It Shouldn’t Be Surprising When Women Directors Helm “Masculine” Stories
Making A Murderer has made a big splash among everyone who’s a fan of true crime documentaries; it’s a gripping, alarming Netflix series that does a deep critical dive into the American criminal justice system. Even if the accused might actually be guilty, the process that sent him to jail is clearly broken — as demonstrated by Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, the two filmmakers who’ve been working on this series together since 2005.
Did you know that Making A Murderer was helmed by two women directors? I didn’t, and I’m ashamed to say that I probably wouldn’t have guessed it, partly because of the dearth of women directors in general but also because Making A Murderer does feel like a “masculine” story. This Fusion editorial explains that not only are women directors capable of helming stories about men (what a shocker), they’re often required to do so in order to get ahead in their careers.
When I interviewed Rosemary Rodriguez about her directorial work on Jessica Jones, she told me that early in her career, agents would try to pressure her to direct more work with a “feminine” bent. In her words:
The first feature I made was really, really dark. It’s called Acts of Worship, and I made that movie. Then, I can’t even tell you how — people would literally be asking me about romantic comedies, and trying to direct romantic comedies. Like, how does that even — did you even see my movie? I remember this agent — I was trying to switch agents, and this agent said to me, “Well, if you’re just going to make dark and gritty movies, then no, I can’t help you.” Okay. That’s fine. But would you say that to a guy? I don’t think so.
By now, Rodriguez has plenty of credits that “prove” she can direct lots of different types of stories — whether they’re supposedly “feminine” or “masculine” ones. But that problem with getting pigeonholed early on sounds like a common one for women directors. People assume you’ll want to do “feminine” content — but if you give in to that expectation, your work won’t be taken seriously.
Lexi Alexander put it this way in a Vulture interview about an episode of Arrow that she directed:
I think in industries riddled with bias, you tend to hire women only if their previous work is very masculine, which is hilarious given that this is not how male directors are chosen. I am pretty sure when Kenneth Branagh came up for Thor, nobody at Marvel thought: “Yes, that Kenneth Branagh is masculine enough to do action, just look at Henry V and The Magic Flute.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge Branagh fan — I’m just trying to demonstrate how ridiculous it is that women have to be “one of the boys” to get in on the superhero business, whereas male directors don’t have to have any proof on their résumé that they can deliver hardcore action.
So, here’s the pattern. First, women directors are expected to only direct work about women and women’s experiences — except that if they do, their work won’t be taken seriously, because women’s experiences are culturally undervalued. Then, if they take the tactic of pursuing more “mainstream” work (a.k.a. “masculine” projects), they’ll still have to work twice as hard to be taken seriously … and their work will still be rarely highlighted.
For example, Kathryn Bigelow won an Oscar for The Hurt Locker — and, as we know, she’s the first and only woman to have ever won the “Best Director” accolade — and it’s for a movie that is completely devoid of women characters, unlike some of her prior directing work. Had she included more women characters, would she have still won the Oscar? At the time, I remember my friends being baffled that the first woman director to win the award had done it by making a movie entirely about men. I felt surprised at the time, too; nowadays, it doesn’t seem so strange to me, given what I’ve learned from reading about how difficult it is for women directors to be taken seriously.
Is it really so unbelievable that women have the ability to direct excellent stories about men? The male experience is already the default in the stories that we all see growing up; women are encouraged from birth to empathize with male characters and learn their stories. Comics writer Tini Howard recently discussed this with regard to the idea of women writing legacy male characters like Batman and Iron Man; women rarely get the opportunity to write these stories. And it sounds from Lexi Alexander and Rosemary Rodriguez’s experiences as though women rarely get the opportunity to direct these stories, either — even if they’ve more than proven their abilities.
Hollywood is demonstrably more willing to take a chance on a relatively inexperienced male director, even for a massive property like Jurassic World — yet J.J. Abrams had to justify his wish that Ava Duvernay would direct a future Star Wars film by first assuring everyone that she is “a fan of genre movies” and of Star Wars, and then reminding everyone she directed Selma. Abrams likely knows the deck is already stacked against Duvernay on this; she’s a woman of color, so society is going to assume she doesn’t have the “nerd cred” to do right by Star Wars. Of course, around here, we all know that’s crap — but in Hollywood? Those biases hold firm. Perhaps the fact that Duvernay directed a movie about Martin Luther King, Jr. rather than, say, Rosa Parks or Claudette Colvin helped her earn some credibility, too. Yet I’d still be surprised (in the best possible way) if she ended up having the opportunity to direct Star Wars.
It’s a problem that stories about women, by women, get undervalued and cast aside in our culture. It’s also a problem that even if women focus almost entirely on telling “mainstream” stories about men and masculine experiences, they still have to fight extra-hard to prove they’re hardcore enough to do it. And it’s also a problem that I still feel surprised when I hear that a woman directed a “masculine” story — I shouldn’t be surprised by that!
It depresses me to think of women writers and directors having to carefully weigh how all of their artistic choices will be perceived, rather than getting to choose projects based on what’s interesting to them. It’s also depressing to think that even if they do choose projects that are interesting to them — whether those projects happen to be “masculine” or “feminine” — they’ll still get pigeonholed and underestimated and undervalued in comparison to their peers.
—Please make note of The Mary Sue’s general comment policy.—