'Destroyer' Helmer Karyn Kusama on Defying the "Female Director" Label

Illustration By Irene Rinaldi

The director of Nicole Kidman's new movie, who spent 10 years coming back from attacks on 'Jennifer's Body,' dissects the issue of women being defined by their gender: "Is being a woman something that people identify as a strike against me?"

I really noticed the focus on my gender about 10 years ago when I was making Jennifer's Body. Probably because there was a combination of the film being written by a woman, directed by a woman, and being very solidly a story about and for women. It seemed like there was a lot of conversation around my status as a female director — or, conversely, my lack of status.

It's become a theme to talk about my gender in these very pointed terms. And somehow, in having it repeatedly discussed that I am female, it's as if somebody is pointing out a deficit to me that I'm not aware of. What has started to wear on me, or make me reconsider the conversation, is that the conversation about the films and the filmmaking itself is getting lost.

On the one hand, this is such an absolutely necessary ongoing cultural conversation we need to have, but I wonder what it means for women to constantly have to answer to their womanhood, or their femaleness, or their perceived femininity or lack of it, when it feels like the art should be speaking for itself. The artist should be allowed to represent the art as opposed to speak for anyone beyond themselves.

When this conversation was happening around Jennifer's Body, it was in relation to a tremendous amount of hostility toward the women involved in the film — me as the director, the writer Diablo Cody, the star Megan Fox — and toward the theme of female friendship as depicted by Fox and Amanda Seyfried. Our very femaleness provokes a lot of animus in our culture, and in 2009, boys were first discovering Twitter and hiding behind their internet identities, not having to take responsibility for the words they used and the ideologies they spewed. 2009 was the young version of that ongoing syndrome we face today. Part of my becoming aware of how frequently it was pointed out to me that I'm female is within the context of people identifying it as a strike against me.

As I've gotten a little bit more mature, and the conversations have become more complex and sophisticated, I do see how this dialogue can expand. I think the gender conversation changes when we actively engage men, and demand and embrace accountability from those men. We have to collectively acknowledge the female histories and the influences that men have not even understood they've dismissed — because their privilege serves as a set of very, very high-class blinders.

When I think about real progress, what feels like progress in my soul, I think of an awestruck Barry Jenkins speaking passionately about Claire Denis on multiple occasions. I think about Jordan Peele referencing The Stepford Wives as one of his most important inspirations for Get Out. When stories about women and by female storytellers are influences for unabashed men, that seems like progress — because they're acknowledging that our voices exist, and that those female voices are worthy of influencing young careers.

Solidarity among women, of course, is absolutely crucial in this business. But I believe in social and professional cooperation, and in the power of kinship among my female and male peers. I'm trying to find opportunities for different kinds of conversations so that we're not so opposed to one another. I don't want to live in a binary system of male filmmakers who never have to engage with the question of their maleness, and female filmmakers who seem to have to engage only with that question. That conversation around gender is necessary and useful when men and women are both having it.

When women push back against constantly being defined by their gender, I think they may experience the knee-jerk feeling of, "Does that appear ungrateful? Should I just be thankful to be acknowledged at all?" To me, these are multiple layers of deprivation speaking.

The more I'm put in that box of "female director," the more I feel like it's a way to keep me forever handicapped in a larger environment. I'm trying to figure out how to articulate this conundrum without sounding ungrateful or unsisterly, because I'm both very grateful and very sisterly. I'm also a filmmaker who's been in cultural conversation with myself and others as a woman, actively and deeply, for close to five decades. Hopefully my films evoke that conversation more fully than I can on this page.

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Who Scores Hollywood's Big Production Deals?

Around the one-year anniversary of the Women in Film sexual harassment helpline Dec. 1, WIF president Amy Baer noticed that less than half of production deals in TV and film are with female creators. "You can't achieve parity if there isn't equal opportunity to access resources," says Baer, former CEO of CBS films, noting that creators with deals don't have to worry "about paying rent or salaries — and the studio's lawyers are negotiating" for them.

— 15% of film studios' production deals are with women or companies led by women

— 32% of TV networks' production deals are with women or companies led by women

This story first appeared in the 2018 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.