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Kathryn Bigelow, and Why Gender Always Matters

June 23, 2009

951-kathryn_bigelowI’m not much of a horror movie fan. I scare very easily, especially when supernatural themes are involved. Yet, when my fiancé persuaded me to watch one of his favorite vampire movies, Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, I began to open my mind. Bigelow’s breakout film from 1987 breaks the conventions of traditional horror films — the story is strong, and there are long, slow scenes of character development and dialogue, punctuated by exciting, believable action sequences. Bigelow has a unique style, and it’s particularly evident and enjoyable to watch in Near Dark.

Over the past twenty years, Bigelow has made a name for herself as an action director — after Near Dark, she went on to helm films such as Point Break, Strange Days, and K-19: The Widowmaker. Now, Bigelow is back with The Hurt Locker, an action film about the war in Iraq, opening in limited release this Friday. The Hurt Locker is already earning rave reviews; Richard Corliss of TIME titled his critique “A Near-Perfect War Film.”

Unsurprisingly, Bigelow herself is being talked about nearly as much as her film is. Even less surprising is that discussions of her work are framed around her gender. But, because Bigelow’s films fall outside of what is typically considered to be a “woman’s” movie, writers are quick to argue that her gender is irrelevant to the discussion of her films.

From the New York Times:

The take on Kathryn Bigelow is that she is a great female director of muscular action movies, the kind with big guns, scenes, themes and camera movements as well as an occasional fist in the face, a knee to the groin. Sometimes, more simply, she’s called a great female director. But here’s a radical thought: She is, simply, a great filmmaker. Because while it is marginally interesting that she calls “action” and “cut” while in the possession of two X chromosomes, gender is the least remarkable thing about her kinetic filmmaking, which gets in your head even as it sends shock waves through your body.

From The Star-Ledger:

Director Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t makes “women’s pictures” — she makes mixed-up thrillers that defy categorization. And she’s back with the new film “The Hurt Locker.”

I’m not sure that ignoring Bigelow’s gender — or arguing that she directs great action movies despite her gender — is really the answer. If we don’t discuss her as a female director, it allows us to only focus on women who produce stereotypical “chick flicks.” To ignore the work of female directors like Bigelow, Mary Harron and Kimberly Peirce — all talented women who don’t necessarily target their films toward mainstream female audiences — is to ignore the vast assortment of genres and topics that women are capable of exploring through film. Furthermore, classifying only romantic comedies and epic love stories as “women’s pictures” ignores the fact that female moviegoers are interested in all types of genres — including action and horror. As a woman who directs films that other women watch, Bigelow does, in fact, make “women’s pictures” — just not clichéd ones. By acknowledging, and even celebrating, the fact that Kathryn Bigelow is a woman, we are celebrating the fact that women are diverse, and that female filmmakers can create all types of movies, even ones that aren’t thought of as being geared towards women.

So please, do talk about Bigelow as a female director. Don’t judge her films based on her gender, but acknowledge that she is, in fact, a a woman, and that other women are interested in her work. And, better yet, go see The Hurt Locker during opening weekend. Considering how few women are found in positions of power in the film industry, female directors need all the support they can get at the box office.

  1. June 26, 2009 12:52 am

    Thanks for the link! Opening weekend really does matter, and since my former last name is “Hurt”, I think I’ll have to take the whole family to see The Hurt Locker.

  2. June 30, 2009 7:48 pm

    I couldn’t agree more with the assessment that we should celebrate the fact the Bigelow is a woman rather than use the fact that she has directed this type of film as a way to remove gender from the equation.

    It’s only women who are held to this double standard. Bigelow is looked at as an anomoly because she doesn’t follow the model that Hollywood prescribes women directors follow. Lots of women want to direct movies about women and lots don’t. Just like lots of men direct movies about women. Do we ever hear people talking about Nick Cassavetes as different because he directs so called chick flicks? It’s ok when guys do it, it’s just not ok when women do the reverse.

  3. Thedudarino permalink
    August 9, 2009 1:10 am

    Precisely how are we supposed to not talk about bigelow as a female director yet still “acknowledge” it?.

    Is not like people will go see it because the director is a female…Thats not how things work.

    You have people and critics recognizing her as a great filmmaker, which is the best thing you can say to a director. Saying she is just a great “female director” takes away from her accomplishment.
    Genre should have absolutely nothing to do here, so am here with the NYT guy.

    Ironically is the women bloggers who make her to be an anomaly by highlighting the fact that no other females are directing action/thrillers/horrors and succeding, Guys are too busy enjoying her films to care.

    I mean we dont go around talking about other director’s genre like it matters…

  4. tomseymour permalink
    February 24, 2010 6:57 am

    It matters because there is such a crippingly minority of women making all sorts of films that defy stereotypes and genre definitions, despite the fact that roughly half of cinema’s audiences are, believe it or not, women. So by acknowledging the gender of one that does, you help to shine a light on the problem. I guess we could ignore we have no female politicians as well, because the only thing that matters is content.

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