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Hilary Clinton and Hollywood's gender war


Kathryn BigelowKathryn Bigelow (pictured) is only the fourth woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for best director in the event's 78 year history. The Hurt Locker director joins Lina Wertmuller (Seven Beauties, 1975), Jane Campion (The Piano, 1993) and Sophia Coppola (Lost in Translation, 2003), none of whom went on to win.

Bigelow is arguably closer to the coveted Oscar than any of her predecessors. Her victory at the Directors Guild of America (DGA) awards in January saw her become, surprise, surprise, the first female to win that award. The DGAs are a stronger precursor to the Oscars than the Golden Globes (in which Bigelow lost to Avatar director James Cameron). In its 62 year history, only six times has the DGA winner failed to follow up with an Oscar.

Bigelow, a true pioneer, is nonetheless, a prime example of the problems women face in their fight to be taken seriously in the workplace. The numerous sexist references made to Bigelow's appearance at the DGAs took much of the sheen off her success. The most grating comment came from fellow Oscar nominee and openly gay Precious director Lee Daniels (surprising given that his film is about a young girl who is taunted because of her looks), who informed Bigelow 'your film is as beautiful as your legs. You make me question my sexuality.'

Others, such as her star Jeremy Renner chimed in with 'the only thing to rival Kathryn Bigelow in a bikini is Lee Daniels in a one-piece'.

While ostensibly compliments, these remarks undermine Bigelow's achievement as they take the focus from her capabilities and place it squarely on her sex. As Andre Soares reported on the Alt Film Guide:

'Comments abounded on Bigelow's looks ... on the fact that she's a woman. Had she been a handsome guy, I wonder how many remarks would have been made about his physical attributes. And how many male directors and presenters would be publicly questioning their sexuality.'

Objectification of women's bodies has repercussions. Macquarie bank stockbroker David Kiely was lucky to keep his job when he was sprung downloading raunchy images of model Miranda Kerr on live TV. Few may think he deserved to be sacked, but as Macquarie University academic Cordelia Fine wrote in The Age, it is a mistake to think that actions such as his are harmless:

'Consider a study that showed one group of men a series of ads portraying women as sex things, and compared their behaviour with that of men shown instead advertising material without sexual imagery. Later, each man was asked to interview a female job candidate, and their behaviour was carefully observed.

'Men who had recently seen women portrayed as sex objects sat closer to the interviewee, flirted more and asked the candidate a greater number of sexually inappropriate questions. These men also rated her as less competent, and remembered a great deal about the woman's physical appearance but less information that would help them decide her suitability for the job.'

When men view images that portray some women as sex objects, it encourages them to view all women the same way, including the ones they work with, which limits women's prospects for advancement. Citing the studies of psychologist Christine Logel, Fine examined the 'stereotype threat' which shows that women expend so much energy fending off bad stereotypes about themselves, it interferes with their ability to do their job:

'When men interacted with female colleagues in even a very subtly dominant and sexually interested way, it triggered stereotype threat in female engineers, who then performed worse on an engineering test ... the women's ability was harmed by the subtly sexist behaviour of their male peers even when they weren't aware of it.'

The lack of female representation at the Oscars is not because women directors are less talented or deserving than their male counterparts, it is largely because women are limited by the way men view them. Historically, women have had two primary roles: to be homemakers and to be sexually attractive. When women break out of these roles, when they threaten to become as (or more) successful than their male colleagues, they become the target of sexist jibes designed to remind them of their place.

Remember the man who yelled out 'iron my shirt!' at Hillary Clinton during the 2008 American election primaries? Or the constant references to Sarah Palin as a MILF?

Bigelow is a 30-year Hollywood veteran and, unusually for a woman, has a resumé brimming with action films including Point Break and the underrated Strange Days. She has achieved something no other woman (and very few men) have and yet, on the very night she called 'the most incredible ... of my life', her male peers chose to commend her, not on her body of work, but on her body.

A subtle but sure signal that she had infiltrated male space and a reminder to all women that no matter what we achieve in our working lives, there is always the threat that the value of our worth will be measured according to how good we look in a bikini.

Ruby HamadRuby Hamad is a freelance writer and graduate from Victorian College of the Arts, where she majored in screen writing and directing. She also holds a Bachelor's degree in Political Economy from the University of Sydney. Ruby currently lives in Sydney where she is developing several feature film scripts. 

Topic tags: ruby hamad, kathryn bigelow, the hurt locker, david kiely, macquarie bank, miranda kerr



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Existing comments

Thanks for the lucid article, Ruby.

One small point, however. Bigelow's film was being lauded before anyone knew what she looked like. Daniels' and Renner's foolish and diminishing comments notwithstanding, I think it's a stretch to argue that Bigelow's worth has been measured according to her looks. Her film was almost universally applauded long before her picture began appearing everywhere. In this case, surely the comments made at the DGA are the exception not the rule.

I remember enjoying 'The God of Small Things' in the '90s. The edition I had didn't have an author's photo on the back. Later I saw a fetching photo of Arundhati Roy.

I learned first that she was talented and accomplished, then that she was beautiful. The latter didn't diminish the former.

I am a man, btw.

I agree with the larger point that the objectification of women's bodies has repercussions—such as the lopsidedness of the Oscars, or the way it prejudices some men against women in the workplace.

Still, admiring the other gender is one of the pleasures of being human. Sadly, the relentless objectification of women in the media has made some men forget how to admire women without prejudice.

Alex | 04 March 2010  

While completely agreeing with Ruby Hamad's argument, I wonder why it is that this fight takes place in a parallel universe to the one about pornography which seems to defended on the basis of free speech and that what people see can't harm them, and even if it doe that is their business. Respect for women as equal partners with men in civil society is grotesquely undermined by pornography. By comparison the sexist remarks referred to in this article seem tame. But they are not tame and are, in my view, difficult to eliminate while ever we tolerate pornography in the name of free speech. But, as I say, Ruby Hamad's piece is well argued, timely, amnd food for thought.

Father John Fleming | 04 March 2010  

Excellent, astutely written commentary that should provide "must" reading for any aspiring woman in the arts--or in business!

No, Ms Hamad, we really haven't come a long way, at all, have we?

One correction, though, is that Hillary Clinton's "iron my shirt" insult was one of the "tamest" hurled at her. The deeply misogynist media frat boys (and girls) made sure she was degraded, diminished and demoted as a candidate.

Howard Kurtz produced a short segment that's become legendary: Media and Misogyny -- with Carol Costello and both a conservative and democrat journalist debating the outrage that was the 2008 Presidential Campaign.

MEDIA AND MISOGYNY -- May 25, 2008. Watch it....and weep. Mandatory viewing for all girls who aspire for ANY career. Shameful that this degree of woman-hatred exists on such transparent levels in our society.

Women in the Arts? Ida Lupino was a phenomenal director....in the 50s! WE've had about 4 or 5 since then! If that's "progress", then the guys will be dominating the caves till kingdom come!

MPS | 05 March 2010  

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