‘Wonder Woman’s’ Lesson to Hollywood: Don’t Underestimate Female Directors (Guest Column)

Boy wonders populate the history of Hollywood. As familiar figures in the mythology of the filmmaking business, these young geniuses use their considerable talent and drive to achieve the unachievable. Orson Welles earned the moniker for his masterwork, “Citizen Kane.” Popular critics and scholars hailed the prolific MGM producer Irving Thalberg for his sixth sense regarding movie audience preferences and proclivities. While these titans of film certainly possessed their fair share of skill and determination, their place in the public consciousness was solidified by press accounts that transformed these men into larger-than-life personalities possessing almost superhuman abilities and ambition. Today, the amalgam of industry awards and wall-to-wall press coverage routinely creates boy wonders who break and transcend the boundaries of cinematic storytelling.

Girl wonders have been considerably harder to come by, not because there haven’t been or aren’t incredibly talented women of all ages directing critically successful films and making important contributions to filmmaking, but because the mainstream film industry and its environs have been resistant to acknowledge the contributions of women who make films, or have excluded them from the discussion entirely. When Andrew Sarris wrote his landmark book “The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968,” he didn’t include a single female in his pantheon of directors, listing multihyphenate Ida Lupino under “Oddities, One-Shots, and Newcomers.” The major purveyors of awards have also lagged behind in acknowledging the filmmaking prowess of women who direct. Kathryn Bigelow remains the only woman to earn an Oscar for best director, and Sofia Coppola just became the second woman to ever receive the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival (for “The Beguiled”).

Bigelow is one of the only women to experience the outsize attention necessary to achieve “wonder” status as a film director. With her Oscar nominations for “The Hurt Locker,” reporters shifted into overdrive, effectively turning Bigelow, a director known for crafting independent tales of masculine bonding and violence, into a larger-than-life storyteller. Journalists unabashedly gushed that she could accomplish feats that most ordinary filmmakers could not, braving the extreme conditions of Jordanian summers when shooting her film while crew members struggled to keep up with her pace and stamina.

In the process, Bigelow became a mythic creature. Film writers fantasized about all of the things Bigelow could do. Writing for The Washington Post in 2009, Stephen Hunter mused, “She can probably hold her liquor, discuss art, socialize with senators and duchesses, shoot skeet and dance an incredible rumba.”

Patty Jenkins may be our next girl wonder. The early press coverage of Jenkins has started to construct her mythology, including the personal hardships she has overcome and her unique ability to choreograph compelling action sequences possessing a balletic quality. Reviewers have noted how easy Jenkins has made the daunting task of helming a successful $100 million-plus feature look. Article after article has commented on the intense scrutiny this film is under — that the success of “Wonder Woman” could affect the prospects of future female-led big-budget films for years to come — and on the director’s ability to compartmentalize the pressure.

If these initial media reports are any indication of what’s to come, Jenkins is well positioned to achieve girl wonder status, becoming an inspiration for future directors, who happen to be female. But Jenkins remains just one director in a sea of males. According to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film’s latest Celluloid Ceiling study, women comprised just 7% of directors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films of 2016. Women accounted for 9% of directors in 1998. Other high-profile women also have films opening this summer, including Coppola and Bigelow (“Detroit”). While the successes of these women and their films are cause for celebration, we also need to remain mindful that 7% remains a long, long way from achieving parity in the director’s chair.

Dr. Martha M. Lauzen is executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, and professor of television, film & new media at San Diego State University.

More Voices

  • Hollywood Has Come Far With Diversity

    An Insider's Look at Hollywood's Diversity Efforts and How Far It Still Needs to Go

    I am a white man working in Hollywood. I grew up in Beverlywood, an all-white, predominantly Jewish, Los Angeles neighborhood sandwiched between 20th Century Fox Studios and MGM, where my elementary school had only one black student. I am compelled to write about diversity in Hollywood because “diversity” — in front of and behind the camera [...]

  • Venice Film Festival A Star is

    How Venice, Toronto and Telluride Festivals Stole Cannes' Luster (Column)

    In all the years I’ve been attending film festivals, I have never seen a lineup that looked as good on paper as Venice’s did this fall, boasting new films by Alfonso Cuarón (“Roma”), Damien Chazelle (“First Man”), Paul Greengrass (“22 July”), Mike Leigh (“Peterloo”) and the Coen brothers (“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”) in competition, [...]

  • Black Women in Medicine BTS

    Hollywood Needs to Include People With Disabilities on Both Sides of the Camera (Guest Column)

    In five years, nothing has changed. Despite open calls for greater diversity and inclusion, recent research shows that there was little change in the number of characters with disabilities in popular films in 2017. Related Kathryn Bigelow Lists Lofty Villa Between Beverly Hills and Studio City (EXCLUSIVE) 'A Private War' Goes Public With Aviron's Word-of-Mouth [...]

  • Seven Seconds

    Fighting the Racial Bias at the Core of Hollywood’s Cop Shows (Guest Column)

    If fiction is the lie that tells a deeper truth, the TV crime genre has been, for the most part, the lie that simply tells a lie. As a storyteller (Veena) and an advocate for racial justice (Rashad), we collaborated for the past two-and-a-half years in an attempt to reimagine the roles of cops, victims, [...]

  • Harvey Weinstein Trial

    Column: Documentarian Barry Avrich Ponders Whether Harvey Weinstein Will Be Convicted

    Will Harvey Weinstein go to jail? That’s perhaps the most debated topic in Hollywood. It’s a question that makes me miss my friend Dominick Dunne, the controversial Vanity Fair columnist who would have already succeeded in interview-ing the chambermaids at Harvey’s sex-addiction clinic. Dunne once prophetically told me there would be a massive reckoning in Hollywood. He [...]

  • Janet Mock Pose

    'Pose' Writer Janet Mock on Making History With Trans Storytelling (Guest Column)

    I first met Ryan Murphy on location in Hollywood in July. The set was a nightclub, filled with background actors staged as glistening go-go dancers, shirtless revelers, and twirling drag queens. They were all basking under the glow of a spinning disco ball — a fitting setting for my first Hollywood job interview. I was [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content