When Will We Recognize Female Directors?

Saoirse Ronan and Greta Gerwig on the set of Little Women (Photo: Wilson Webb)

Written by Lindsey Cook

We are disappointed but not surprised.

Yet another year has gone by, and still no female directors were nominated for an Oscar in the Best Director category.

How come, Chief Willoughby?

In other years I may have acquiesced with the film pundits and agreed that there just weren’t enough big movies by women; not enough movies that got the big marketing pushes and jazzy campaigns that male-directed prestige films receive regularly. They weren’t as splashy, or talked about, as other contenders.

But in 2019 we were blessed with an overabundance of phenomenal films that happened to be directed by women, from crowd pleasing hits like Little Women and Hustlers to praised arthouse films like Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and so the complete shutout of women in the category feels like the Academy bending over backwards to find ways not to include them.

Greta Gerwig (Little Women) and Lulu Wang (The Farewell) have become the 2 most common representatives of this shutout category, but we can also talk about Alma Har’el (Honey Boy), Lorene Scafaria (Hustlers), Marielle Heller (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), Mati Diop (Atlantics), Joanna Hogg (The Souvenir), Celine Sciamma (Portrait of a Lady on Fire), Melina Matsoukas (Queen & Slim)...I could continue, but I think you get the point: there were so many incredible films made by women this year—some of the best-reviewed movies of the year—and their shutout is not just an oversight, but an insult.

Little Women and Hustlers grossed over $100million each at the box office. These are not small, little seen movies. These were huge hits with wide audiences, and even smaller films like The Farewell and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood were both highly reviewed films with beautiful filmmaking, acting performances, and most of all, heart.

And herein lies the problem with the Academy’s views towards female directors, and the types of films that are deemed worthy of recognition at large. Whereas Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood are viewed as sweeping contemplations on the changing landscape of the white American male, films with similarly societal themes like Little Women and The Farewell are viewed as personal, intimate, singular, as if Little Women isn’t a universally-adored text that has withstood the test of time precisely because it is a story so many can relate to, or that The Farewell’s themes of family and culture allow so many viewers to see themselves in Billi’s (played by Awkwafina) shoes.

The stories that women tell in their filmmaking, no matter how universal they truly are, are viewed as personal as a way to make them seem small. I can guarantee that more viewers have experience with family dramas and love and self-exploration than they do war or gangster violence or becoming a comic book super villain, and yet those "masculine" subjects are seen as universal truths to be acknowledged while the equally relatable topics present in Little Women and The Farewell and beyond are not, and it’s bullshit.

Lorene Scafaria on the set of Hustlers (Photo: Barbara Nitke)

So okay, ladies, let’s give the men what they want: movies about war and gritty crime and violence. Great! That leads us to the only woman who has ever won the prize for Best Director, Kathryn Bigelow, but not for her quiet war movie about the more often than not under the radar intelligence work it takes to catch a terrorist with a female lead (that would be Zero Dark Thirty) but the one about a man who is literally an explosives removal expert (aka The Hurt Locker). And even that was seen as an uphill battle winning against Avatar, which yes, made a bazillion dollars, but we all know how beloved that film is now…

By the way, Academy, we did give you a crime drama directed by a woman this year. It also just happened to be a film about women, women who found what power they had in a world intent to keep them down and turned it on the rich white men who abused and used them. But I get the sense that that might have made the Academy—an organization that has done work in recent years to diversify the voting body but a group that is still largely made up of rich white men—uncomfortable. Well, now you know how we feel having to watch “prestigious” films where women are raped, abused, berated, murdered, all for the sake of “art”. You poor, fragile things, you.

One could argue that some of the women who have been nominated have indeed been recognized for female-centric stories (Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird, for example) but here’s the thing: over the course of 92 Academy Awards, however, only 5 women have ever been nominated for Best Director. In other words, just 1% of all Best Director nominees have been women. That's absurd! So while we can draw conclusions and observe trends about the types of male-directed movies the Academy tends to find award-worthy, we are still grasping at straws for what will warrant institutional recognition for movies that are directed by women. All we know is that they are rarely given the chance to even compete, and that needs to change.

Discounting the works of these women, who are also the ones championing stories about women, is a huge disservice for the movie industry at large. While awards are not everything, the continued snubbing of stunning works of cinematic art that are directed by women signifies that these works are not valued. We must change how we view female directors and celebrate their works; Gerwig and Wang and Matsoukas are every bit the auteurs that Tarantino and Baumbach are, their storytelling themes as widely important and relatable. Let us champion these works as the incredible and wonderful achievements they are, no matter how big or small the scale of the story is, and see these filmmakers as the talented, award-worthy individuals that they are.

The good news is that there are plenty of female-directed films coming out in 2020 to support. From small indie flicks to mega blockbusters, it’s encouraging to see female filmmakers entrusted with some of the biggest IP franchises as well as their own creative visions. Here are a few of the films I’m looking forward to this year:

These movies give me hope that the Academy, the film industry, and the general public will all do a better job at recognizing and celebrating works created by women. Who knows, maybe one of these filmmakers will be on the ballot for the 2021 Oscars. Here’s hoping.