Why have there been no great women directors?

In 1971, in her foundational essay ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’, American academic Linda Nochlin argued  that an assumed male perspective is entrenched in art history. In the spirit of feminist activism that marked the period, Nochlin claimed that feminist art historians should expose this bias.

Questions like ‘why have there been no great women artists?’ obviously hinge on inherently sexist assumptions. For Nochlin, the issue was not a lack of talented women producing art but that of a long-term institutional blindness working against them, hindering their identification and canonisation.

To ask why there have been no great women artists was, for Nochlin, to pose the wrong question, as it did not take into consideration the social and cultural factors that historically have excluded women from an equal place in the professionalised art world.

There are, of course, a vast number of incredible women artists, from Artemesia Gentileschi to Louise Bourgeois. But for Nochlin, even the talented women artists who have attained a degree of historical recognition did so because, in many cases, they had associations with men who were already established artists or art professionals: it was penile proximity rather than their own remarkable abilities and creative visions that granted these women a prominence that they would otherwise not have reached.

The title of Nochlin’s essay is less a genuine question than a provocation. I raise it here as an incitement to begin thinking through the relationship between gender and filmmaking.

‘Why have there been no great women directors?’ is still a question that I hear with alarming regularity, sometimes from students who simply do not know better, but often from culturally literate grown-ups who should.

It is a question that aggressively demands the reply, ‘There fucking have been, and still are!’ But to realise that parallels with Nochlin’s essay are still sadly far from past tense, one need only recall how David Germain from the Associated Press referred to Kathryn Bigelow as ‘James Cameron’s ex-wife’ when she received a 2010 nomination for her Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker.

At a press conference for the 67th Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, jury head (and the only woman winner of the Palme d’Or) Jane Campion addressed the film industry’s gender biases: ‘Time and time again, we don’t get our share of representation’. Campion’s prestigious Cannes appointment was itself notable: two years earlier, French newspaper Le Monde printed an open letter from a group of women working in the industry. They attacked Cannes’ poor representation of women, stating ‘at Cannes, women show their breasts, men show their films’.

For Campion, ignoring a filmmakers’ work because of their gender results in a fundamental lack of diversity: ‘It’s not that I resent the male film making, but there is something that women are doing that we don’t get to know enough about.’ This is not to suggest that there is a singular, essentialist type of women’s film – think of the varied works of directors like Claire Denis, Mira Nair, Doris Wishman, Tracey Moffatt, Lina Wertmüller, Bigelow and Campion herself. Women have made very different types of movies across genres, budgets, and historical and cultural contexts.

In the figure of Ida Lupino, classical Hollywood offers an important case study of the rich pluralities of experience that women filmmakers can bring to the screen – as well as how these have been historically buried.

Although most immediately known for her work as an actor (such as in the 1941 film High Sierra, with Humphrey Bogart), Lupino also worked behind the camera, most notably on the gritty hardboiled film noir The Hitch Hiker (1953). Supposedly the first woman who went from acting to writing, directing and producing her own films, Lupino’s directorial oeuvre includes the devastating 1950 rape film Outrage, a movie that deserves a far greater place in cinematic memory.

While ultimately (and problematically), the film offers institutionalised male intervention as the ‘solution’ to rape and its emotional and psychological fallout, its treatment of sexual violence and trauma was otherwise radical, sensitive and important.

In Lupino’s film – unlike in Johnny Belinda (1948) or Ingmar Bergman’s Oscar winning The Virgin Spring ten years later – rape is not confined to a distant, abstracted past but can instead happen in the contemporary moment, in nice suburbs, to nice girls with nice fiancés, nice parents and nice jobs.

If you haven’t heard of Outrage you are not alone – and it’s not only the boys who are to blame. Even feminist film critic Molly Haskell overlooked the film in her otherwise excellent book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (1974), where she lambasts Lupino for her hypersexualised star persona and ‘masculinised’ films, effectively accusing her of being a gender traitor who made movies that were ‘conventional, even sexist’.

Like Lupino, Australian Jennifer Kent trained as an actor before shifting to directing and writing. After wowing audiences at Sundance earlier this year, Kent’s recent feature The Babadook has met with international acclaim. A powerful and genuinely terrifying horror film, The Babadook tells a woman’s story, but never becomes patronising nor relies on stereotypes. It is precisely the type of shrewd filmmaking, whether made by a man or a woman, for which genre audiences have a relentless appetite. Kent’s success – like that of Greg McLean and The Spierig Brothers – indicates once again that Australian directors have significant flair for movies with darker themes.

Film histories – like all histories – are written constructions. When we ask questions like ‘why have there been no great women directors?’ we need to look at what has been left out. Great women directors have always been there and they still are. The onus is on cinema culture to grant them their rightful place.

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic, research academic and the author of seven books on cult, horror, and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics. She has recently co-edited the book ReFocus: The Films of Elaine May for Edinburgh University Press, and her forthcoming book 1000 Women in Horror has been optioned for a documentary series. Alexandra is also a programming consultant for Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, the largest genre film festival in the United States.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. “Film histories – like all histories – are written constructions. When we ask questions like ‘why have there been no great women directors?’ we need to look at what has been left out…”

    Leni Riefenstahl has been left out. Where is her place in the pantheon of great women directors?

    1. Riefenstahl as great film director?

      Filmically, in terms of fascist overtones, it is difficult (for me at least) to see the difference between Triumph of the Will and its Nazi propaganda and Kuhle Wampe and its working class solidarity propaganda (a film Brecht collaborated on 1931).

      Brecht fudged his politics at the House of Un-American Activities hearing in order not to spoil a possible Hollywood career, whereas for Riefenstahl, who “was Hitler’s favorite director, beautiful and talented, and a woman in a man’s field, it was a case of three strikes and you’re out” (Jewish Virtual Library).

      So much for film history, its politics, and pantheon building.

  2. There’s a cultural angle to this. The Anglo world is particularly bad at allowing women to stand behind the camera. French cinema, for all its faults and all the difficulties they might encounter, is more open to female directors (Breillat, Denis, Ferran, Corsini, Devers, Fontaine, Lvosky, Kurys, Masson, Serreau, to name just a few). In particular there have been a number of actresses who have made celebrated transitions to direction: Josiane Balasko, Agnes Jaoui and Nicole Garcia for instance.

  3. As the article states, this problem exists in film criticism also. The recent film Maleficent was misinterpreted as having a “rape metaphor” because a warrior who personified the godess Nike had her wings cut off. If this happened between two male subjects, no one would imagine it was rape. Because female bodies are hyper-sexualised, almost all critics accused the film of a certain kind of exploitation and weak plotting because they inflicted a sexually violent suggestion. Without the “rape metaphor” the film makes far more sense.
    This kind of misinterpretation happens around female film makers all the time.

  4. Interesting that one of the most important female directors, and one of the few original ones, was not mentioned here: Chantel Akerman. Jeanne Dielman is a milestone in ‘feminist’ film making, and the observational strategies used in that film have been ‘borrowed’ or ‘ripped off’ by so many directors, including male ones. Haneke’s ‘The Seventh Continent’, for example, seems almost impossible to me without considering Jeanne Dielman, in addition to whatever he is taking from Bresson.

    I don’t think it’s an ‘Anglo’ thing though. How many Asian female directors are there? What about female directors from South American or Eastern Europe? The Anglo female directors rarely excel, so that’s why they have a much lower status than their European ‘equivalents’, of which there are none. Seriously, which female director from the Anglosphere has the formal skills of an Akerman or Varda? None that I’ve seen.

    I could be wrong though.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *