As Kathryn Bigelow and her fellow Best Director nominees roll through the final week before Sunday’s Oscar broadcast, the pleasantly speculative question in many minds—Will she win?—is in some quarters overshadowed by another, darker query: Should she win?

In the past few weeks, Bigelow has become something of a feminist football (if that’s not a contradiction in terms), tossed around by those who, on the one hand, see a Best Director win as a much-needed advancement for women in the film industry, and those who consider her too one-of-the-boys to represent women in Hollywood (admittedly not a gig she’s been angling for). Others wish gender weren’t quite such an issue. Calling it “the question that no one dares ask,” The Daily Beast’s Nicole LaPorte asks anyway: “If she wins, will it be because she’s a woman?” Still others, male and female, wish everyone would stop talking about her legs already. And her ex.

That’s not likely to happen, given the last-minute landmines that have been exploding around The Hurt Locker. The gender issue isn’t going away, either, and it’s taking some interesting twists. Earlier this winter, Indiewire writer Matthew Hammett Knott asked, “Is Kathryn Bigelow a Female Director?” (Then promptly answered, “What a stupid question.”) And just last week, Martha P. Nochimson kicked things up with a Salon article titled “Kathryn Bigelow: Feminist pioneer or tough guy in drag?” Tackling the director for out-macho-ing the competition, Nochimson called her a transvestite “masquerading as the baddest boy on the block to win the respect of an academy still so hobbled by gender-specific tunnel vision that it has trouble admiring anything but filmmaking soaked in a reduced notion of masculinity.”

It’s hard to argue with the notion that the film industry favors a masculine filmmaking style, or that it will keep right on favoring it until box office grosses persuade it otherwise. (Which, with The Proposal, Julie and Julia, Twilight Saga: New Moon, Dear John, The Blind Side, and last month’s Valentine’s Day—all strong female-audience draws—the grosses have started to do.) The question is: What does that mean, or should it mean, for Kathryn Bigelow?

The answer, one would hope, is: Nothing. It’s true, Bigelow is a problematic poster girl for Women Directors Everywhere. But then, why should she have to be? She has a distinctive directorial style and makes a certain type of film very well. So did John Ford, and no one complained about him—in fact, he was a four-time Oscar winner. Should Bigelow be judged on different terms?

The heart of the matter is this: We haven’t yet had enough women directors in the industry mainstream, or major movies by women directors, to even begin to comprehend the full range of women’s expressive power in film. Or to help us define what—if anything—gives a film a uniquely female perspective. (Absence of explosives? I doubt it.)

In industry terms, Bigelow’s gender may be the least of Hollywood’s interest in The Hurt Locker. Iraq war movies have a way of flopping at the box office, and Bigelow’s film isn’t really an exception—even with solid reviews and astronomical Oscar buzz, it’s earned less than $20 million to date worldwide. But a few days after the awards broadcast, Hollywood will be taking a $100 million gamble on another one: Green Zone, made by the star-and-director team behind the Bourne Supremacy franchise, which opens nationwide on March 12. With that kind of investment riding on it, Green Zone will be looking to catch whatever slipstream Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker can create.

For New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis, “Something like a woman winning best director for directing an action movie and not a romantic comedy is symbolically important.” Speaking with Jezebel’s Irin Carmon last December, Dargis said, “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.”

Let’s hope we do, and soon. But first: The envelope, please.

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  • helen uffner March 7, 2010 at 9:10 pm

    This issue makes me crazy! As someone whose Oscar picks are The Hurt Locker and Kathryn Bigelow, I wonder if those same critics are the ones who would begrudge a person of color and/or woman’s advancement in the workplace thinking ” they just got the raise because……..”
    I suppose we should be grateful that articles don’t refer to the men as directors and Ms. Bigelow as a directress, stressing the gender gap even more!

  • Betsy March 4, 2010 at 12:04 pm

    Terrific article! When are WeWomen going to be able to be seen as just people with all sorts of talents, strengths and weaknesses? And who knows what the reasons will be for Bigelow’s winning or not-winning? Juries are as apt to hate women who “write/direct/think/act/fill-in-the-blank-here) like men” as they are to reward them so let’s just wait and see and be glad if we think she’s directed a good film and sad if we think someone else deserved it more.

  • Patrick March 3, 2010 at 8:49 pm

    “If she wins, will it be because she’s a woman?”.
    No, she should win because she directed the best movie to come out last year.