AWFJ Women On Film – The Week In Women, March 12 2010 – MaryAnn Johanson

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Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar win doesn’t really count, women go to the movies more than men, and

So, Kathryn Bigelow won an Oscar for Best Director for The Hurt Locker, the first such honor for a director who happens not to have a penis. Backstage after her win, this exchange occurred:

One reporter said Bigelow had been reluctant to call herself a female director, asking, “Are you ready to say that now at this historic moment?”

Bigelow replied, “First of all, I hope I’m the first of many. And of course I’d love to just think of myself as a filmmaker, and I wait for the day when the modifier can be a moot point.”

She’s likely to have a long wait. As I predicted — right here! on video and everything! — Bigelow’s win is being dismissed by some because it doesn’t adhere to certain qualifications in ways that a similar win by a man (as all the other wins in this category have been, of course) never is.

First up, there’s Christopher Roy Correa at True/Slant, who says:

By the night of the Academy Awards, The Hurt Locker had grossed less than $13 million domestically, the lowest ever for a best picture Oscar winner. Box office success is a fairly significant level that Bigelow’s film has yet to reach, in spite of its hitting whatever other levels there may be when one conceives of a successful motion picture.

Translation: Sure, The Hurt Locker may have won all those Oscars, including Bigelow’s, but can it really be the Best of anything if it’s made so little money? We can’t really call this a “successful” movie, now, can we?

The previous lowest-grossing Best Director must have been a man, since Bigelow is the first woman to win the award, but did anyone suggest that that director’s win should be lessened because of that dubious distinction? Unlikely.

Another True/Slant writer, Susannah Breslin, trots out the “but she made a guy movie” dismissal:

the reason Kathryn Bigelow won for “The Hurt Locker” is that she made what amounts to a man’s movie. This ain’t “The Hours.” Nor is it “Precious.” And it really isn’t “Avatar.” It is a straight up movie for dudes, outfitted with danger, explosions, and things of import beyond that which can, or cannot be found, in say, “It’s Complicated.” You want to win at a man’s game? Step right up and play by the dude rules. Guns, bombs, and death. That’s a winner.

Breslin is willing to concede that the film might conceivably be something of a deconstruction of “the guy movie,” but so what?

So, maybe “The Hurt Locker” is something of a Trojan Horse, a movie that indicated male enough to get its female director to the podium on the big night.

When Clint Eastwood won Best Director a few years ago for Million Dollar Baby, did anyone dare to denigrate his win because he made a movie about a woman? Or did Baby “indicate male enough” because it was also about boxing? When James Cameron won Best Director for Titanic, did anyone inform us that Cameron’s win was not important because his film was about a young woman — and that the male protagonist was present in the story not so he himself could change and grow, but only to show the female protagonist how to do that for herself, which is an upending of most Hollywood stories? Or did Titanic “indicate male enough” because it was about a massive disaster?

Even writers who think they’re feminist cannot resist wondering whether Bigelow’s win really matters as a feminist triumph. TV scriptwriter and producer Sarah Fain is “a little annoyed by Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar win”:

My annoyance at Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar win is rooted in the man-off conundrum, which is basically this: to garner attention and respect, women in Hollywood have to act like/write like/direct like men.

But don’t get the wrong idea:

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that Bigelow didn’t deserve her Oscar— she certainly did.

Except Fain is saying that Bigelow didn’t deserve that Oscar:

[W]hat it took for a female director to finally be taken Academy-Award-Winning-Seriously was a film about men engaged in the most manly of pursuits—by which, of course, I mean war. The Hurt Locker is all testosterone, all the time, and while it’s a stunning movie, I’m not convinced it would have been nominated if it hadn’t been directed by a woman. The novelty alone gave it a level of attention that other women directors simply don’t get.

Never mind the possibility that Bigelow’s perspective as a woman may have brought some spark of originality to a story about men and testosterone. Nope: it’s just novel. When male filmmakers tell stories about women, no one thinks that’s odd. So what’s “novel” about a female filmmaker telling a story about men?

Fain continues:

It’s actually quite simple. And by simple, I mean extraordinarily complex and probably impossible to solve. But it comes down to something in this arena: as a culture we don’t value stories about women as much as we value stories about men. We don’t value women’s voices as much as we value men’s voices. And until we do, it won’t really matter who’s directing, or who’s writing, or whether the person taking home the award is wearing pants or a dress.

She right that our culture does not value stories about women as much as it values stories about men. But then she goes on to say that a woman’s voice is only valuable if she’s telling women’s stories! As Manohla Dargis said in her kick-ass piece about Bigelow’s win, “it isn’t [Bigelow’s] fault that women’s stories are routinely devalued any more than it’s her fault that these days female directors and female stars in Hollywood are too often ghettoized in romantic comedy.”

Landon Palmer at FilmSchoolRejects suggests that it’s up to Bigelow, however, to right all that is wrong with Hollywood’s relationship with women:

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.

Now, that’s not a bad suggestion in itself — a truly smart, truly romantic, truly funny romantic comedy would be a wonderful thing! — but, you know, a male director could make one of those, too.


Tara Brady in The Irish Times celebrates female film critics, and reveals their surprising history: “Women invented film criticism.” But: “In the age of shiny cinema, film criticism would become as commodified and compromised as the rest of the business. A new breed of boy-racer reviewers emerged to keep the public up to speed with this week’s must-see blockbuster. They didn’t watch movies; they consumed them. Critical language gave way to star ratings, plot spoilers and set visits.” more

Jessica at Jezebel wonders whether “actresses [are] sacrificing artistic success in order to save face: “As the fountain of eternal youth continues to deluge seemingly ageless actresses, faces become more and more frozen — and for the business of actually acting, this is a very bad thing.” more

According to a new report by the MPAA (available as a PDF via David Poland’s The Hot Blog): “Women buy a higher percentage of movie tickets (55%, or 778 million tickets) than they represent of the population (51%), and more than men buy (45%).” And: “A higher percentage of women than men are moviegoers in all categories of frequency. In total, there are 113 million female moviegoers, compared to 104 million male moviegoers.” And: “Women also have higher attendance per capita (4.7 tickets per year) and attendance per moviegoer (6.9 tickets per year) averages than men.” Anyone want to bet we’ll still continue to hear that tired “argument” that “women don’t go to the movies”?

OPENING THIS WEEK. Lessee. Green Zone is almost entirely about men: male American soldiers, male CIA agents, male American administrators, male Iraqi civilians, male Iraqi soldiers; one token American woman journalist barely appears at all. Our Family Wedding features women who are flighty, capricious, high-maintenance, and selfish (although the men don’t fare any better). She’s Out of My League pairs a drop-dead gorgeous woman with a dorky (if genuinely nice) guy, pandering to the fantasies of dorky guys everywhere. Only Remember Me features more than one woman as a real character with an interesting story and significant screen time: Emilie de Ravin’s college student (who has a complex relationship with her cop father), and Ruby Jerins’ 11-year-old misfit, whose relationship with her brother, played by Robert Pattinson, is at least as intriguing as the young-adult romance between Pattinson and de Ravin that is the focus of the film.

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  • Sarah Fain

    Since the point of my piece seems to have eluded you, let me clarify some things: I don’t think I’m a feminist, I am one; I do believe Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar win was well deserved; and my point about novelty was that films by and about women receive less attention than films by and about men. This is hardly a controversial claim. In fact, it’s painfully well documented.

    I couldn’t agree more with Bigelow that it will be an amazing day, indeed, when a director’s gender is a moot point. We’re just not there yet, and pretending we are won’t help us get there.

  • Paul

    I think your first example of the reporter was just the reporter fishing for a quoteable statement, but I thought the other examples very interesting revelations of people’s attitudes.

  • MaryAnn Johanson

    We’re just not there yet, and pretending we are won’t help us get there.

    No, we’re not there yet. But it sounds to me, Sarah, like you’re saying that we cannot get there as long as women keep making movies about men. I don’t think it helps anyone to qualify Bigelow’s win (“Well, it doesn’t really count because she didn’t make a movie about women”) in a way that we would not qualify a man’s.

  • Christopher Roy Correa

    My point (which is not properly framed, as it’s been truncated from the original post) was in direct response to Manohla Dargis’s claim that “The Hurt Locker” was the first ‘serious’ movie of Bigelow’s to achieve success critically, financially and at the Oscars, which is not quite accurate.

    Dargis writes that Bigelow’s success was “primarily achieved outside of the reach of the studios. She had help along the way, including from male mentors like James Cameron, her former husband, who helped produce ‘Strange Days.’ But that movie did poorly at the box office, as did her next two features, ‘The Weight of Water’ and ‘K-19: The Widowmaker.’ It wasn’t until she went off to the desert to shoot ‘The Hurt Locker’…that she found a movie that hit on every level.”

    My response was, “by the night of the Academy Awards, The Hurt Locker had grossed less than $13 million domestically, the lowest ever for a best picture Oscar winner. Box office success is a fairly significant level that Bigelow’s film has yet to reach, in spite of its hitting whatever other levels there may be when one conceives of a successful motion picture.”

    I didn’t disqualify the win, which I believe is well-deserved. I’m saying that, heretofore, Bigelow’s movie has not yet won the support of audiences, as evinced by low box office returns. It deserved more support, which my post clearly foisted upon “The Hurt Locker” and Kathryn Bigelow.

  • MaryAnn Johanson

    But Dargis is correct! And you were wrong, Christopher, in seeing slant in her article that wasn’t there. *The Hurt Locker* is indeed a financial success for Bigelow: It has more than earned back its production budget, which is not true of any of Bigelow’s other films. (At least, we can say that for those whose budgets are known. For her films whose budgets aren’t known, it’s still likely true because they earned very little.)

    You’re saying, Christopher, that box office is a measure of whether a film is connecting with audiences. That’s not wrong… but *The Hurt Locker* had little opportunity to do so: It never had a wide release, which cannot be said of any other Oscar Best Picture for the last 20 years, at least. Why not say that in spite of the little support it got from those who sell us movies, the film has done remarkably well?

    I agree with much of what you had to say in your piece, Christopher, but not here.