Oscar, I Didn’t Know it Mattered

Photo of Kathryn Bigelow from Wikimedia Commons

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.

Black Angels cover image courtesy of Putnam Juvenile.

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Valerie Ann Johnson is the Mott Distinguished Professor of Women’s Studies and Director of Africana Women’s Studies at Bennett College. She holds a Ph.D. in Medical Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley, an M.A. in Sociology from Atlanta University and a B.A. in Sociology from Spelman College. She is a member of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, Conservation Council of North Carolina and the board of Our Children’s Place and the Scarritt-Bennett Center in Nashville, Tennessee. She serves on the North Carolina Historical Commission and the Advisory Board for The Women’s Table.