For at least one director, the milestones Kathryn Bigelow and "The Hurt Locker" set at the end of the Academy Awards telecast earlier this year were the equivalent of seeing Barack Obama elected president of the United States.
"You don't know when history is going to change," says Debra Granik, director of the stark award contender " Winter's Bone." "It came right out of the blue and busted through my pessimism."
But last March's double-Oscar pickup — one for Bigelow, one for her film — was just bemusing for other directors. Sam Taylor Wood, director of "Nowhere Boy," notes, "What's weird is not the win but that it's the first time a woman has won an Oscar for directing. It's funny to think anything would change now, because it should have changed already."
That raises the big question: With Bigelow having broken through long-established barriers, does it mean that Hollywood will now open studio doors to female directors? Without question, the win was a major step in recognition and acceptance of female directors in Hollywood. But anyone expecting an immediate reversal of decades of marginalization — women still account for less than 10% of all directors, a steady figure since 1987 — will be sadly disappointed.
Though numbers have grown in roles in such areas as producing and editing, there's no easy answer as to why women remain proportionately underrepresented as directors. The most immediate — but hardest to quantify — is that the director holds a position of power on a set, a place many in charge in Hollywood are more likely to entrust to men.
Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University and author of the annual "Celluloid Ceiling" report about women in the entertainment industry, agrees it is a matter of power perception: "Attitudes about women as directors will change when attitudes about women in positions of power change."
Specifically, Lauzen continues, "the win will benefit Ms. Bigelow's career. And it won't hurt perceptions of women who direct. But you can't draw a simple line from her success to a seismic shift in attitudes."
Myths about female directors help perpetuate the disparity: Lauzen's 2008 study "Women @ The Box Office" went some way toward dispelling the belief that women can't bring in big dollars; she reported that similarly budgeted films with male and female directors resulted in similar box office grosses. But the continuing perception that women aren't the constant workhorses their male counterparts are has significant anecdotal evidence, including big-budget helmers like Nancy Meyers (who averages three years between projects) and Bigelow (whose last feature prior to "Locker" was in 2002).
"Please Give's" Nicole Holofcener believes that breathing time between projects is crucial. "I choose quality of life over money and recognition," she says. "I have to be passionate about the story I'm telling — and that's more important than prizes or making a lot of money."
"The Tempest's" Julie Taymor takes making movies in her stride — after all, she's got a thriving theatrical career that eats up much of her life.
"Directing takes a piece of your life from you, and you have to have something you want to say," she says. "If you're in the business to make money and play the Hollywood game, I'd say just go home."
Since many female directors travel at a different speed than the rest of the industry, there's rarely if ever an it female director. "You know how they take a young male director in his mid-20s and make him a poster child with a five-picture deal? I've never seen that applied to a woman," Granik points out.
Yet directors like Lisa Cholodenko ( "The Kids Are All Right") say the blockage sits elsewhere in the industry: "My sense in having meetings with executives is that they're receptive and interested in having women do these kinds of jobs — but there aren't many experienced directors in line. It's a chicken-or-egg question."
So it remains hard to distinguish cause from effect. Do women generally prefer to make personalized, character-driven films made outside the studio system that, by their nature, take longer to make and finance and then tend to earn smaller gross box office, or are they forced into that niche because the opportunities presented to them are fewer? Or perhaps there are not enough female directors in Cholodenko's meetings because the perception of women as great multi-taskers funnels them into more acceptable roles, such as producers?
No matter what the reasoning, getting women to talk about being directors is increasingly challenging. "The longer we keep calling ourselves women directors, the longer we'll be 'women directors,'" says Holofcener. "If I was reading this article and not making a living and couldn't get a break, I'd be pissed. I'd say 'get me out of this female ghetto.' But I'm happy to be in it, because I'm in it."
Bigelow herself rarely speaks about gender in relation to her job, and that's a precedent more women may decide to follow now that she's won the Oscar. The lesson is clear, says Lauzen.
"By not talking about gender, she assured the Hollywood community that she was not going to embarrass them," she says. "She made herself a very safe choice: She works in a male-oriented genre, and she's not a complainer."
Ultimately, whatever Bigelow Effect emerges from her win, it will be years before it can be measured.
"The film industry is a big battleship in the ocean, and that battleship doesn't turn on a dime," says Lauzen. "Social change is very slow and takes generations."
For Shana Feste, director of "Country Strong," it can't come fast enough. While making her 2009 film "The Greatest," she met two 6-year-old boys who were visiting the set. They asked to meet the director and didn't believe her when she said that's who she was.
"I thought, 'What has happened? In the six years they've been alive, they somehow feel a woman couldn't possibly be directing a film?'" says Feste. "That was a scary wake-up call. Hopefully, those same little boys were watching TV a few years later and saw Kathryn Bigelow win an Academy Award. Maybe that'll make them believe. Maybe."