Last week, Peter Bart of Variety wrote "Unlikely Rivals on the Oscar Circuit," outlining how Jane Campion and Kathryn Bigelow were a part of the Oscar race with Bright Star and The Hurt Locker. But rather than simply outlining their accomplishments and discussing their talents, Bart gave the piece this weird, "at odds" theme, kicking it off with their looks. It's apparently strange that the "cerebral, somewhat severe, leans toward post-hippie attire" Campion could helm an all-out romance* while Bigelow -- the "tall, model thin" director with a "gracious manner" -- could bring us The Hurt Locker. As if looks are inextricably tied to theme. As if Wes Craven has to look like Freddy Krueger, or James Cameron has to be a beefy Terminator.
To be fair, kind words are given to both filmmakers; it's just fueled by this strange desire to make things at odds. Its execution doesn't relay a sense of distaste in Campion's and Bigelow's accomplishments, but rather an inability to discuss them without noticing a woman's physicality, without struggling to make connections between their looks and interests. It continues right down to the final line -- "Keats vs. Iraq: Now that's downright weird." -- as if Campion's Piano didn't already face off against the likes of Schindler's List and The Fugitive, as if Juno never faced off against No Country for Old Men, and so on and so forth.
As if women are some sort of alien species that cannot be understood without their physical presence -- they must be judged by it, defined by it.
*Let alone the ridiculousness that Campion has to be characterized as the "severe" woman to Bigelow's cuteness.
This ever-rampant trend to merge looks and thought reminds me of a piece I saw years ago from photographer and activist Heather Corinna. Side by side were two self portraits (work warning: there is some very slight nipple in that link). In one, she's dressed as the quintessential butch woman with the label "Self-Loving Lesbian" and in the companion image, she wears a negligee and sports the title "Man-Hating Dyke." It's an easy trap to fall into -- the one with no makeup and the plain, manly tank has to be the hater while the silk-wearer must be the sex lover. Naturally.
Appearance has become a sort of straight-jacket for women in Hollywood, whether we're talking about the actresses on the screen, or the women behind them. It's not only about that "acceptable" sliver of weight that's allowed to actresses. That itself has created ridiculously distorted body images and a business full of body dysmorphia that's continually encouraged by media showing "too fat! too skinny!" exclamations. (Not to mention questions of depression/pregnancy at any flap of skin or curve of the body.) It's also the cinematic storylines that have to sex women up to make them desirable, the critiques on a woman's demeanor (like Campions "severe" look), and the fact that gender alone creates a whole set of ridiculous expectations.
And it's certainly not a case of women being thin-skinned. As I've discussed before, simply throwing an adjective like "sexy" into a post has caught me flack and encouragements to go write for gossip or teen rags. Men don't like it, so it's only human that women don't care for it either.
Of course, there's something to be said for relevancy. I don't find it particularly terrible for a blogger -- male or female -- to write about their attraction to an actor or actress on occasion. Blogs are supposed to be casual, be opinionated, and, frankly, I've never met a movie fan who hasn't commented on attraction at some point. But it's a matter of context, balance, and more importantly, point. A complimentary adjective is not the same as structuring a discussion of talent based on looks -- especially when looks have zero bearing on the discussion.
I would say that the double standard has got to go, but I'm beginning to think it's more of an alien shock, slices of narrow-mindedness and misogyny mixed in with this crazy idea of women as the alien other. What else can explain for thoughts like Bart's, assumptions that looks are flimsily linked to theme? One of the first ways we learn to understand is through categorization and similarities, so Campion and Bigelow get lumped in with their genres. What? Campion comes off as cerebral instead of romantic? Bigelow isn't a bundle of testosterone that makes Linda Hamilton in T2 look wimpy? Does not compute!
Let's stop trying to confuse ourselves with these trite, archaic, and failing categories, shall we? They obviously don't work and only create double standards, confusion, and all-out wrongness. Women are not aliens, nor are their looks a good indication of their interests and work. Just like men, the world is full of women with a myriad of interests and artistic inspiration. It's no more strange for Bigelow to create her cinematic violence as it is for Peter Jackson, or likewise, for him to create heart-wrenching drama.
I even feel strange writing this at all because it seems so silly and irrational. But every time I begin to believe that these scenarios can't possibly be true, they pop up again ... and again. And most annoyingly, they tarnish the hope I wrote about earlier this month. This year has brought out a lot of notable female-centric fare, films that are not only getting buzz, but also Oscar talk. Is it too progressive of me to wish that this talk and these achievements wouldn't be hampered by sexism, and could just be treated as cinematic work from filmmakers, writers, and actors? Where sex and gender comes to play only in celebration of these works and moments of camaraderie?
Their work deserves more respect.