Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Why Can’t A Woman Be More Like A Man?

As a freelance critic who is one of the few female voices at many of the sites I write for I found “NY Times” bigwig film critic Manohla Dargis’s run-up to the Oscars rant at Jezebel (see "Fuck Them": Times Critic On Hollywood, Women, & Why Romantic Comedies Suck, a follow up to her more staid “Times” lament Women in the Seats but Not Behind the Camera on the dearth of female directors in Hollywood) delightfully ballsy. For how often do you hear Grey Lady journalists explain why romantic comedies are so cringe worthy in the following terms?

“One, the people making them have no fucking taste, two, they're morons, three they're insulting panderers who think they're making movies for the great unwashed and that's what they want. I love romantic movies. I absolutely do. But I literally don't know what's happening. I think it's depressing that Judd Apatow makes the best romantic comedies and they're about men.”

But Dargis’s swinging cojones are also the problem with the piece. As a longtime fan of both Dargis and her own object of fandom, action director Kathryn Bigelow, I wholeheartedly agree with Dargis’ assessment of the shameful state of Hollywood with regards to female filmmakers. What’s more interesting, however, is why I’m a fan of both these talented women – and not, say, Nancy Meyers, a Hollywood player in the rom-com genre who I like even less than Dargis does. The simple truth is both Dargis and Bigelow (as opposed to Nancy Meyers) create their art from that very same male POV that Dargis herself seems to blame.

For let’s face it. This isn’t a matter of Hollywood not trusting women – it’s a matter of Hollywood, like society, placing a higher value on the white, hetero masculine gaze. It’s the same reason a filmmaker like Douglas Sirk would never direct a western like John Ford. Sirk just didn’t direct from a typically straight male point of view. Both Dargis and Bigelow, not to mention the many women execs in charge of those big bad studios, have been let into the good old boys club simply because the male honchos recognize them as one of their own. (That Bigelow eventually got kicked to the curb for low box office receipts unlike some of her under-performing male colleagues could be attributed to a million other factors besides gender, as Dargis dubiously hypothesizes.) Dargis and Bigelow write and direct, respectively, like their male counterparts, from a very comforting and familiar, masculine point of view.

As opposed to Nancy Meyers who, in Daphne Merkin’s profile of her in the “Times” magazine, is constantly reminding her crew that she wants things “soft” – right down to digitally eliminating spiky plants. Meyers isn’t just a female filmmaker, but a very feminine filmmaker, and one whose viewpoint greatly appeals to a lot of other female-gaze oriented folks. (This is also why she doesn’t direct like Dargis fave Judd Apatow – and Hollywood’s hiring a talented rom-com director who happens to be female with the same masculine gaze as Mr. Apatow would merely be an exercise in redundancy, not equal rights.) Personally I find Meyers as boring and predictable a director as Guy Ritchie, yet I’m also willing to admit that for all I know Meyers could be the next Douglas Sirk, lambasted in his own day for being soft. Perhaps her reputation will be rescued a few decades from now by a female-gaze oriented critic more insightful than I who recognizes the filmmaker’s petal pushing in a Hollywood world of bomb throwers as a radically subversive act of art.

And like the art establishment, where women’s work often makes up less than five percent of a museum’s collection, the business of Hollywood reflects America’s binary patriarchal society – it doesn’t determine it. In another century Georgia O’Keefe “suffered” from her affiliation with Alfred Stieglitz in the sense that his male gaze was forever being placed on top of her paintings. Once Stieglitz had eroticized the artist herself via his photographs her pictures were seen only through a sexual lens in the public imagination. O’Keefe’s artwork could no longer be expressions of a female sensibility. They had to undergo a masculine eroticization to be valued. Yet altering (mis)perception isn’t up to MOMA or Warner Brothers, but to the grassroots artists on the ground, including the gender-neutral gaze, indie filmmakers who elicit change. Only then will a studio call on Kelly Reichardt, or Ramin Bahrani for that matter, to direct the next superhero flick.