Should Women Even Care About the Best Director Oscar?

The 83rd Annual Oscar nominations were announced this week, and in spite of Kathryn Bigelow's momentous win last year, no women were recognized in the Best Director category. Should we be getting worked up over this?

When the Oscars pulled the ham-handed, weirdly-self-congratulatory-about-its-own-reluctant-progressivism move of bringing Barbara Streisand out to present last year's award for Best Director, I knew it was all over. Streisand (the first and only woman to win a Best Director Golden Globe, but whom the Academy failed to nominate) was there to rip open the envelope that would propel Kathryn Bigelow into history and make her the first woman to win a Best Director Academy Award. And somehow, in that moment, I felt indifferent. As Bigelow ascended the stairs to the Oscar House Orchestra's rendition of (yes, really) "I Am Woman," the small pang of joy I felt was just the sudden realization that I'd won my Oscar pool.

Mostly, I was exhausted. I'd spent the better part of 2009 immersed a long term research project about female filmmakers and the problems they continue to face in Hollywood. My interest in this topic had initially been spurred by reading the rather shocking statistic that only 3 women had ever been nominated for the Best Director Oscar, and none had ever won. In my reading, I uncovered plenty of other discouraging statistics and anecdotes. Dr. Martha Lauzen's annual Celluloid Ceiling report shows that women directed only 9% of the top 250 domestic grossing films in 2008. For me, each new bit of research was simultaneously dismaying and invigorating. I was slowly realizing that pursuing my dreams of filmmaking would involve coming up against one of the strongest glass ceilings left in American culture.

I've wanted to be a director since I was 17. At that time I worked on a student-run public access show, and in my spare time I schooled myself on all the budding film geek's Great American Directors (Scorsese, Kubrick, Coppola) and the next generation of greats (PT Anderson, the Coen Brothers, Wes Anderson). As a teenager, it never once occurred to me that all of these directors were men – they were just, to me, great filmmakers. It wasn't until I got to college that I started getting more into avant-garde film and found a few female directors to idolize as well. Agnes Varda, Maya Deren, Jane Campion and Chantal Akerman all helped me realize not only my own vision, but they also helped me to see the startling absence of female role models in my ventures as a filmmaker thus far. These were women who did not have a place in mainstream film culture (and especially not American film culture), and I admired their uncompromising drive to make films outside of that hegemonic system.

So by the end of my project, I was left questioning whether that long delayed Oscar win even mattered. If Hollywood and the Academy had excluded women's visions for so long, why should we tailor the films we make to please them? Aren't we better off creating smaller but more accepting spaces outside the mainstream?

That's what was going through my head as Bigelow ascended those stairs last year. I loved The Hurt Locker and was happy about her nomination, but I couldn't help but feel it was something of a compromise. After all, it wasn't a film that gave a refreshingly truthful representation of women – in fact, there was only one woman in the entire film, and she was on screen for a grand total of about three minutes. Plus, the media narrative that made Bigelow the plucky underdog going up against her big, bad ex-husband James Cameron was simplistic, annoying and hard to parse from a feminist perspective: we were being fed a line that he was the bad guy, when in reality Bigelow had sought his advice on the Hurt Locker script before agreeing to direct it. By that night in February, I was sick of hearing about it all, and left with the queasy feeling that the win I'd waited so long for felt more like a necessary compromise than an groundbreaking triumph for all women.

And then she got up on that stage. A rush of tears came to my eyes, and I could hardly breathe.

I think what had hit me on such a gut level was the simple impact of seeing something – a break in a pattern that makes you realize for the first time just how prevalent the pattern had been. Up until now, I'd only seen men in tuxedos accepting an award that I – in my wildest and most self-centered flights of fancy – would have loved to win; now here was a strong, articulate, gorgeous woman in a dress. I thought of what this would have meant to me when I was 17. I thought of what this meant to the girls even younger than that, the great filmmakers of a future generation. Up until that moment, the problem of women in film was also the defining problem of feminism in the 21st century: young women are told they can do anything, but the limited images of achievement presented before them silently contradict that. The simple reality of seeing Bigelow up there was huge.

Still, though Bigelow's win was momentous, I suspect that it will change very little about the realities of female directors in Hollywood. Yesterday's Academy Award nominations were a harsh reminder of this: for the 79th time in history, they were all men. True, two of the ten Best Picture nominees are women (Debra Granik's Winter's Bone and Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right), but I agree with Dana Stevens's assessment:

This is only the second year of the expanded best picture Category, with 10 spaces to fill instead of five, and it's easy to pick out at a glance which are the "filler" pictures-movies that, worthy as they may be, don't stand a chance of winning. They're the ones that didn't also get best director nominations: 127 Hours, Winter's Bone, Toy Story 3, Inception, and The Kids Are All Right. The expansion of this category was meant to be a way to open the field to more offbeat or crowd-pleasing choices, but I wonder if the extra spots aren't destined to become a holding pen for second-class citizens. After Kathryn Bigelow's supremely satisfying double win for best director and best picture last year, it's particularly disheartening to see Winter's Bone and The Kids Are All Right, both made by women, relegated to "great film-who directed it again?" status.

And once again, I keep coming back to the eternal question: why should we care? The Oscars are ultimate pageant of Hollywood hegemony. They're all bound up in greater issues about distribution, marketing and campaigning that rarely favor female-centric films that challenge the status quo. So really, should any of this bother us?

But during Bigelow's acceptance speech last year, I think I finally realized that we should care. About all of it. The dream of women achieving equality in the industry means that they should infiltrate every genre of filmmaking – from mainstream blockbusters to experimental films, rom-coms to war epics – and that women will be not only the directors but the cinematographers, editors, writers and producers on these films too. A year later it's easy to see that Bigelow's win wasn't the instant panacea that the media portrayed it as. But perhaps there's a little glimmer of hope in this year's Best Director nominees: Bigelow's pattern-breaking female presence on that stage last year makes it that much easier to feel its absence in this year's list. If nothing else, I hope it continues to resonate in a heightened awareness of the work that's still left to be done before women and men in Hollywood are on equal footing.

This post originally appeared on Canonball Republished with permission.

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