by Meredith O'Brien
I spend countless hours watching Boston Red Sox games on TV, like 24, The Godfather, Mad Men and Rescue Me, and think The Hurt Locker deserved its best picture Oscar.
However I also cried at those Olympic mom TV ads, watch Grey’s Anatomy, love thirtysomething, was entertained by It’s Complicated and even, I’m embarrassed to admit, by Twilight. (Wasn’t as big of a fan of New Moon, though.)
The first paragraph represents a list of what’s stereotypically considered “men’s fare,” sports programming as well as TV shows and movies whose scenes are peppered with violence and feature a good guys/bad guys dynamic with deeply flawed yet uber-masculine male characters. The second paragraph represents what’s typically called “women’s fare,” oftentimes derided as of the “chick flick” variety, stuff which supposedly no self-respecting man would be caught dead watching because they examine relationships and families.
Kathryn Bigelow just made history for being the first woman to win a best director Oscar. She was rewarded for her work on The Hurt Locker, which focused on an American bomb detonation squad serving in hellish conditions during the Iraq War. Though this movie most definitely falls into the “male fare” category, everyone from the film’s stars to Bigelow’s ex-husband (also nominated for best director for Avatar) said Bigelow’s gender was irrelevant because she made a seriously butt-kicking film.
But to many people -- other than the ones who were celebrating her breaking-the-glass-ceiling win -- her gender mattered greatly because she received her Oscar for The Hurt Locker, a war movie which captured men’s perspectives. Bigelow has taken flak from people because she made what they considered to be Hollywood cowboy movie which blew off the sisterhood. One critic, Martha P. Nochimson formerly of New York University writing on Salon went so far as to call Bigelow a “transvestite”  who seemed to be “masquerading as the baddest boy on the block to win the respect of an industry still hobbled by gender-specific tunnel vision that it has trouble admiring anything but filmmaking soaked in a reduced notion of masculinity.”
Putting Nochimson’s name-calling assertion that Bigelow was pretending to be anything other than what and who she is aside for the moment, the critic had a point buried under the odious insult. (As someone who blogged about 24  throughout its sixth season for a TV blog, I take umbrage that a woman who likes this kind of film isn’t really a woman.) Had Bigelow not made a film about war but instead made a cerebral, quiet one about, say 19th century English poet John Keats who fell deeply in love -- otherwise known as Bright Star, a film written and directed by Oscar nominated director and Oscar winning screenwriter Jane Campion, which The Hollywood Reporter  called “a gorgeous film about romantic love and fine poetry” -- would she have been awarded the best director Oscar? The cynic in me says no. No way.
Consider these stats from a recent Reuters article :
- Of the top 250 movies released in 2009, only 16 percent were made with women as directors, producers or writers.
- Of the 4,400 “speaking roles in 2009’s top 100 films, only about 30 percent were for women.”
- Forty-four percent of the speaking roles went to women when there was at least one female director working on the film.
Couple that info with some data Women & Hollywood’s Melissa Silverstein recently detailed : Of the 217 million Americans who went to the movies last year, 55 percent (113 million) were women. Silverstein quoted a Motion Picture Association of America report as saying, “A higher percentage of women than men are moviegoers in all categories of frequency.”
So women go to films to see traditional male and traditional female fare, more often than men do. Women gave the people behind the 2009 Hollywood films more than half of their box office receipts. Yet women, regardless of the commercial or critical success of their films, rarely win Golden Globes or Oscars unless they’re in categories specifically reserved for their gender. Bigelow’s director Oscar notwithstanding, I combed through the list of all the Oscar winning screenwriters  – for both original and adapted screenplays – and of the 80 awards given out since 1970, only nine women-written films won Academy Awards.
This is why when I read that people think we should abandon the separate acting categories for men and women at the Golden Globes and the Oscars – as exemplified by this recent op/ed  in the New York Times by Kim Elsesser from UCLA’s Center for Study of Women – I think that would be a huge mistake. While I would love for people to be honored based on the caliber of their work, regardless of their gender, I don’t quite think we’re at the point where the male-dominated power brokers in Hollywood would give “women’s fare” – or women starring in “men’s fare” – an equal shot.
As Nochimson said in Salon, “. . . I think the outsize admiration for [Bigelow’s] mastery technique and the summary dismissal in the current buzz of directors like [Julie & Julia’s] Nora Ephron and [It’s Complicated’s] 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.”
If we did away with the best actress categories, as Elsesser suggested, how many of the women in the “best actress” Oscar category this year – Sandra Bullock, Helen Mirren, Carey Mulligan and Gabourey Sidibe and Meryl Streep – do you think would’ve still been in the running if there were only five slots and their competition also included Jeff Bridges, George Clooney, Colin Firth, Morgan Freeman and Jeremy Renner? Would Streep and Bullock make it to the list? Sidibe? Unfortunately, I have no faith that women actors, portraying the lives and experiences of women, would get a fair shake.
Why the pessimism? When there are no separate categories for gender, women don’t tend to win very often. At least not in the major categories. And even though there are a whole lot more women actors than there are female directors and writers, there’s that attitude Nochimson mentioned that must be overcome in order to achieve parity: That roles played by women, or anything resembling “women’s fare,” are of lesser importance. All I have to do is to think about how my father used to act when my mother and I would watch a film or TV show featuring women as leading characters. He almost universally considered the material of lesser quality and would mock it and fail to give it a chance, in the same way he (and the rest of the male-dominated sports world) judge women’s sports as largely being subpar. I have no reason to believe his kind of thinking has gone the way of the VCR.
Women have all kinds of interests ranging from sports and Jack Bauer, to The Good Wife and Meredith Grey. But no matter what females working in the film industry do, they still have a much tougher time getting respect than do their male brethren. Yes, I’m thrilled that Bigelow made history, won the Oscar and showed the world that women do indeed have myriad interests, including in making a masculine film about men, just as the Oscar nominated male director of Precious made a female-centric film about women. When will I be over the moon and ready to consider a proposal like doing away with women’s acting categories for awards shows in the name of equality? When women start taking home half the awards in the big gender neutral categories. Only then will we be able to proclaim that women have made it in Hollywood.