Skirting The Issue
When Will Women Directors Get Their Due?
In a year that gave us Lady Bird, Wonder Woman, and Mudbound, the Golden Globe nominations remind us that Hollywood refuses to concede its most treasured category to women: best director.
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To put it mildly, it’s been a tough year for women.
Every day the news cycle reminds us of our value—or the lack thereof. This degradation is nothing new, of course (see: history). But what’s different is we’re talking about it, telling our stories, and refusing to be faceless anecdotes or nameless statistics any longer. Victims of sexual harassment and assault are speaking up in record numbers and, for the first time, we are seeing significant consequences befall the male accused. When women in Congress are interrupted or insulted, they are clapping back in stereo. Even Hillary Clinton–the most shushed woman of 2016—refuses to fade silently into the background, insisting on telling her version of What Happened.
The revolution is noisy as hell and we haven’t even cranked up the volume.
In a rare case of art accurately reflecting life, Hollywood is amplifying women’s voices in an unprecedented way. In TV and film, Black women, queer women, Asian women, and young women are writing and performing stories with truth and nuance, delivering characters that fit no predetermined archetypes because they’ve never been done before; because in male-run Hollywood, women have never had agency over their own narratives until now. This is the year that gave us The Handmaid’s Tale not just as a fascinating new series to watch, but as a prescient cultural talking point (even though we wish that it weren’t).
This year’s Golden Globe nominations recognize some of that groundbreaking work. Big Little Lies, a series that at its core is about complicated female relationships, was brought to life by Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, two of Hollywood’s biggest female movie stars, because they simply couldn’t find meaty roles elsewhere. It’s the year’s most-nominated series. Insecure, written by and starring a young Black woman who refuses to translate the Black experience to attract a wider (whiter) audience, has become the template for successful TV comedy. Suddenly, every network wanted its own show with a multi-hyphenate female talent at its center.
In individual acting categories, the best performances of the year are by women starring in shows created and written by women, which not surprisingly produced some of the most interesting characters on TV—a sex-positive, single Black woman messing up her relationships and facing realistic circumstances (Rae on Insecure); a single mother and sexual assault survivor figuring out how to fit into a world that hates women (Frankie Shaw on SMILF); a divorced mom who prioritizes quickies as much as PTA meetings (Pamela Adlon on Better Things); a theater-snob-turned-female wrestler (Alison Brie on Glow); and a Depression-era divorcée who saves her family by going into stand-up comedy (Rachel Brosnahan on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel). All of these women are deservingly nominated for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy for roles written by other women.
These performances and milestones are worth celebrating. But there’s still a sexist sting to the Golden Globe nominations this year; in fact most years. The Globes are the first awards show in a season of self-congratulation that extends into the spring. These accolades, vapid as they may seem, largely dictate what kind of content Hollywood will greenlight in the future. Given the nominations for Best Director—the award that recognizes the totality of filmmaking—we’re looking at a future of more men in charge.
Once again, five men—all but one of them White—sit alone on the prestigious pedestal for Best Director of a Motion Picture. There isn’t even a directing category for TV series, which not only overlooks the medium creating the most dynamic content today—and what’s the point of the Golden Globes having both film and TV awards if you’re not going to have all the categories for both TV and film?—but it also eliminates a critical opportunity for women to be recognized not just as talented storytellers, but as the bosses who get shit done.
While women writers are critical to representation in story—and there are thankfully increasingly more who are creating worlds in which authentic, or even outlandish, female characters can live–the director is the architect. He is in charge on set. He makes all the final hiring decisions—and we will not move the needle on representation in Hollywood until more women occupy every job in front of and behind the camera. The director is the one who can convince A-list stars to work for less in the name of art. He alone can persuade producers to invest, and studios to extend budgets. He is the celebrated “auteur,” the respected genius, the icon immortalized in career retrospectives, and taught in film studies classes. And with only two exceptions in history, when awards are handed out, the Best Director is always a he.
Barbra Streisand became the first woman to win a Best Directing Golden Globe for Yentl in 1984. A quarter century later Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win a Best Directing Academy Award in 2010 for The Hurt Locker. In 74 years of Golden Globes and 88 years of Oscars, that’s it. And Bigelow is the only woman to ever win a Director’s Guild Award—the crown jewel of industry acclaim—in its 69-year history.
The fact that this snub comes in the same year that female directors delivered some of the most critically lauded and financially successful films of all time is an added slap in the face. Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, not only gave girls and women their first-ever hero in blockbuster form, it stomped all over every box-office record set by a man in a cape. Superhero movies aren’t typically nominated for top awards, but this is no ordinary film. In Wonder Woman, Jenkins gave us a hero for humankind, a woman who dismisses sexual politics in the interests of saving the human race, even offering herself as sacrifice if it means impeaching the megalomaniacal demon responsible for the world’s chaos. If that’s not self-reflective, culturally relevant art, I don’t know what is.
The Golden Globes are where cultural impact trumps artistic oddity. The awards celebrate the films we talked about most; the ones that best reflect this moment in history. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, which puts on the awards, is comprised of journalists who have been writing think pieces about pop culture all year long, and nothing’s been more talked about than Gal Gadot as our feminist savior against the patriarchy. The only film more prophetic—and deserving of a Best Director nod—is Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Both omissions are downright offensive.
If we want to look at the year’s best art, it’s hard to find a story more emotionally compelling than Dee Rees’s Mudbound, a beautiful and heartbreaking film about race in America, set in the post–World War II segregated South. It’s a film about how change comes slowly, and not without great pain and sacrifice. It’s both infuriating and hopeful, and feels eerily timely. There have been four Black directors—and only one Black woman—nominated in the Best Directing category for both Golden Globes and Academy Awards. Still zero wins. The seat at this table has been kicked aside for far too long.
The Golden Globes also left out Greta Gerwig, whose directorial debut, Lady Bird, was the year’s most well-reviewed movie—both by critics and audiences. Surely Gerwig, who spent years artfully creating her universally relatable story about the search for self-identity, deserves the honor over Ridley Scott, whose All the Money in the World was re-shot mere weeks before the film’s release in order to erase all evidence of accused-harasser Kevin Spacey. Last time I checked, cut-and-paste skills do not equate to Best Director status.
The solution to gender parity in the entertainment industry comes down to access. Only about 4 percent of directors are women, and of that sliver, only about 80 percent have the opportunity to make more than one film. Until women are allowed access into the big-boss director’s chair, and recognized for their work, the basic function of film—to create art that reflects human actions, thoughts, desires and dreams—fails miserably. And, as Salma Hayek put it in her recent account of the abuse she endured at the hands of Harvey Weinstein, it will remain a “fertile ground for predators.”
As more women find their voices, and the courage to use them, the men still in power in Hollywood face a critical decision: Either make room for women to take over and fix things, or go down with the ship. Because, like Wonder Woman, we are not afraid to cause a bit of destruction, or even sacrifice ourselves, in order to build a better world.
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