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Monday, April 20, 2015

Wonder Woman Doesn't Need a Female Director


I think we were all pretty pleased when Warner Bros. announced that they were seeking a female director for the 2017 Wonder Woman film. I mean, how could we not be excited? Women, who make up roughly 50% of film school graduates, only direct around under 10% of major films in America. The studios just... don't hire them. They hire people they know. They hire friends. Most of producers and executives are men, so most of their friends are men. So, yeah. A major studio hiring a woman for its big budget superhero blockbuster. It seemed like news.

It wasn't. It was advertising. They made a pretty good choice hiring Michelle MacLaren, a director renowned for her tense, fantastic work on TV shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. Fittingly, given the kind of work she came from, she envisioned an epic fantasy adventure for Wonder Woman, something big but still distinctive from Man of Steel and Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. But, because the studio can't help itself, they tested her ideas without telling her and didn't trust her vision - a problem they clearly haven't had with Zack Snyder, despite the wild underperformance of Man of Steel. There, it was Superman who was the problem. Here, it was MacLaren, who they apparently didn't even ask for her ideas before hiring. Hmmmm...

They quickly replaced her, this time with former almost-Marvel director Patty Jenkins, who was unceremoniously booted off of Thor: The Dark World a couple years back. Now, Jenkins may well be an inspired choice, and I'm sure as hell glad that she's finally getting to make a follow-up feature film twelve years after Monster. I'm almost certainly going to go see it. But, given her experience at Marvel, given MacLaren's experience with Warner... do we really think that they're going to trust her? Because I get the feeling that she's going to have to fight very, very hard if her 'vision' doesn't hew to what Snyder and the Warner execs already have in mind, no matter how little what they have had in mind worked in the past. We need them to hire a creative person, then let them create. That's always hard for studios to do, but it's far more difficult when that creator is a woman.

The problem absolutely is not the lack of good female directors. There are plenty of those. Amma Asante, Amy Heckerling, Ana Lily-Amirpour, Andrea Arnold, Ava DuVernay, Caryn Waechter, Cate Shortland, Celine Sciamma, Claire Denis, Debra Granik, Desiree Akhavan, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Jane Campion, Jennifer Kent, Julia Loktev, Karyn Kusama, Kathryn Bigelow, Kelly Reichardt, Kimberly Pierce, Lana Wachowski, Leigh Janiak, Lexi Alexander, Marjane Satrapi, Mary Harron, Nicole Holofcener, Sarah Polley, Sofia Coppola, and a dozen more I could think of off the top of my head and half as many I'm forgetting or haven't seen. There's no shortage of talent.

No, the problem is the studios, as it always is. You see, in that gigantic list of female directors I just posted, only a small handful have made a major studio film, and only a couple have ever made this kind of blockbuster. Even Kathryn Bigelow, the patron saint of bad-ass action, has never made a studio film, always pursuing independent backers. It gives her plenty of control over her projects - and helped her net an Oscar for The Hurt Locker and nominations for Zero Dark Thirty - but it also means we're typically in for a long wait between Bigelow films. 

So yeah. Wonder Woman doesn't need a female director. Fully half of the big blockbusters these studios are making need female directors. I don't want the studios to reach for a female filmmaker in the once-in-a-blue-fucking-moon they decide to acknowledge that actresses can headline action; I want them to hire the best person for the job. I want Gina Prince-Bythewood to finally make Thor's romance work. I want to see the creepy, moving transformations Leigh Janiak could craft in an Inhumans movie. I want to see a hypnotic, exploratory Star Trek from someone like Kelly Reichardt. I want Fantastic Four to be Marvel's First Family again, and I can't imagine anyone more suited to crafting that kind of dynamic than Nicole Holofcener. And - since many of the most established women in the field don't typically work with studios, above included - there are dozens of up-and-coming young women who could do something great with any of these films as well.

Giving Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel and precisely nothing else to female directors continues to perpetuate this weird Hollywood myth that they're only allowed to tell one kind of story, to be one kind of thing. That doesn't help anyone. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad those one or two women are getting a job, but any system of oppression depends on exceptionalism to survive. If there were no successful female directors, everyone would realize what spectacular bullshit that was. But if there are just one or two? Well, now we can insidiously say, "See, we're giving them a chance. It's not our fault they aren't as good as Kathryn Bigelow...." 

What's more, it's a house of cards. Big budget films underperform all the time, even great ones, and if you have a female character and a female director and it does so, that's the end of the 'experiment' from the studios. Look at how quickly Mimi Leder and Lexi Alexander were put in 'director's jail' after a single flop. Look how long it has taken for another female-led superhero movie after Elektra and Catwoman (12 years, if you were curious). Look how reluctant Marvel is to market what few female characters it has, and they're the successful ones!

To Hollywood, there are boy movies and girl movies. Only boy movies are worth the big bucks, and only boys can direct them. The only way to convince them otherwise is, of course, to say so over and over and over again. Say so with your words - when you're making lists of hopeful directors, acknowledge the women! Acknowledge more than just Lexi Alexander and Kathryn Bigelow, and put them forward for more than just films that are about women. And, more importantly, say so with your money - seek out female filmmakers on Netflix, Amazon, and beyond, rent their movies, see 'em in theaters if possible. You can fight inequality by doing literally nothing more than watching bad-ass movies. Why not do so?
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