The "Transvestite of Directors": A Backlash Against Kathryn Bigelow?

"No cheers for Miss Kathy for breaking the glass ceiling by fabricating my worst cinematic nightmare," writes critic Martha Nochimson over at Salon. Why isn't Kathryn Bigelow's success cause for women to celebrate?

Nochimson's critique boils down to a) questioning whether the film is actually an anti-war movie or accurately portrays a wartime experience, which seems of arguable relevance to whether Bigelow gets to be called a "feminist pioneer," and b) accusing Bigelow of pandering to Hollywood's valorization of the traditionally masculine over what's perceived as feminine, like the work of Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers.

Nochimson isn't kidding about those two:

I think the outsize admiration for [Bigelow's] masterly technique and the summary dismissal in the current buzz of directors like Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers reveal an untenable assumption that the muscular filmmaking appropriate for the fragmented, death-saturated situations of war films is innately superior to the technique appropriate to the organic, life-affirming situations of romantic comedy.

It's true that war films have always been an excellent way to get the Academy's attention, though they've also been a good bet at commercial failure. But why should telling the stories of wartime only be a man's provenance? Isn't the U.S.'s engagement in Iraq women's business too?

And let's be clear here: Nancy Meyers and Nora Ephron aren't dismissed as unserious merely because they're women making movies about things that supposedly matter to women. It's also because they're seen, fairly or unfairly, as frothily commercial objects, made primarily for passing pleasure. (If we're splitting hairs, I personally didn't find Avatar "serious" and think it should also be seen as a primarily commercial enterprise, but then again the Academy didn't ask me. And plenty of respected critics disagreed.)

Nor is the use of the word "transvestite" incidental. Writes Nochimson,

Looks to me like she's masquerading as the baddest boy on the block to win the respect of an industry still so hobbled by gender-specific tunnel vision that it has trouble admiring anything but filmmaking soaked in a reduced notion of masculinity.

Actually, from all appearances, Bigelow — whose adviser on an art fellowship in the 70s was Susan Sontag, who gushed in a Good Morning America appearance this morning (below) about the joys of fording a stream bareback on a horse — isn't masquerading as anything. She's dabbled in different genres, but nowhere is there any indication that she's anything but incredibly passionate about both the substance and the creation of The Hurt Locker, or that she's suppressing some sort of innate femininity.

And there are other feminist-minded critics who have seen in Bigelow's particular point of view a subtle, yet critical perspective on gender. Manohla Dargis alluded to it:

As the critic Amy Taubin has observed, Ms. Bigelow is a "daughter" of Peckinpah, specifically because her "double-faced critique of - and infatuation with - the codes of masculinity reveals the hysteria beneath their seeming rationality." Put another way, like Peckinpah, Ms. Bigelow is brilliant at both delivering and dissecting male violence, which is why "The Hurt Locker" is at once so pleasurable and disturbing.

It's clear that Bigelow — who has traditionally made films starring men, who seems uncomfortable with direct conversations about her gender, whose looks often become the focus of less-enlightened discussions of her — doesn't easily fit into any preconceived notion of a woman filmmaker. That includes people who care about women's empowerment, as well as people who don't, particularly. But she seems unapologetically herself, and if her personal sensibility is easier for the male-dominated industry to valorize, blaming her for succeeding with it is not the way to go. Nor is expecting her to stand for all creative women, anytime and anywhere.

Kathryn Bigelow: Feminist pioneer Or Tough Guy In Drag? [Salon]
Kathryn Bigelow On Good Morning America [Women & Hollywood]

Related: The Work of War, at a Fever Pitch [NYT]

Earlier: How Bad Is Sexism Against Kathryn Bigelow?
Woman Wins Directing Award; Men Unable To Contain Themselves
On Kathryn Bigelow And Female Achievement