A Female Quentin Tarantino
On the Oct. 3, 2011 episode of “How Did This Get Made,” a podcast hosted by actor Paul Scheer (aka Donnie, the head page from 30 Rock), director Lexi Alexander described exactly why she agreed to take on Punisher: War Zone, the third sequel to Marvel’s notoriously gore-steeped “Punisher” franchise. She recalled her agents goading her, saying, “‘Look, Lexi. No woman has ever directed an R-rated comic book film. This could really break through the glass ceiling, and there’s a lot of little girls who will thank you for it.’”
Apparently, that was the ticket: in her words, “I want girls to grow up and think that they can be film directors, and it doesn’t have to be Lifetime movies. I want girls to grow up and know they can do anything. And to be honest, it’s not like that in the film industry yet. We don’t have enough examples. There needs to be a female Quentin Tarantino, in my opinion.”
It’s an inspiring message, to be sure—and it would be a logical next step for women’s equality in the film industry. Indeed, one might imagine that the entrance of a prominent female gun-and-gore-slinger onto the cultural main stage would dissolve, once and for all, the myth of the “feminine essence,” at least when it comes to filmmaking.
Of course, there are already some examples working in Hollywood today—chief among them, perhaps, Kathryn Bigelow, whose résumé includes such “man’s man” fare as K-19: The Widowmaker and 2008’s Oscar-winner The Hurt Locker. In fact, Alexander was quick to name Bigelow as an example—even though that podcast predated the recent groundswell of controversy over Zero Dark Thirty that put Bigelow’s name on the front of nearly every entertainment section. Though most of the discourse surrounding Bigelow’s latest film revolves around its depictions of torture, her status as a female filmmaker has also come under fire. Even author Bret Easton Ellis jumped into the fray, calling Bigelow “overrated,” asserting via Twitter that the industry gives her special treatment because she’s “a hot woman.” It seems that, no matter how dude-friendly their product, women directors are still subject to gendered criticism.
Meanwhile, it’s hard not to interpret the fact that so few women are trusted with non-Lifetime fare as a reflection on studios’ overall lack of confidence in women’s stories to be anything but flower-scented—as if women directors are assigned to projects primarily as female sensibility consultants. “When they do give a woman a movie to make, they want it to be a ‘woman’s movie,’” McFarlane says. “I really think that they think, ‘Well, we want a woman to come in here and give it a woman’s touch.’ Because they know guys who can take care of the other stuff.” (At this point, I find myself tempted to remind Mr. Ellis and his ilk that his most famous novel, American Psycho, was brought blood-splatteringly to the screen by director Mary Harron.)
Indeed, though Bigelow’s career is doubtlessly inspiring, there’s always a danger of letting tokenism take the place of real progress. “‘Kathryn Bigelow’ is like what the dumb people say to show, ‘Oh, I know about female directors!’” complained comedian Patton Oswalt, a guest on Scheer’s podcast and an avid Punisher fan. “She’s great, but there’s other people.” The problem, it seems, is getting those other people heard.
If You Can See It, You Can Be It
Silverstein clocks our snap judgment of the word “director”: “young, male, baseball cap backwards.” Immediately, images jump to mind: Jason Reitman, Bryan Singer, Zack Snyder, on and on. “And white, of course,” she adds. “These stereotypes have been perpetuated over the years because all we see is pictures of guys looking like this.” Silverstein recently published her e-book, In Her Voice: Women Directors Talk Directing, which seeks to combat this trend by presenting a series of interviews with female filmmakers, supplementing them with links to external resources. “I just wanted to put women’s voices out there, so they become a normal part of the conversation,” she says.
So long as women’s voices represent an exception, our fuss over them risks becoming patronizing, even alienating—as if we’re congratulating monkeys for typing Shakespeare. “I feel like at some point we can stop being surprised by women in entertainment,” McFarlane says. “I mean, you can still write about us, but maybe stop being surprised.”
“It all comes down to trusting women,” says Silverstein. “If you are a behind-the-scenes person, you have to be able to trust women’s vision to create a world—whether it’s about men or women—that you want to see. If it’s in front of the scenes, you are putting out a vision of women on-screen that people have to buy into. So, people have to be welcome to seeing women—strong women.”
“In our digital age, ideas and culture are increasingly shaped by the stories told with moving images,” begins the case statement of Smith’s Sundance report. “This context elevates film artists to an enormously influential role in determining how we see ourselves, one another, and the world around us.” Silverstein sums up this idea with reference to the aphorism, “If you can see it, you can be it.” Because if young girls can see Future Weather protagonist Lauduree pursuing her passion for science, they might be inspired to speak up in chemistry class—just as, if they can see Deller’s name roll on-screen at the end credits, they might feel empowered to take up a camera.
The reason those gendered remarks from my sophomore year film classes have bothered me for so long—why they merit more than an eye roll—is that, ultimately, there is an important distinction to be made between the irksome notion of “a woman’s touch” and the vital promise of “women’s stories.” Because, as it turns out, we want to hear from women—we need to hear from them, in fact, to have a cultural dialogue that even pretends to reflect the diverse makeup of those asked to engage in it. Because, as festivals like Athena help remind us, women can tell all kinds of stories—about scientists and terrorism and bass-playing and basketball and, indeed, fighting over tampons. We just have to let them.
With any luck, we may even find a female Tarantino in the process.
Anneliese Cooper is a senior at Columbia University, majoring in Film Studies. She was the managing editor of The Eye, the weekly features and arts magazine of the Columbia Daily Spectator, for 2012. She blogs about popular culture at A Sane Basic Particle.