The Double Edged Sword of Women in Film

bad movies

Fellow blogger and resident poet Lisa of Tao Talk (https://tao-talk.com/2021/07/19/dverse-prosery-ama/) left a comment for me a while ago that she’d like to see a blog on how females have been portrayed in the movies and how that’s changed with time. It’s a little too long, though, so I split it into two parts.

My first thought was, “Ugggghhh. It’s not gonna be pretty,” ‘cause it feels like between T&A, insipidness, and now all the over-the-top (and usually unbelievable) run and gunning, there’s not gonna be an overabundance of soft fuzzy feelings.

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And even though that may be true, to an extent, because movies are entertainment and they can’t all be classy or works of art, I found that things aren’t completely across the board terrible. For one thing, digging back in time to the beginnings of movie-making, I was surprised to discover fascinating variety and openness during the Silent Era that I had no idea existed.

When you think about silent movies, do you picture women in frumpy dresses throwing their hands up because dinner burned or crying over a sick child or nagging their husbands? If you didn’t, you rock, because that’s exactly what I pictured, and while I’m not completely wrong, I’m also far from completely right.

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Although Mary Pickford was famous for playing “the ingénue,” a wholesome young woman who depended on men to rescue her from…anything and everything, silent movies were also full of “the heroine,” bold women untethered from convention and using strength and intelligence to navigate around danger.

Remember the Perils of Pauline? I never saw one episode, but I remember that title because the idea of it survived, and has been repeated, up into modern times.

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The silent era also featured the Flapper or It girl, a modern career woman with short hair and clingy dresses and who was no stranger to socializing. A lot.

I was surprised that she was also sexually open—they were allowed to depict that somehow?! Apparently, yes. And probably because always, in the end, her modern sexuality would end in tragedy if she did not eventually find a husband.

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More surprising, even, was that, according to refinery29.com, …between 1912 and 1919, Universal Studios’ roster of 11 women directors made a total of 170 films. Women and men worked alongside one another, forging a new industry in real time.

A woman named Frances Marion was, during this period, the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood, having been ushered into the job by another woman, Lois Weber, the first woman to own her own movie studio. Weber and Marion were instrumental in forwarding women’s early film careers through the 1920s.

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In such a relatively egalitarian atmosphere, women seemed destined to become equal partners with men,” wrote Lizzie Francke in the book Script Girls: Women Screenwriters in Hollywood.

But (sic)… by 1933, moviemaking was a big business…salaries were higher. The guys wanted the jobs.

Even earlier, in 1931, it already seemed like audiences were witnessing a sea change–at least in consistency– concerning female perception/roles when James Cagney shoved a grapefruit into Mae Clark’s face in The Public Enemy because she was complaining too much.

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30 years later, Hitchcock continued in this vein with a conga line of clichéd female characters. From TheList.com … Hitch’s female characters are loosely divided into “the vamp, the tramp, the snitch, the witch, the slink, the double-crosser and, best of all, the demon mommy” each of whom gets punished in the end.

Remember Stanley Kubrick? I didn’t realize this until I was older, but almost all of Kubrick’s movies were either underwhelming/unflattering for women or did not include them at all.

Although all of his movies were based on novels or stories, I think he could have “poetically licensed” better roles for women than the hooker and gung-ho psycho killer in Full Metal Jacket, the empty-headed girls running around in A Clockwork Orange, and the only female in Dr. Strangelove—a bikini-clad woman lounging around on a bed.

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And what about passive, soft-spoken, sniveling Wendy in The Shining? Stephen King said his written character Wendy was NOTHING like Kubrick’s final interpretation. What is up with that?

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As a side note, many have now, in retrospect, down-graded Mr. Kubrick’s blanket “genius” status to “parasitic genius” due to the fact that his personal vision depended on already-created material.

Conversely, Tarantino operated very differently, portraying women in often strange but dynamic (though usually violent) roles.

At least now there’s more Kathryn Bigelows, Chloé Zhaos and Ava DuVernays on the scene, to name a few, female directors with their own sense of destiny and in a position to encourage, if not that egalitarian mindset of the Silent Era and early golden age of Hollywood, at least something closer to it.

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Whatever the complaint may be concerning roles for women, it does seem like there’s always (usually) a counter-example to balance things out.

We had Rhett (maritally) raping Scarlett in Gone with the Wind (never mind that she was stretching luxuriously the next morning in bed)/courageous Bette Davis in Dark Victory.

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Mary doomed to be nobody without George in It’s a Wonderful Life/flawed but successful single mother-business owner Mildred Pierce.

its_a_wonderful_life_mary_librarianMildred Pierce

Jane Russell’s breasts starring in The Outlaw/Bette Davis’s one-day-to-be classic Now Voyager line, “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.”

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Last Tango in Paris, complete with surprise rape scene actress Maria Schneider was not warned about/Vanessa Redgrave’s character dealing with secret assassination plots in Mary Queen of Scots.

Last Tango in Paris

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Attack of the 50 Foot Woman/Imitation of Life: an early, extremely courageous foray into the still-taboo topic of race in America.

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Elizabeth Berkley’s four-minute escalating mini-tsunami orgasm during that amazingly embarrassing pool scene in Showgirls/Kathy Bates and Jennifer Jason Leigh spinning and unraveling mysteries in Dolores Claiborne.

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So it’s not all bad for the ladies.

But I do have a warning for Professor Higgins of My Fair Lady, in regards to the lyrics of “A Hymn to Him” and maybe for all those who define female “strength” as an ability to fight like a man … to be continued in part 2.end lady