let’s blow it up: Emily Hagins & Kathryn Bigelow as role models

Emily Hagins ventures into film genres usually closed off to women, let alone girl, directors (image courtesy of austin360.com)

What do Emily Hagins and Kathryn Bigelow have in common? They’re two female directors who’ve branched out into the male-dominated film genres of horror and action, and they are role models for future girl filmmakers.

Last week I had the pleasure of seeing Zombie Girl: The Movie at a local Austin public library. Zombie Girl is a documentary that follows Emily Hagins, a 12-year-old girl hell bent on making a feature length zombie film. In a process that takes 2 years – from writing an early draft of the script, to shooting the film, to editing it – Hagins finishes her film, titled Pathogen, and screens it for cast and crew, friends and family, at a sold-out show at the Alamo Drafthouse. Aaron Marshall and Justin Johnson, the directors of Zombie Girl, decided to make a documentary about Hagins’ ambitious goal after answering her casting call for zombies.

The documentary sets up Hagins’ backstory and provides a context for her desire to make a feature length zombie film. A pivotal moment in the documentary occurs when Emily decides to write to director Peter Jackson, after seeing the Lord of the Rings films over and over again in the theater. Amazingly he writes back and encourages Emily to make her own films as well as get in touch with Harry Knowles, a local Austin film critic and the writer behind Ain’t It Cool News. At a screening for one of Knowles’ Butt-Numb-a-Thon (a 24 hour screening of films hand picked by Knowles) which showcased Jackson’s Lord of the Ring: Return of the King, she was inspired by the 2003 zombie film Undead. From that moment on Hagins was determined to write and direct her own feature length zombie film. Here is a trailer for the documentary:

The documentary goes to great lengths to show the filmmaking process, and Hagins’ DIY style and improvisation, making homemade special effects and utilizing locations and actors within her neighborhood. Stating that she’s never been great at sports or music, Hagins prevails behind the camera. Throughout the course of the documentary, and the progression of filming Pathogen, the viewer sees Hagins gain confidence in describing her vision and capturing it on film. Her parents are shown as very supportive of their only child, and willing to sacrifice their free time and finances to assist their daughter any way possible. Kudos to Emily’s mother in particular, whose background in art proved useful in creating zombie makeup and the special effects, including a beheading sequence in Pathogen.

With a finished film in hand and the screening at the Alamo Drafthouse, Hagins became the first teenage girl in the United States to direct a feature length film – a feat in and of itself!

As Mary Celeste Kearney notes, both in Zombie Girl and in her book Girl Make Media, filmmaking technology is becoming more accessible to girls, both in terms of the size and amount of technology required to make a film, and the price tag for these items. However, girls are still less likely than boys to pick up a camera.

In Girls Make Media, Kearney notes that despite technological advances,

“boys tend to outnumber girls 10 to 1 in owning their own film or video cameras. Such an imbalance mirrors that of mixed-sex media education classes and workshops, which enroll a disproportionate number of boys in comparison to girls. Economics alone, therefore, cannot explain the relatively low number of girls who are actively involved in making movies” (191)

Kearney argues that constrictive gender roles and the fact that “female youth interested in making movies have had few women role models to emulate” also account for low number of girl filmmakers. This last bit relates to the Q & A with Hagins after the screening on Tuesday night. When asked by an audience member which contemporary director Hagins looks up to, she replied Danny Boyle, whose technique and love of the craft she deeply admires. That Boyle and Peter Jackson are Hagins’ role models suggests not only that there is a dearth of female directors for girl to emulate, but that there are even fewer female role models for girl filmmakers who are fascinated with epic blockbusters and horror films. After all female directors are typically confined to making romantic comedies and women’s weepies, while male directors are hired to helm action film, epics, horror films, and the latest blockbusters (read the films that receive financing, studio backing, and are heavily marketed so that girls – and the rest of the general public – know that these films even exist).

Kathryn Bigelow, with two Oscars in hand, becomes the first female to win Best Director (image courtesy of the metro.co.uk)

This is why Kathryn Bigelow’s historic win for for Best Director is crucial. Despite what turned out to be a painstakingly boring Oscar ceremony, I remained glued to my television set last night to catch the last five minutes of the program and to see the first female win Best Director. Months leading up to the Academy Awards there was a debate about what Bigelow’s nomination meant for female directors. Some critics argued that Bigelow’s nomination wouldn’t have an impact on the industry, since she was nominated for The Hurt Locker, an action film that employs guns and explosions and is the kind of film typically directed by a man. These same nay-sayers argued it would mean more if a female was nominated for Best Director for making a women’s picture.

I don’t have the time or space in this post to dissect this long held belief that there are chick flicks (whether they be weepies or rom-coms) and guy films (such as war films and who-dun-it thrillers). I’ll skip that for now, and say that I agree with Manohla Dargis’ view that Bigelow’s nomination (and subsequent win) shines light on the fact that women have been shut out from making a range of films within the entertainment industry:

“Something like a woman winning best director for directing an action movie and not a romantic comedy is symbolically important. Whether it then leads to a lot of women doing things outside of the pathetic comfort zone of romantic comedy – and I say that as someone who loves romantic comedy – we’ll see. We know that because women are allowed to make romantic comedies that they can make romantic comedies. That’s in everyone’s comfort zone. The idea that a woman can be a great action director is not is everyone’s comfort zone. That’s [Bigelow’s] exceptionalism.”

If as Kearney argues girls need support (from parents and/or organizations like Reel Grrls), affordable technology, and a female or two to emulate then Bigelow’s win and Hagins’ growing fame mean that we are one step closer to closing the gender gap with respects to filmmaking. Bigelow’s Oscar win may not change gender politics within Hollywood over night, but hopefully somewhere – maybe in a big city, maybe in a small town – a girl who flocks to the theater to see fantastical lands, action sequences that make her head spin, and a mind-blowing bag of cinematic tricks that make her wonder “how did they do that?” . . . maybe that girl will now have a female role model or two when she thinks about picking up a camera and making her own blood splattered, adrenaline pumping, action packed, blockbuster.

Note: I want to add this link to Bigelow’s comments backstage after winning Best Director and Best Film (courtesy of CNN).

2nd Note: I keep adding things to this post only because I keep finding more and more great clips. Here Austin’s KVUE news discusses Bigelow in relation to Hagins, and interview the young filmmaker.

~ by actyourage09 on March 8, 2010.

7 Responses to “let’s blow it up: Emily Hagins & Kathryn Bigelow as role models”

  1. […] these women may have on future generations of musicians and filmmakers. As Kristen at Act Your Age points out, director Emily Hagins may be a sign of things to come. Like Bigelow, who plays with conventionally […]

  2. Speaking as a 41-year-old male would-be screenwriter, I’d say trumpeting Bigelow’s win for Best Director as a role model is misguided. I think feminism is getting too old to be still relying on role models for inspiration. I’ll point to two facts here.

    First is that Emily Hagins wasn’t relying on female filmmakers to motivate her film–she cites Peter Jackson and Danny Boyle (for 28 DAYS LATER, I have to assume, and not last year’s overrated SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, the weakest of the five Best Picture contenders). And it’s not that there haven’t been women directors working in Hollywood in action and horror. Mary Lambert directed PET SEMATARY, which enjoyed considerable box office success (despite its reviews–typical for Stephen King adaptations), and that was twenty years ago. More recently, consider Mimi Leder, who in addition to directing THE PEACEMAKER and DEEP IMPACT, also turned in what is easily the best episode of ER ever (“Blizzard”, which is the single best thing I’ve seen on network television).

    Second, listen to what Bigelow herself says in interviews about being a female action director. She dismisses this as a consideration: her background was in visual art, and she rightly points out that paintings are paintings, they’re not segregated as “men’s paintings” or “women’s paintings”. The younger generation (as well as my own generation) should be inspired by the art, and not the artist, and thankfully I see that happening.

    One last thing: don’t dismiss women who direct chick flicks. Nicole Holofcener, Jane Campion, Rebecca Miller, and Sarah Polley make good films, and I’d rather see what they do next than whatever Garry Marshall has in mind.

    • Thank you for sharing your comments. A few thoughts in response to your comments.

      1. I would have to disagree about the need for role models. As a 28-ear-old feminist I’m inspired daily by the ladiez (young and old, famous and obscure) in my life and in my cultural sphere that voice their opinions and carve out their own creative spaces. I look to these ladiez for guidance when I feel that my own views, voice, and work is being dismissed. Without these role models, life would be bleak. Also I think girls need role models as well. I work with girls at Girl Rock Camp and in one of the workshops we talk about female contributions in music history. The campers enjoy hearing about women who are musicians, song-writers, record label owners, and music critics. Knowing that these women exist, help to boost the girls’ confidence in what they can accomplish in the world in general and in (male-dominated) fields – like the music industry and I would argue the film industry in particular.

      2. I understand that Emily Hagins wasn’t looking to females as guides in filmmaking – part of my argument is because there aren’t too many female filmmakers working in the genres Hagins appears to be drawn to as a filmmaker and moviegoer. Thank you for bringing up Mary Lambert and Mimi Leder – however, I would argue that their films did not receive the amount of attention or financing that Jackson’s Lord of the Ring trilogy or Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire did. The greater the marketing and financing – the greater the distribution – all of which affects access. I’m lucky to live where I do – where I can see independent films at several theaters in town and attend festivals. Not all girls – or ladiez for that matter – have these options. Instead they’re left with whatever is playing at the local multiplex theater, where women’s films (from chick flicks to something like The Hurt Locker) occupy fewer screens.

      3. I know that Bigelow rarely discusses the gender politics of her films or herself as female filmmaker, and that during her acceptance speech for Best Director she did not make a scene about being the first female to win. However, if you watch the backstage speech – she does acknowledge that this is a momentous win and hopes that her win can inspire girl filmmakers. I gather from interviews that Bigelow wants to be known as a director – not a female director – but the truth is that we need more female directors to succeed and become the norm before that can happen. Also I recommend reading this article by Manohla Dargis of the New York Times who argues that Bigelow isn’t any less of a feminist because she refuses to discuss the gender politics of her win or her position within the industry:

      4. Final note: I would argue that the filmmakers you list in your last paragraph are rarely associated with “chick flicks.” If you read Dargis’ piece that I link to in the post (not the one I just linked in this comment section) you’ll see that she is referring to the films of Nancy Meyers and Nora Ephron as examples of chick flicks. I would argue that Campion and similar female directors make women’s pictures – but they are not necessarily the same (or the term is not interchangeable in this case). To illustrate my point think about how many screen Ephron’s Julie & Julia played on vs. Campion’s Bright Star (which I did see here in Austin, when it screened at ONE theater).

  3. This is what prompted me to comment. And at the risk of giving offense (something that anyone considering filmmaking–or any artistic achievement–should not shy away from), I think it’s the wrong way to look at the subject.

    While I appreciate your points here, they are all socio-political, and not artistic. I disagree that we need more female directors, per se; we need better filmmakers of *all* stripes. I celebrated Bigelow’s win, and am very happy that a woman finally got the top prize–because she’s an outstanding director, first and foremost, and finally got recognized as such. For me, going much beyond that veers toward tokenism. Barbara Streisand, Penny Marshall, and Nora Ephron may be big-name directors, but quite honestly, they suck. Marshall especially couldn’t direct her way out of a torn paper bag. The Academy has passed them over in the past for good reason (not that every year they come up with five worthwhile male directors, but that’s a separate issue).

    Look at it this way: would Bigelow serve as any less of a role model for you if she’d lost to her ex-husband?

    It’s great that you work at a Girl Rock Camp, and I suppose that sort of role model emphasis and encouragement is entirely appropriate in that context. A day camp or summer camp is one of those settings where kids are given an opportunity and the support to try and achieve things. But filmmaking isn’t camp (Hollywood even less so, adolescent as it may seem most of the time). The emphasis in filmmaking (or any art) should be on the art and craft, and personally I think the socio-politcal aspect should be downplayed, if not entirely separated, in much the same way (though not to the same degree) that I think church and state should remain separate.

    I myself have no use for esteem-based art, and for a simple reason: very rarely does it produce anything beyond mediocrity. I’m not much interested in someone who made a movie motivated primarily on the I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can impetus; give me someone who was told that their artistic vision is impossible and out of reach–and then fuck-well goes and pulls it off anyway. Admit it, those are the stories we celebrate the most, even at–especially at–the Oscars. This year, it was CRAZY HEART and PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL PUSH BY SAPPHIRE. And HURT LOCKER itself, which was shelved for two years and is currently the lowest-grossing Best Picture winner in history.

    And I never meant to imply that Bigelow is any less of a feminist just because she doesn’t underscore the fact. It’s just that I admire that she wants the emphasis to be on her art, and not on all the baggage.

    • Again I understand what you’re saying – but I feel that you and I define “better filmmaking” in different ways – and you have to admit the very idea of “better filmmaking” is subjective. While you might be wowed by the artistic endeavors and vision of a filmmaker – I could care less that a film looks great IF the politics are entirely regressive. I prefer a film that uses an artistic vision to serve a purpose – basically the vision and politics complement one another.

      And to answer your question – no Bigelow would not be any less of a role model for me if she’d lost at the Oscars. But then again I’ve been a fan of Bigelow’s for a long time thanks to reading about her and seeing her work in an academic setting. But would the general public know about Bigelow without the nomination and subsequent win? Her win for Best Director put her name and her work on the public radar in a way that hadn’t happened up to this point.

  4. While I agree we need more women taking chances in the directing chair, the role model point is a weak angle. As in Emily Hagins case, she was fascinated by a genre and idolized the people who inspired her. The fact that they were male was of no consequence to her decision to make films, and it shouldn’t be the focus or excuse why girls shouldn’t be tackling directing as a career.

    Film is rapidly changing and the fact that high quality gear can now be purchased for under 10 (and in most cases 5) grand is nothing short of amazing. Even in Emilys’s case, where technics took a back seat to the passion of film making, its that passion which more girls need to tap into in order to make a name for themselves. Waiting for someone of the same genre to set the bar is a sad and poor excuse.

    The distribution game is also changing. With crowd sourcing sites like kickstarter gaining allot of momentum, and crowd source funding being the next wave of independent finance, no longer is the same ladder necessary to clim in order to expose your film to a wide audience.

    Boy or girl, if you are driven to make a film, the tools and resources are out there in a way they never have been before.

    If you have the passion and drive, there’s not much to hold you back.

    • Thank you for your comments. As mentioned in the previous comments section I’ll have to disagree. While technology is readily available to (some) girls, gender politics (as in gender norms in which girls are required to conform to certain types femininity and feminine stereotypes) play a role in why fewer girls pick up cameras and make their own movies.

      Also sometimes it’s not enough for women and girls to have the passion and the drive – often times they encounter road blocks along their way to achieving their goals. To bring this discussion to a broader context and give an example – what about the women who weren’t allowed to participate in the ski jump for this year’s Winter Olympics – even when Lindsey Van holds THE record (beating all the guys and gals) for the longest jump. Obviously Van has the passion, drive, and dedication – but some Olympic officials feel that women might damage hurt their knees in this competition – basically they’re saying women’s bodies are weaker than men (so let’s protect them by not allowing them to participate in this sport on the Olympic stage). So much for passion and drive trumping patriarchy.


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