres, so in terms of her filmography, The Hurt Locker was hardly something new or revolutionary. But the fact that she was recognized for this particular film, and the fact that it is this particular film by this unique director that marked the first Academy Award for a female in that position, hopefully signals to those who wield Hollywood might the most obvious of messages: women are capable of making literally all types of films. In the best-case scenario, Bigelow’s win will enable the possibility of varied, creative female voices to make themselves known behind the camera, and it is the responsibility of women filmmakers – both fresh and seasoned – to take advantage of this opportunity while the door remains open.
But there is another, far more cynical and largely unaddressed possibility that must be taken into consideration. That Bigelow won for making what is essentially a masculine film in a masculine genre could manifest itself as a negative, even possibly a greater limitation, one that dictates that successful, celebrated female filmmaking is more readily manifested when the film at hand is largely male-centric. In other words, we could find ourselves in a situation where women filmmakers could be more readily recognized if they make films primarily for men and about men.
In answer to the question, “What should Kathryn Bigelow do next?” the answer is obviously whatever the hell she wants. She’s won the award, she’s got the clout, and she should continue to tell the stories that inspire her and those that utilize best her obvious talent (and chances are she’ll continue to make the types of films she’s known for making). All female filmmakers, of course, should do whatever it is that inspires them, not overtly considering what will advance their gender in the industry, for continued opportunity will realize itself if women simply tell the stories they are compelled to put on screen, no matter the gender of the protagonist or which genre they are working within.
While I’ve found that the taste of the true cinephile is hardly gender specific, on the broader cinemagoing scale film genres are explicitly gender-specific and it is for this reason that the relation of the gender of the filmmaker and the perceived gender of the genre will always be an integral factor in advancing opportunities for burgeoning women filmmakers. So while Bigelow should do whatever she wants without the potential interference and pressure of considering her next project in the face of what she has thus far achieved, the flip side to this coin is, “What can Bigelow do next to advance the opportunities and visibility of women filmmakers? What can she do to continue this respect for female directing talent?”
The answer lies not only in making evident the versatility of women filmmakers in approaching any given subject or genre, but how the individual woman filmmaker can make this versatility evident within the span of her own career. While I know it likely won’t happen, I’d love to see Bigelow make good on this clout by taking a fresh approach to the genre where many a female filmmaker has found herself stuck or limited, the romantic comedy.
The romantic comedy genre has been the catalyst for some of the greatest films in early Hollywood history. From The Awful Truth to the films of Ernst Lubitsch, the romantic comedy represented the seemingly unlimited potential of Hollywood films to be both highly entertaining and bring with them a profoundly emotional and enlightening experience, and the genre was hardly as gender-specific in its perceived audience as it is today. But in recent years the romantic comedy has become one of the most repetitive, stagnant, predictable, and unappealing genres whose logic has no connection with lived reality. From the same film made time and again graced by the likes of Matthew McConaughey to Hugh Grant to Sarah Jessica Parker to Kate Hudson to the abominations released this year alone – Valentine’s Day, When In Rome, Leap Year – today’s Hollywood romantic comedy is lazy, humorless, in no way sincerely romantic, and regressive in its social politics and constant portrayal of women as fragile people stuck in the 1950s whose total range of happiness rests on the potential acquisition of a man. The reason the chick flick is such a pejorative term is because the entire system behind today’s romantic comedy is in of itself so offensive, articulated through its backwards-peering portrayal of female characters and the audiences these films are fed to in the assumption that women will watch the same movie time and again.
If Bigelow were to make a truly progressive, original, and entertaining romantic comedy, this would do wonders to further close the gender gap in Hollywood filmmaking, providing opportunities for more varied roles for actresses and giving female directors the power to have the opportunity to tackle a variety of subjects and not be relegated to female genres lest they vanish into obscurity.