Oscar, I Didn’t Know it Mattered

When Kathryn Bigelow received an academy award nomination this year for best director for her film, The Hurt Locker, it barely caught my attention. Her movie wasn’t one I would be inclined to see.

But as buzz around the Oscars increase, it dawned on me that I couldn’t remember whether or not a woman had ever won an Oscar for best director. Perhaps a woman had and I hadn’t noticed?  So I looked it up and found that although a very small number of women had been nominated in the past, until last night no woman had received an Oscar for best director .

Then I thought, why should this matter?  So what if a woman was nominated for an Academy Award for best director?  If Ms. Bigelow did a remarkable job, then she should receive recognition from the Academy.  Gender doesn’t matter.

But, in fact, it does.

As a mother and godmother to three pre-teen girls, it matters to me that they have public examples of accomplished women, especially when movies for their age group too often center around “boy world.” With Kathryn Bigelow’s nomination and subsequent win as best director, we experience a disruption in our national narrative that positions white males as the norm, the default “everyperson.” Those who are not white and male are “exceptions;” when we think of directors, for example, who comes to mind?  Most likely a generic male figure despite Bigelow’s big win.

Films may be “just entertainment,” but it does matter that young people have access to a variety of images of successful people. We need to foster the idea that gender, among other types of diversity, does not hinder your innate ability to achieve what your individual talents dictate.  What may in fact hinder you, however, are the systemic ways we categorize people as inferior based on our own prejudices.

I want to fuel my daughters’ imaginations with images of problem-solving, innovative, creative women and girls who are anchored in integrity. It’s also important to me that some of those images be of young girls of color portrayed positively.

Which leads me not to the soon-to-be released film, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which is neither directed by a woman nor at the top of our list of movies to see during spring break. Check out the Fall 2009 issue of Ms. for Allison Kimmich’s excellent take on the boy-centered books from which this film is adapted and you’ll understand why we’ll be seeking other film fare.

Instead, we will probably have a family read of a wonderful book about the journey of three children at the end of the Civil War called Black Angels, by Linda Beatrice Brown. Maybe someone will make that book into a movie. I imagine there are a number of talented women directors available.

Photo of Kathryn Bigelow from Wikimedia Commons; Black Angels cover image courtesy of Putnam Juvenile.


  1. Thank you Dr. Valerie Johnson for writing this post about the Oscar ceremony.
    And for opening up our eyes to see things that have always been right in front of us.

    My partner and I also want our daughters to have positive exposure to young girls of all skin colors and social backgrounds….not just what has ‘always been’ because no one challenges the “way it is” thinking of so many in America.

    Thank you again, i look forward to reading more of your posts here at this grand new blog site by Ms. Mag!

  2. Carol King says:

    Seeing Barbra Streisand presenting the award brought a tear to my eye. The glass ceiling in the entertainment industry has been cracked (a little). Pop culture is a reflection of society and having women as directors sends a powerful signal that things can change.

  3. Michelle Lanier says:

    Dr. Johnson,

    Like Ms. King, I also had a tear-filled, celebratory response to the passing of the Oscar from one woman director, Barbara Streisand, to another, Kathryn Bigelow.
    So I am delighted that you draw our collective attention to this historically-meaningful moment–for us, and as you wrote, for our daughters and goddaughters.

    Dr. Johnson, I am also interested in the complexities around the “maleness/machismo” of Bigelow’s work. On one hand, I’m intrigued by and yet not at all surprised that a woman director could master the male-centered universe of a war movie. (Confession: I REALLY like war movies!) On the other hand, it is not lost on me, the relevance that the historically, male-centered Academy would make as its choice for the first woman to win Best Director, a woman who creates a male-centered film.

    I celebrate this crack in the ceiling, even as I stand with you, yearning for more! More healthy/positive/heart-expanding stories of and by women and girls of all colors, in the genre of film.

    Lastly, I too will be reading BLACK ANGELS, with my family–another war story–told through multi-hued and young eyes.

    Thank you again for your post! And thank you to authors and directors, like Brown and Bigelow, for walking new paths!

  4. First let me say thank you all for checking out this post. I appreciate all your comments.

    Yes, it was a moment worth waiting for last night. I couldn’t help but think that while Kathryn Bigelow finally cracked the glass ceiling it is still in the same old building. As Michelle aptly observes, a woman director can master the male-centered universe of a war movie and it is for this movie Bigelow receives her well-deserved Oscar. And the Oscars won by Black women so far are for highly unflattering roles (maid, skeezer, pathological mom).

    We certainly have more work to do……

  5. Karen Pope says:

    “Thank you” for giving us food for thought…for giving pause to the narrative that boys do it better; and thus, live up to the expectation(s). Girls/women can get down too; when given an opportunity…and so do many “others”. It’s so important to have images of “Us” as accomplished/talented people with view points which speak to the broader aspect of life experiences. Yes…!

  6. Ildika Koppen says:

    I’m doing my Masters in Teacher Librarianship in Australia. As part of my studies I am reviewing the phenomena of “The Diary of A Wimpy Kid.” I have been seeking a feminist perspective on this book and am having great difficulties finding a feminist critique.
    I noticed that on doing a Google search on “helping boys with reading” that 2,530,000 sites came up (12th of May, 2010) and when I typed in ” helping girls with reading” 2,940,000 sites were recorded. Upon further investigation of the “girl” entries, I found that in fact the sites under this category had mostly “helping boys with their reading” in the “girl” phrase I had typed up.
    While I am very happy to see boys being helped with their reading, is it assumed that all girls are good at reading? Is boy power and the lack of girl ideology in graphic texts like “Diary of A Wimpy Kid” a sign of 21st century neo-conservatism?
    Can anyone at Ms. put me on to some material about the role of girls in the 21st century? It seems that the advocating of virginity and forced-kiss-as-rape fantasies of the Twilight Saga are the things that turn tweens on??
    There isn’t much research out there or am I looking in all the wrong places?
    Ildika Koppen

  7. Valerie Ann Johnson says:

    @Ildika Koppen – I appreciate your interest in this topic. Why not contact Allison Kimmich, Executive Director of NWSA (National Women’s Studies Association) who wrote the insightful critique of _Diary of A Wimpy Kid_(_Ms_Fall Issue 2009) and may have more source information than made it into the article.

    Also check out the following article: “Coalescing: The Development of Girls’ Studies” by
    Mary Celeste Kearney
    NWSA Journal, Volume 21, Number 1, Spring 2009, pp. 1-28 (Article).

    And also look at: Girls’ Studies
    Seal Studies (Seal Press)
    by Elline Lipkin – October 2009

    I have two tweens – not all of them are enthralled with the Twilight Saga and forced-kiss-as-rape fantasies. While it may seem as if there is a resurgence in boy power driven narratives, they really hadn’t gone away – there has just been more attention paid to literature that valorizes the empowered girl, just not enough as far as I am concerned.

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