Grrrl on Film-Female Directors: A Film Herstory Awareness Post


Sarah Mirk’s post last month, Beat the Majority - Name a Female Scientist, reminded me of an ad I saw several years ago for a Women in Film festival here in Seattle. In it, a dominatrix flanked by muscle men is asking a man in an interrogation chair if he can name five female directors – five female directors who weren’t actresses first.

Of course, he can’t, and the dominatrix proceeds to list all the directors included in that year’s festival line-up.

While many accomplished actresses have also directed – Barbara Streisand, Jodie Foster, Ida Lupino, Sofia Coppola, Penny Marshall, and Diane Keaton – to name but a few; it could be argued that it was their acting that helped them break into directing. This should in no way belittle any of their accomplishments, but what about women who set out to direct in the first place, without the benefit of already being recognized?

Could you name five? What about five female Asian directors? Or lesbian? Could you even name five African American male directors? (I’m ashamed to say I could only think of 3 off the top of my head: Antoine Fuqua, Spike Lee, and John Singleton.)

It’s not easy – even for those of us who are in tune with popular culture. This is only one of the many reasons why we need to be extra vigilant calling attention to women producers of popular culture, as well as highlighting their absence. In fact, the Guerrilla Girls did the latter with their 2006 billboard, Unchain the Women Directors.


As you can see from the image, only 3 women have ever been nominated for an Oscar for Direction: Lina Wertmüller in 1977 for Seven Beauties, Jane Campion in 1994 for The Piano (the G-Girl’s website has the year misrepresented as 1982 – according to IMDb this was the year she directed her first movie), and Sophia Coppola in 2004 for Lost in Translation. No woman of color has ever been nominated by the Academy for the Best Director category. Since this is Bitch, and this is Grrrl on Film for Bitch, I think we can do better than name five. So let’s name an ambitious 10 (in no particular order):

Kathryn Bigelow (1951-)


Bigelow is an American director known for directing action films. Recently profiled in The New York Times by Manohla Dargis and currently receiving critical acclaim for her film, The Hurt Locker.

Select Filmography: Near Dark (1987), Blue Steel (1990), Point Break (1991), Strange Days (1995), K-19: The Widowmaker (2002), The Hurt Locker (2008)

See her talk about The Hurt Locker on The Colbert Report.


The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Kathryn Bigelow
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor Meryl Streep

Karyn Kusama (1968-)


Kusama’s debut film, Girlfight, won two awards at the Sundance festival. Her latest directorial project is the Diablo Cody-penned, Jennifer’s Body (the trailer for the film was recently discussed here on the Bitch Blogs).

Select Filmography: Girlfight (2000), Aeon Flux (2005), Jennifer’s Body (2009).

Watch the trailer for Girlfight.


Julie Taymor (1952-)


Director of stage and film known for her stylish and unique cinematic images.

Select Filmography: Titus (1999), Frida (2002), Across the Universe (2007), and the forthcoming The Tempest (2009)

Watch the trailer for Frida.

Deepa Mehta (1950-)


Mehta is an Academy award nominated director and screenwriter, best known for her “Elements Trilogy.” The entire trilogy, on which Mehta collaborated with writer Bapsi Sidhwa, was set in India. In fact, the second film in the series, Earth, was an adaptation of Sidhwa’s semi-autobiographical novel about her childhood experience of the partition of India (Cracking India, originally titled, Ice Candy Man).

Select Filmography: Fire (1996), Earth (1998), Water (2005), Heaven on Earth (2008)

Watch the trailer for Earth.

Jane Campion (1954-)


This New Zealand native was the second woman to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Director (she won instead for Best Original Screenplay).

Select Filmography: An Angel at My Table (1990), The Piano (1993), The Portrait of a Lady (1996), Holy Smoke (1999), and In the Cut (2003).

Here is the trailer for her award winning film, An Angel at My Table – a biographical look at the life of New Zealand author, Janet Frame.


Gurinder Chadha (1960-)


Chadha is a British filmmaker of Indian descent. She has received a number of nominations and awards for her films, Bend it Like Beckham and Bhaji on the Beach.

Select Filmography: Bhaji on the Beach (1993), What’s Cooking? (2000), Bend it Like Beckham (2002).

Watch a short series of compiled clips from Bhaji on the Beach (the first is brilliant).

Angela Robinson (1971-)


Robinson wrote and directed the short independent film, D.E.B.S. with the help of a grant from Power Up — an organization that promotes the visibility and integration of gay women in entertainment, the arts, and all forms of media. After winning several awards for the short it went on to become a film, also written and directed by Robinson. She is now an honorary member of Power Up’s board of directors. (FYI – D.E.B.S. frequently runs on the Logo channel. So if you haven’t seen it, and you have cable, set your dvrs!)

Select Filmography: D.E.B.S. (2004), Herbie: Fully Loaded (2005)

Watch the trailer for D.E.B.S.

Nora Ephron (1941-)


Renaissance woman, Ephron, is a screenwriter, novelist, director and more. She was nominated by the Academy for three of her screenplays, Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally, and Sleepless in Seattle. She was nominated for a Razzie for Worst Director for Bewitched.

Select Filmography: Sleepless in Seattle (1993), You’ve Got Mail (1998), Bewitched (2005), and Julie and Julia (2009) – currently in theaters.

Watch the trailer for Julie and Julia.


Marleen Gorris (1948-)


Dutch director, Gorris, won an Academy Award in 1996 for Best Foreign Language Film for Antonia’s Line – the story of a matriarch and her family.

Select filmography: A Question of Silence (1982), Broken Mirrors (1984), The Last Island (1991), Antonia’s Line, and Mrs. Dalloway (1997) (based on the novel by Virginia Woolf).

Watch the trailer for Antonia’s Line.

Mira Nair (1957-)


IMDb claims Nair started her career as an actress so I suppose I might be cheating by including her. Her first feature film, Salaam Bombay! was nominated for an Academy award and won the Golden Camera award at Cannes. She was born and raised in India and now lives in the United States.

Select Filmography: Salaam Bombay! (1988), Mississippi Masala (1991), Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love (1996), Monsoon Wedding (2001), Vanity Fair (2004), The Namesake (2006) (based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel of the same name).

Watch the trailer for The Namesake.

Many of these women, and more, can be found in the book, Film Fatales, by Judith M. Redding and Victoria A. Brownworth.

So Readers, can you name five female directors? Do you have a favorite you’d like to make sure we’re aware of? And finally, do you think women directors (and by extension women screenwriters) reflect women’s lives and handle women’s issues more authentically than men? More responsibly? Discuss away! 

by Jennifer K. Stuller
View profile »

Jennifer K. Stuller is Co-Founder and Director Emeritus of Programming and Events for GeekGirlCon -- an organization dedicated to the recognition, encouragement and support of women in geek and pop culture and STEM. Stuller is a writer, scholar, media critic, and feminist pop culture historian. She is an author and contributor to multiple publications, including Ink-Stained Amazons and Cinematic Warriors: Superwomen in Modern Mythology, and the editor of Fan Phenomena: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She has spoken at national and international conferences and regularly appears at the Comic Arts Conference, the Slayage Conference on the Whedonverses, and San Diego Comic-Con International. She is a frequent presenter on the topics of media literacy, geek activism and community-building, ever endeavoring to use her powers only for good.

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29 Comments Have Been Posted


this is so good, i'm forwarding it.
thanks for exisiting.


claire denis
lynne ramsay
agnes varda
chantal akerman

don't forget

Rose Troche
Lynne Ramsey

Of course, you can't think of everyone, but in the interest of continuing the list.

Reel Grrls wants to change this

Reel Grrls, a nonprofit organization in Seattle, WA, has been calling attention to this issue since 2001. What are we doing about it? We are teaching teen girls how to make their own media, in the effort to get more and more women's voices out there, especially in the film industry.

Our participants edit their videos on laptop computers that we name after women directors we admire - many of whom are on the list above (though you mentioned some new names! thank you!). Some of our other favorite women directors who escaped mention: Agnes Varda, Penelope Spheeris, Trinh T. Minh-Ha, Samira Makhmalbaf, Julie Dash, Lynn Shelton.

At Reel Grrls we have been Kathryn Bigelow fans for a long time, and we are SO impressed with 'The Hurt Locker.' We think she would be a wonderful person to bear the title of "First Woman to Win an Academy Award for Directing."

Check out work produced by a new generation of women media-makers here:

Thanks for introducing us to some fantastic women filmmakers through this list!

Reel Grrls

Thank you for your interest, Jennifer! No matter where you live, there are a variety of ways to get involved in or lend your support to Reel Grrls projects.

You can learn more about our organization by visiting our website: While you are there, sign up for our newsletter!

For Bitch readers in the Seattle area, we are always looking for mentors and volunteers to work directly with our participants. We will be recruiting and training a new force of adult women filmmakers, animators, producers, musicians, educators, media literacy specialists, cultural critics, and youth advocates to work with our participants this fall. Our newsletter will have more information about this coming soon, in the meantime you can email maile at reelgrrls dot org with questions.

If you liked what you saw on our YouTube channel, you can purchase DVDs of our participants' work, as well as other sundries, at

And of course, we are always thrilled to accept your direct financial support! You can donate online at, or join us at any of our fundraising events - acclaimed Seattle director Lynn Shelton will be the guest of honor at our Fall Gala and Auction on October 17th.

We also throw a super-fun Oscar party so save the date - March 7, 2010! Wouldn't it be wonderful if that night we could fete Mira Nair, Kathryn Bigelow, or any of the other women filmmakers you mentioned?!

Thanks again for opening up this great topic for discussion. And thanks to all the other commenters for introducing us to so many more amazing women directors!

great list! but don't forget...

Farah Khan, Maya Deren, Pratibha Parmar, Aparna Sen, Julie Dash, Sarah Polley, Miranda July, Jessica Yu, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing.

Also, Ellen Kuras (director of The Betrayal - Nerakhoon). Though primarily a cinematographer, she seems well worth a mention for her amazing work.

And let's not forget all the fabulous young female filmmakers out of Reel Grrls in Seattle, WA and at other youth media centers around the globe (especially all the young women I have the pleasure of working with at Children's Media Project in Poughkeepsie, NY)!

Great list! My (mostly Canadian) faves...

(in addition to a number already listed in the article) Chantal Akerman, Lizzie Borden, Martha Coolidge, Julie Dash, Maya Deren, Bonnie Sherr Klein, Tracy Moffatt, Alanis Obomsawin, Pratibha Parmar, Sarah Polley, Sally Potter, Lotte Reiniger, Patricia Rozema, Mina Shum, Loretta Todd, Agnes Varda, Margarethe Von Trotta, Joyce Weiland and Anne Wheeler.

For more info about the Canadians on my list, check out the (excellent) Canadian Women Film Directors Database at:

Let's not forget the important early contributions of women like Dorothy Arzner (1906-79), on openly lesbian director who produced numerous Hollywood films in the 20's, 30's and 40's.


I love Stephanie Rothman's THE STUDENT NURSES and TERMINAL ISLAND, they have definite feminist themes. Barbara Peters gave us Dag in BURY ME AN ANGEL, another female badass who influenced KILL BILL (The Bride quotes the tagline from the movie's poster, "a roaring rampage of revenge", in Part 2). Anna Biller's VIVA is supposed to be a feminist critique of 70s sexploitation, has anyone seen it? I also love Doris Wishman, I don't know if she can be called feminist though.

On the more 70s indie side, Barbara Loden's WANDA will break your heart.

The Velvet Vampire

I hadn't heard of Stephanie Rothman - but Cinema Retro had a post this morning announcing a rare screening of The Velvet Vampire in Hollywood.

I just love serendipity.

Apparently "the only known master print is part of Quentin Tarantino's private collection and he is graciously lending it for the occasion." The occasion being Vampire Con.

Jennifer K. Stuller

Jamie Babbit!

Jamie Babbit's prolific directing career is largely based in television, but without her we wouldn't have cult favorite, "But I'm a Cheerleader," which was produced by her long-time partner and collaborator, Andrea Sperling. Babbit and Sperling are both a huge part of Power Up (mentioned above), and have worked together on films like "Itty Bitty Titty Committee" and "The Quiet." Sperling's career as a producer is equally impressive, and together they make for quite the power couple.

Babbit's Wikipedia and imdb:

Thanks for the article!

People have listed some

People have listed some great ones here. I notice that the majority of them are indie/arthouse/experimental filmmakers, which is awesome, but may be a product of female filmmakers being denied access to major studio backing.

One that I have not seen on this list yet is Shirin Neshat, a visual artist form Iran who has done amazing stuff in experimental video art. She is also a feminist.

I am not sure if someone already mentioned these, but I love Claire Denis (Chocolat), Catherine Breillat (36 Fillette), Niki Caro (Whale Rider, North Country), and Patty Jenkins (Monster). If I think of more, I will come back and add to the list.

It seems to me that this question last surfaced in the early 1990s, when there seemed to be more women directors. I hope it doesn't sound to despairing to say I fear we have gone backward in the past decade in terms of supporting women, the arts, and women in the arts. :(

a couple more

You listed all of my favorites, but I needed to point out an obvious one: Catherine Hardwicke. Not only did she just direct the incredibly popular <i>Twilight</i>, she also directed <i>Thirteen</i> and <i>Lords of Dogtown</i>.

Oh, and Lisa Cholodenko

Oh, and Lisa Cholodenko (High Art), although it seems she hasn't done anything in several years other than television shows, and Kasi Lemmons, who was heralded when she arrived on the scene with Eve's Bayou, one of the biggest films by an African American woman, but has remained fairly low profile as a director since then.

Tamra Davis, who I believe

Tamra Davis, who I believe got her start in music videos, directed Billy Madison and the Citizen Kane of weed movies, Half Baked.


I love Mira Nair. Monsoon Wedding was a gorgeous film deserving of great attention. It will be interesting to see her take on Amelia Earhart's story. There is quite a buzz suggesting she may win the acadamy award for best director after the release of this picture, so here is hoping!

It seems a little unfair that you would specifically focus on directors who were not previously actresses, since there are a lot of actresses who are only using their present career so they can jump the fence to direct. Or, in some cases, actresses who direct themselves.

My favorite Director was such a woman. Nadine Labaki explored feminism and friendship in her amazing film Caramel, while also spotlighting as the lead actress. It went on to become the most internationally acclaimed and popular Lebanese film to date.

Other amazing directors include:
Marjane Satrapi for Persepolis - of which she also wrote the original graphic novel, screenplay, and animated.

Penny Marshall, while starring in a few roles, is probably more loved by me for her movies such as Big, The Awakenings, and Cinerella Man.

From Actress to Director

I'm very much looking forward to seeing Amelia too! And there's been a lot of buzz around Kathryn Bigelow for the Best Director as well.

The reason I wanted to focus on directors who weren't necessarily actresses first is that I wanted to highlight women who are less likely to be known because they are behind the camera. Most of us would recognize the names of Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, or George Lucas - men who never had to act in order to direct.

I think it's unfair that women would have to first have a career as an actress in order to have access to the directorial chair ("using" their acting career solely for this purpose, as you suggest) while so many men don't.

It's also very difficult to break into a male-dominated industry when you don't already have connections. Penny Marshall, and Sofia Coppola, -- talented as they both are -- certainly had strong ties to the film industry when they began their acting and directorial careers.

Thanks for suggesting Nadine Labaki - I'll check her out. Thanks also for reminding me of Marjane Satrapi!

Jennifer K. Stuller

Allison Anders and Penelope Spheeris

<p>are two of my favorite women directors. Anders directed <i>Gas, Food Lodging</i>, a movie about a single mother and her two teenage daughters. Her film <i>Mi Vida Loca</i> is about a female gang in L.A. It's sooooo good and is definitely worth watching!  </p><p>And Spheeris, in addition to directing <i>Wayne's World</i>, made a documentary about L.A.'s late '70s, early '80s punk scene called <i>The Decline of Western Civilization</i>. It is hard as hell to track down but is so damn good. It has live performances by X and the Bags, and a few others. </p><p>&nbsp;</p>Here's a clip from <i>Decline...</i>:<br /><object width="425" height="344"><param name="movie" value=""></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true" width="425" height="344"></embed></object>

love the article

I was just thinking about this very topic a few months ago (though not with the not-an-actress-first caveat). I was wishing there were a website that I could go to to find out what women-directed movies were playing in theaters, but I couldn't find one, so... I made one.

It's mostly just informative, not so much analytical. Hope it's useful to you!

I don't know if there is the

I don't know if there is the issue to discuss. It's not a secret that Hollywood is dominated by male directors. Someone would complain that Hollywood is dominated by the white or Jewish or.... directors, But, frankly speaking, the audience don't care about all this stuff. Actually, I just would be glad to see more high-quality works.
P.S. I think Barbara Streisand was worth receiving the BEST DIRECTOR nomination & Oscar for Prince of Tides.

Women Directors

And don't forget Maria Giese, who directed "When Saturday Comes" with Sean Bean and Pete Postlethwaite. And guerilla digi-feature, "Hunger."

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