A Woman At War – Katherine Bigelow’s ‘The Hurt Locker’

Since the Academy Awards began in 1929, only one woman has taken home the Oscar for Best Director. Kathryn Bigelow and her film The Hurt Locker made history at the 2009 ceremony, seemingly shattering the glass ceiling. Sadly, the moment wasn’t as transformative as we might have hoped as, a decade later, Bigelow is still the only woman to have won Best Director and Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

Still, Bigelow’s double triumph that night is an important moment, empowering women filmmakers and opening up conversations about the industry’s treatment of them. But, even without the awards and critical buzz, The Hurt Locker is an astonishing feat which showcased the power of Bigelow’s filmmaking.

Throughout her career Bigelow has been subject to plenty of criticism, mainly due to the fact her films aren’t typically about women. The Hurt Locker is a prime example of this. The movie is very much about masculinity. In fact, women barely make an appearance. It is also a fact that war films which tackle masculinity and heroism have always appealed to Academy voters, and is a contributing factor to The Hurt Locker’s Oscar triumphs.

For Salon, Martha P. Nochimson harshly described Bigelow as a ‘tough guy in drag,’ also hideously nicknaming the filmmaker the ‘Transvestite of Directors.’ She added:

‘Looks to me like she’s masquerading as the baddest boy on the block to win the respect of an industry still so hobbled by gender-specific tunnel vision that it has trouble admiring anything but filmmaking soaked in a reduced notion of masculinity.’

But The Hurt Locker wasn’t successful at the Oscars just because it is a war film. And why should Bigelow limit herself to making only films about women? Shouldn’t she be her own person, making her own creative choices? And finally: why should stories of war only be told by men?

Not only has Bigelow chosen to work in a male-dominated field, but she has also decided to predominantly tackle a genre also traditionally male-dominated: action. She, however, does not define herself as a ‘female director’, once saying in Interview magazine ‘there’s nothing more counter-productive than the notion of gender-specific filmmaking’. While her refusal to resist the feminist label could be considered problematic as it appears she is unwilling to help the cause, Bigelow has actually often spoken out about gender discrimination.

Speaking to Eliana Dockterman for TIME, she took a stand calling for changes in the industry adding:

‘I have always firmly believed that every director should be judged solely by their work, and not by their work based on their gender. Hollywood is supposedly a community of forward thinking and progressive people yet this horrific situation for women directors persists. Gender discrimination stigmatises our entire industry. Change is essential. Gender neutral hiring is essential.’

Maybe Bigelow could do more to support the cause and embrace calling herself a feminist as she is a true trailblazer, but we should respect her decision to not engage publicly with the gender debate. On the rare occasion she does, it is clear it is something she is passionate about and she is right; to achieve true equality it shouldn’t really matter whether a film is directed by a man, a woman or a non-binary filmmaker, but more balance needs to be reached in the industry to achieve this.

As a filmmaker, there is no doubt Bigelow successfully taps into the psychology of the soldiers in The Hurt Locker, also deeply analysing the horrors of war. One of those horrors is Jeremy Renner’s Sergeant First Class William James, a bomb defuser addicted to war. James is certainly brave, bringing his courage onto the battlefield, determined to do everything he can to save lives. Bigelow celebrates his heroism and rightfully so, but her film is also very honest about what James is. Lost at home staring blankly at the cereal aisle in the local supermarket, Renner’s soldier longs to be back on the battlefield – the only thing he now knows – so he signs himself up for another tour of duty. Exemplifying how war destroys people on a deeper level.

It has also created a monster in James, one so addicted to the chaos of battle that he would do anything to get his fix, including putting his fellow men in danger. There is a reason Bigelow chose to open the film with the words “the rush of battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.”

You could also say we as an audience become addicted to war too, as we find ourselves leaning forwards to the edge of our seats, desperate to see what happens next in this tense and thrilling film. Bigelow knows how to shoot suspenseful action, something she has proved time and time again with films like Point Break and Blue Steel, but nothing compares to the tension in The Hurt Locker. As you watch the characters attempt to defuse a bomb which is tick, tick, ticking away, it’s a struggle to even remember to breathe.

There are touches in the film which seem undeniably influenced by Bigelow’s female gaze. While The Hurt Locker features war heroes, they are treated delicately and with a tenderness, making them far from the all-American muscle men we are used to seeing in the genre. There is certainly no patriotism here, and while we respect the likes of James, Sanborn and Eldridge, Bigelow challenges us to feel sorrow for their misfortune of being sent to war.

If you ever hear someone say women can’t direct good war or action movies, just point them in the direction of Bigelow, a woman who, with The Hurt Locker, made one of the best yet.

by Emily Murray

Emily Murray is a journalist who unashamedly cries at the vast majority of movies having got too emotionally invested. She has worked for BBC Lancashire, UNILAD and Trinity Mirror. Her favourite films include Clueless, The Matrix and anything in the MCU. You can find her on Twitter @EmilyVMurray 


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