It’s always irritating to have to give attention to people who fish for it with stupid ideas, but novelist Bret Easton Ellis’ announcement on Twitter today that “Kathryn Bigelow would be considered a mildly interesting filmmaker if she was a man but since she’s a very hot woman she’s really overrated,” is too telling to ignore.
Ellis’ tweet is just one more example of a strain of thinking that goes: If a woman’s doing well or being treated well, something awfully suspect, often having to do with sex appeal, must be afoot. It’s the same attitude that The Oatmeal creator Matthew Inman displayed earlier this year when he implied that women, who in real life are often the subject of serious harassment in video games, get treated like they’re better players than they are because they’re attractive to the men they’re playing with. When this kind of argument gets rolled out, it tends to say much more about the person making it than the object of their criticism, of course.
So what has being “hot” gotten Bigelow? The budget for Zero Dark Thirty, estimated at $30 million, is twice the size of the budget for The Hurt Locker, which Bigelow made for $15 million. That’s a leap, but it’s hardly a lavish figure in Hollywood, especially given that she won an Oscar for The Hurt Locker and considering the interest in Zero Dark Thirty’s subject matter—the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Being hot did not help Bigelow avoid controversy, particularly on the right, about briefings she and her writing partner Mark Boal received from the Obama administration, though perhaps Ellis thinks she got into those briefings by showing a little leg. One thing Ellis has going for his argument: Zero Dark Thirty is playing well at festivals and walked off with top honors from the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle this week. Just to play devil’s advocate for a sec, though: It is possible that the movie is good?
The advantages that Bigelow is enjoying right now seem less like courtesies extended to a super-hot woman and more like those extended to directors who win Academy Awards—most of whom happen to be guys, by the way—and make good movies. When privilege flows to men, it’s assumed to be either natural or merit-based. But when Bigelow joined the club, Ellis apparently thought there must be another explanation, even if it meant abandoning his anthropological chronicles of American shallowness to suggest that Hollywood, of all industries, is having its head turned by a 61-year-old woman (one who I happen to think is stunningly gorgeous, but still: 61). And if it were really that easy for attractive women to find critical success behind the camera by simply being attractive, why aren’t there more female directors in Bigelow’s position?
None of this is to say that there aren’t legitimate critiques of Bigelow’s work—I know veterans who hate The Hurt Locker’s depiction of war. And there might even be a case that in that movie, she threaded the needle between anti-war sentiment and support for service members in a way that made the Obama administration more willing to brief her (the more subtle version of Michael Bay’s willingness to trade jingoism for the right to use military hardware). But the idea that people are falling all over Bigelow’s work because they want her body is hilarious and sad. If only Hollywood and audiences had that much interest in older women.