Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker and the Oscar glass ceiling


This is the second post in the monthly Female Filmmaker Series, and also part of the 31 Days of Oscar blogathon, hosted by Paula’s Cinema Club, Outspoken and Freckled and Once Upon a Screen. Catch up on all the Oscar-related musings here.

When Kathryn Bigelow won the Best Director Oscar for The Hurt Locker in 2009, many critics took it as a sign that the glass ceiling for female filmmakers had finally been smashed. Fast-forward six years, and how many more women have graced the Best Director nominations list? Zero. Nada. None. Because in fact, Bigelow’s win didn’t shatter the ceiling, it merely reinforced it, giving the Academy a chance to demonstrate their broadminded generosity, to tick the equality box then retreat into tradition and convention. Whilst I’m not suggesting that a female-directed film should be given preferential treatment when it comes to director nominations, there have been clear contenders that have been overlooked, including Zero Dark Thirty (also directed by Bigelow) and Selma (Ava DuVerney).

the_hurt_locker-bigelowPerhaps it’s significant that The Hurt Locker beat the boys at their own game. It’s a male-dominated war movie that centres on Staff Sgt. William James (Jeremy Renner), a cocky ‘hero’ who’s addicted to army life and chooses to put himself in more-dangerous-than-strictly-necessary situations. Much like Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker, this is a film about male relationships and male actions, and one that takes place in hostile and unforgiving surrounds. The screenplay was written by Mark Boal, a former journalist who spent time embedded with a bomb squad in Baghdad. Of course, there are claims that The Hurt Locker’s representation of the war in Iraq is inaccurate and unconvincing (‘it’s Hollywood’s version of the Iraq war and of the soldiers who fight it, and their version is inaccurate’) but this isn’t a history lesson, it’s a comment on individuals in peril, and what drives them. James might not be a hero in the conventional sense – he is, in fact, unlikeable in many ways – but he’s a strongly drawn character, who expresses patriotism through action and not words.


One of Bigelow’s biggest detractors was Martha P. Nochimson, who wrote an essay for Salon entitled ‘Kathryn Bigelow: Feminist Pioneer or Tough Guy in Drag?’. Nochimson suggested that Bigelow succeeded where Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers were ‘summarily dismissed’ because war films are seen as more valuable and superior to romantic comedies, that Bigelow deliberately tried to make ‘men’s movies’, making choices that would make her stand out because of her gender. The idea of a woman behaving like a man to ‘get ahead’ is tired. Whilst there is truth in Nochimson’s assessment about romantic comedies, Ephron’s (and indeed Meyers’) legacy hardly needs her defence; in fact, it’s impossible to imagine the feminist writer lamenting her lack of acclaim, she surely would have been a supporter of any women basking in Oscar glory. And Nochimson overlooks one crucial point: Bigelow didn’t make the first film about Iraq. Plenty had previously been made by men. She just made the first one that was considered worthy of accolade and acclaim.



Bigelow has always kept her gender a low profile, perhaps wary of discussing the difficult path to success lest she should be profiled as a ‘whiny woman’. Before the Oscars, she took another first – becoming the first woman to ever win the Directors Guild of America award for feature film. Discussing the award, she downplayed her success: ‘”I suppose I like to think of myself as a filmmaker… and it’s truly extraordinary to be honoured by this amazing directorial body”’. At the time, Bigelow’s DGA win was overshadowed by comments (at the event and on social media) by references – almost exclusively made by men – on her appearance and gender. Lee Daniels, director of Precious, reportedly commented: “Your movie is as beautiful as your legs. You make me question my sexuality.” And according to Renner: “the only thing to rival Kathryn Bigelow in a bikini is ‘[openly gay director] Lee Daniels in a one-piece.'” Men unsure how to respond to female success and taking the humorous route is nothing new, but it’s sad that these comments came from Bigelow’s direct peers. What’s more disturbing is that you can still imagine them being made today, although perhaps less publicly, as the resultant PR wasn’t particularly positive. Maybe the DGA (and the subsequent Oscar) represent a crack in the glass, rather than a shattering of it.

And let’s not forget James Cameron, Bigelow’s ex-husband whose mega blockbuster Avatar was also nominated for (amongst others) Best Director, Best Picture and Best Film Editing. At the time, much was made of Bigelow ‘beating’ her husband, but the two have always played it down, claiming they remain friends and share script an film ideas when they are in the early stages. The press seemed to be unable to see Bigelow and Cameron as equals – really it was as a David/Goliath tale as much as it was a gender battle.

the_hurt_locker-bigelowOne final point to consider: whilst The Hurt Locker did much to address the argument about women behind the camera, it did little to further them in front of it. Perhaps Zero Dark Thirty was an attempt to address that (that’s a film with its own complexities, worthy of a separate post), and certainly Bigelow’s previous films had included ‘strong’ female leads – see Megan Turner (Jamie Lee Curtis) in Blue Steel. It’s unlikely that Bigelow developed The Hurt Locker with an eye on Oscar glory, but it certainly can’t have harmed her chances that it spoke more directly to male voters than a female focused drama. But that’s an oversimplification of a complex issue – male directors have won awards based on their ability to ‘direct’ women for decades.


But ultimately, was Bigelow’s Hurt Locker win a token gesture, a bow to feminist pressure? The fact that it won five others (including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and Best Film Editing) suggests not. What it did do was open the debate about female filmmakers and their lack of representation to a much wider audience – but that’s hardly translated to increased visibility amongst big budget films. Just this month, Sam Taylor-Johnson proved that female directors could break box office records: her adaptation of 50 Shades of Grey took more than $237 million across the globe in its opening weekend. In the case of 50 Shades, don’t expect ticket sales to correspond to award nominations; to describe it as mediocre is a stretch. But overlooking the quality (and what it means for the representation of women in general), it’s a nail in the coffin for those who continue to claim that female directors are underrepresented because they don’t offer a sound financial return. And in the case of Taylor-Johnson, it’s not just women flocking to see a ‘women’s picture’, audience breakdown suggests that it’s a 68% skew. As Inkoo Kang observed, lets hope that ‘Taylor-Johnson doesn’t suffer the same fate as “Twilight” director Catherine Hardwicke and find herself booted off the mega-successful franchise she launched and replaced by her male colleagues.

the_hurt_locker-bigelowAnd that takes us neatly back to the crux of the matter. Most female-related, Hollywood glass ceiling ‘shatters’ aren’t exactly as they’re billed. Too often they just create a crack. But make enough cracks, building on them, learn from them and being inspired by those that made them – whether it’s Bigelow, Lupino, Arzner or Pickford – is the only way to create something the shatters.


16 thoughts on “Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker and the Oscar glass ceiling

  1. Unfortunately, so true. One gets the feeling every so often the “old boys network” opens things up a crack. Receives accolades for doing so, then goes back to business as usual. Real change won’t happen till the make-up of the Academy reflects the rest of us, I suspect. Fine write-up, miss_vicki.

  2. Agreed – the old saw about a woman being like a man to succeed has really run its course. What – a woman is not “allowed” to explore themes in war? A woman director has to stick with romantic comedies? I don’t get it.

    It’s actually quite depressing that it’s 2015 and we’re having this discussion about female directors, especially when you consider how many women were directors and scenario writers in early Hollywood. But hats off to you for drawing attention to this issue. We have to remain hopeful that female directors will be accepted like men are, and not considered an oddity – especially if they win awards.

    1. Yes, I’ve been researching a post about how (and when) the power balance in Hollywood changed, especially considering that so many women were at the forefront of shaping and developing the then-new medium of film. It is depressing, and I bet most of those early pioneers could never have predicted how the roles for women would change.

  3. Hi, Girls:

    Great dissertation and critique!

    Being pretty well versed in war films. ‘The Hurt Locker’ was a decent, stylized war film. Though not close to Academy standards in regard to Best Director. The award was more of a slap to the face of James Cameron. And an early ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’. Especially when having green with envy Barbra Streisand presenting the Oscar.

    Do not get me wrong. Ms. Bigelow is an exceptional at choreographing action and executing drawn out suspense. As in ‘Near Dark’, ‘Blue Steel’ and ‘Strange Days’. Jeremy Renner is also a better than average action star. With decent dramatic and character acting chops. As revealed early on with ‘Dahmer’. Talents not well utilized to his full potential in ‘The Hurt Locker’.

    1. I forgot that Streisand presented the award!
      I’m less well-versed in the war genre which is why I didn’t analyse it too much from that point of view, but I do agree that it’s not up to the par of some other ‘Best Director’ wins. I do need to watch some more of Renner’s early films – again, he tends to fall into a genre that’s not usually on my radar – as I did read a few reviews that suggested his performance here wasn’t up to his past standard. Perhaps telling he didn’t win an Oscar!

  4. Yes, yes, and yes—good outrage, well argued. It is depressing, as Silver Screenings noted above, that we have to talk about this in 2015. One hundred years ago, in a much smaller industry, women were directors, producers, editors, and they wrote 50 percent of ALL FILMS—not just domestic dramas and romances, but war movies, westerns, you name it. Cut to 2009, and Lee Daniels is talking about Bigelow’s legs.

    1. The internal sexism is the problem, right? I think most moviegoers genuinely don’t care who directed their film (with the exception of a few ‘star’ directors!), they just want to enjoy/be moved by/connect with the characters and the story. It seems very much like the ‘boys culture’ perpetuates itself, and exists in a bubble that’s so far removed from most other people.
      Lee Daniels’ comment is particularly disheartening. Particularly because I can still imagine it being made, albeit more privately and with less ‘public’ fall out!

    1. It’s worth a watch, but if you’re interested in watching a Bigelow-directed film, I’d suggest some of her earlier ones as I think the Oscar win puts too much emphasis on this particular one.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s