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.

Perilsofpauline

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.

it girl

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.

cagney

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?

wendy

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.

chloe-zhao-1

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.

rhett

Bette-Dark-Victory

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.”

The_Outlaw_poster

now voyager

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

queen

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

attackofthe50footwoman1958.16187

imitation-of-life

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.

showgirls

dolores

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

40 thoughts on “The Double Edged Sword of Women in Film

  1. Thanks, BRG. I just read about the Barking Women, which of course I’ve never head of, but a enjoyable, although eerie, tour from you as well.

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    • Yeah, I was thinking about TV ladies too, and had to push them away, ’cause it’s enough with the movies, haha.
      Way too big a subject, but I did come away with the feeling that it’s really not that bad. Or maybe it’s just the movies I tend to watch. Need to see both of the movies you mentioned, btw!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. No discussion of female film characters would be complete I reckon without mention of the name Ellen Ripley.
    First introduced to world movie screens in 1979 (I was there!) via the movie ALIEN, as far as strong female film characters go, that was a gold standard.
    Still is.
    I think that’s what they call a classic.
    The sound on this clip is a little low, but it’s worth it just to hear her say “Where do you want it? followed by the condescending laughter of the men folk.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. You are so right, Glen, and for several reasons I had intended to address in Part 2 of my Women in Film treatise, haha. Ripley can’t be forgotten, and I’m not sure people even understand why!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. You need no prompting from the likes of sideline me Stacey.
    I have complete faith in your history-tracking abilities to know that you fully intended to give a nod to Ripley in the much-anticipated Part 2.
    I’m just glad I could be the one to include this ‘Where you want it?” clip.
    And just because I can’t help myself, can I throw in Jamie Lee Curtis ‘Laurie Strode’ character from the HALLOWEEN film series. Another strong female character (definitely not a victim – though of course there were elements of that) who proved time and again to be the nemesis of evil Michael Myers.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It’s apropos, for sure, Ripley able to operate heavy machinery. That’s a realistic example of female ability. As I’ve said in the past, ladies, I’m all behind you (being one myself) but if you wanna be a fireman, you better pump iron. Otherwise, it’s a fantasy. Like many of the “action” roles in movies these days, featuring women with no muscle tone, even, doing incredible fighting, like Rey in the new Star Wars. I don’t care if she’s full of the Force, lol !!

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  6. Cool post, Stacey. And so true. Wendy…I hated her. At first I was like, no wonder Jack is so irritable. She’d get on my nerves too. But then he went WAY overboard and I began to root for her as I was watching between my fingers. What a dick! I know he was reincarnated and possessed by the evil spirits of his previous lives and the spirits of his relatives previous lives who all lived in the resort, or something like that, but still…Soooo condescending.
    In the end I was glad Wendy got away with her equally irritating kid, Redrum.
    Now about Scarlett getting ravaged by Rhett…if I were her, I would have threatened him with all kinds of terrible violence if he ever did it again and then…just hope for the best.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Pam. Haha, yeah, I know! Wendy, Wendy. But that was all Kubruck’s direction. She wasn’t like that in the book. As for Scarlett….yes. She was conniving enough to be able to figure out how to get back at him, right? lol
      Thanks for dropping by!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi, Kev. Good thoughts! Nicole WAS an interesting counterbalance to the hookers and strange debauched teen and mansion full of thin, naked women in Eyes Wide Shut. But was she enough? I don’t know. I do think that’s when their marriage began to fall apart, though, those two, under the stress of working for Kubrick the perfectionist.
    Hopefully part 2 will be fun.
    How’re things with you guys over there? Lightening up or clamping down again?
    We were supposed to go back to the office back in June, early July. Didn’t happen, and nothing more on when it might actually happen. It’s all so strange……

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lighteing up, for now. Who knows what the autumn will bring.
      We took a bit of a blow when told three months ago that our house tenancy was to finish. We negotiated a couple of extra months, and decided to move in with my Dad. Practical and far cheaper. About time I wrote a blog!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Well, boo to the timing of your tenancy being up (during a pandemic) but yay to moving in with your dad. That’ll make things so much easier. Yeah, where’s that blog? Let’s see it! 🙂 🙂 🙂

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  8. What can I say? You have done an outstanding job on this post, and I understand the subject it’s so broad to encompass on a single post, my two cents on the matter is that I figure the role of women in the movies, has changed according to the great social changes, we have witnessed, all through the Twenty Century, to the present, and has not been a small matter by any means, just if anyone is on doubt, ask any very old person you may know.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Many thanks, B.H., I appreciate it. I think you’re right, too. Movies roles can be a mirror to society. But it does seem like (at least in movies) we were doing very well in cinema and then went backwards for a long time. Oh, well.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Excellent and interesting read — but no mention of Katherine Hepburn, moviedom’s ultimate “independent woman” for over five decades beginning in the early 1930s? Marlene Dietrich, Myrna Loy, and Barbara Stanwyck also come to mind as strong women during that period — but since this is just the first of two parts, perhaps my quibble is premature, and they will show up in part two.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi, mistermuse, thank you! Omg, SO many good examples you gave. You’re absolutely right. But I had to pick and choose ’cause otherwise the blog would have been like five pages, lol. But I probably should have just given some of those ladies a quick mention. I’ll work in a comment related to this conundrum in part 2. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Very educational post, Stacey. I had no idea there were so many female directors back in the 20’s! And a female movie studio owner! Good to know. Also, I’m disappointed to learn that Kubrick wasn’t all he was cracked up to be. Bette Davis has always been one of my favorite female actresses so my child self is happy I was gravitating towards empowered females. You know when I look back and see how men dominated and abused/humiliated females (Cagney with the grapefruit and Rhett’s marital rape) I have to think that the patriarchy wanted to get us underfoot again. Will have to see Delores Claiborne, it’s one I missed. I’m glad you are on board with Tarantino’s depiction of females. He depicts them in all of their unapologetic, devastating beauty and dangerousness. Thank you for the nod and happy it sparked this post. Please let me know when part 2 is posted (in case I don’t notice!)

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    • Thanks, Li. I feel like I can’t really do the subject much justice, but even a nod toward it is something, and it was a nice little challenge, for sure! BTW, I was just talking to hubby last night about Hitchcock’s apparent dislike of women and he was like, “Yeah, I know, but he was a master filmmaker!” and then he went on to mention how much worse Scorcece, a known misogynist, was concerning the ladies. I guess that’s true. Forgot about him, lol !! But I don’t know. There’s Cagney with the grapefruit and women are supposed to be “the weaker sex” but then doesn’t everyone always joke about “who REALLY wears the pants in the family”? I’m more or less a feminist, but I’m not Woke. I love the ladies and I love men. Changes obviously had to come, but I wish we’d already get to that Goldilocks zone of “just right” satisfaction!

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      • I love your seasoned response. Don’t get me started on Woody Allen… It’s a twisty biscuit, separating the art from the artist. I look at all art as pretty much an byte set in the middle of a context, where some contexts are and will be judged more harshly than others. I also wish we’d get to the “Goldilocks zone” (great term for it) but I think it’s a ways off yet. And who is to say if it ever got (back) here (looking at the 20s as a zone that might qualify) that it would stay. I’m enjoying this dialogue very much!

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    • Uh-oh! I didn’t see any typos, lol !!! That doesn’t bode well for my job as a caption editor, hahahaha.
      Thanks, Li, I’m enjoying it too. And yeah, omg, Woody Allen………! For me, it’s an EXTRA twisty biscuit with him, ’cause I’m adopted, and imaging that kinda thing happening to me…..shudder. But like hubby said about Hitchcock, Woody was a master comedy filmmaker, wasn’t he? I will never stop laughing, at especially his earlier stuff. I was having this problem recently with Roseanne and all the crap she pulled the past year or so. She really made me mad. But she’s still funny, right? Then I think, but if someone’s that twisted inside, doesn’t that taint the “comedy” that comes out of them? But then it’s like…who the eff knows? I don’t know her personally–or any of these filmmakers or writers or whoever. We’re all human, and we’re all terribly, terribly flawed, lol !!

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      • I used to love Woody Allen movies until I learned what happened with Soon Yi and Dylan. There is no way of untwisting that biscuit anymore than the Weinstein biscuit. Honestly, I think all humor is based in some negative emotion and it’s a way to dissipate the ugliness with laughter — but the line is blurry when it’s at the expense of an already subjugated population. Another person that I think is absolutely brilliant and hilariously funny is Dave Chapelle, even as he has skirted the edge of the envelope. When his standup came to netflix I was thrilled as I had missed him. When he went into a Michael Jackson routine saying the kids he’d molested felt special because it was by him, I had to turn it off. Why, Dave? Just why did you have to go there?

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Yeah, perfectly stated–all humor based in negative emotion that gets dissipated through comedy. Comedians have always admitted to being dark and depressed. But Dave C….I never saw that particular skit. That’s a classic case of “too soon?” But probably not even eons would be enough time for that joke to ever be okay!

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  13. Excellent post. It’s always an interesting subject matter (btw, my college thesis was about how women’s image changed over time though magazine covers). Some filmmakers don’t make it easier for the viewer, though. For example, Hitchcock’s approach to female roles is a curious mixture of feminism and misogyny.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much! I’m actually working on trying to get part 2 out today, lol. Never enough time. But man, that sounds like a comprehensive topic for a college thesis. Also, that’s true about Hitchcock. I was just looking at the negative side, but it IS a curious mix, actually, isn’t it? There is a strong feminist bent to the characters too. Thanks for mentioning that.

      Liked by 2 people

  14. Great post 🙂 Promise not to laugh, but I not only love Showgirls, but I also rank it as my number one favorite films directed by Paul Verhoeven 🙂 Now when I first saw it, I too watched it and said “come on” :), but five more viewings later, I understood what Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Esztherhaus set out to do. Let us face it, Americans are fascinated by sexual eroticism, even though who claim to be uneasy with it, so what better way to depict it in a way that looks cartoon-like. One criticism I ofter hear of Las Vegas is that their is something very artificial about it. The pool scene is both erotic and anti-erotic. The former because (once again, Americans are fascinated by sex) and the latter, because everything about the sexual eroticism of Vegas feels artificial and what better way to use that as a metaphor than to depict the pool sex scene in an exaggerated fashion. Ironically enough, women like Elizabeth Berkley’s character in the film do exist and behave in a similar fashion – maybe not in every single way, but you know what I mean. Remember that closing scene where she exists Vegas for Hollywood, I read from other sources that it serves as an indication that it will be (like Vegas) another disappointment. I mean Verhoeven and screenwriter Estherhaus do have fun with the material, but at the same time, they are also giving the cinematic equivalent of the middle finger to just two American capitalist paradises – Las Vegas and Hollywood. Now, I am not the first person to come to this conclusion, others have come to it first, I am just reciting by implication, but I nod in agreement with them. Sorry for rambling on, I am just finding these blog entries of yours fascinating 🙂 Anyway, keep up the great work as always 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Well, if people knew one of my favorite movies was Bugsy Malone, and even though I’ve outgrown it over the years, I still love some of the songs and still know the lyrics….. well…..I don’t know! Art is subjective, and so is entertainment. When I think back on Showgirls, I can totally see your point of view, the directors giving the middle finger to Vegas and Hollywood, all of it being tongue in cheek. That makes more sense, and I do think I viewed it in sort of in that manner. One of the problems is I heard how “terrible” it was so when it came on reruns, I was curious, and probably my opinion was tainted beforehand. The thing I liked about it was getting a look at Vegas life, especially dancers, and thinking about what a terrible job that must be. So difficult physically and mentally, all bundled up in the disgusting wrapper of Las Vegas glitz and glamor and greed.
    I feel bad for Elizabeth Berkeley. She really went for it, trying to break out of the Saved by the Bell persona, similar to Jessica Biel making an end run for the exit from Seventh Heaven, right? Except Jessica’s run paid off, and Elizabeth’s sort of buried her…. 😦

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    • Thankfully, Showgirls has grown to have a large following – some of it’s famous biggest fans are directors John Waters, Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, Jacques Rivette and retired Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum to name just a few. In fact, Canadian film critic Adam Nayman wrote a book defending the film. Last year, the Los Angeles-based Jeffrey Mchale came out with a documentary that chronicles it’s rise to cult status entitled “You Don’t Nomi” – worth a watch 🙂
      I also agree with you on Elizabeth Berkeley – in fact, I think she gave a courageous performance. I mean she really gave the Nomi character everything she had. Berkeley and her performance did not deserve that kind of scorn. Given how Showgirls has since garnered a considerable cult following among certain audiences, one could say that Berkeley has not only attracted lots of fans (of her and the aforementioned film), but hopefully a sense of comfort as well 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Thanks, Glen! Hehehe.
    I can still hear the songs in my mind! “I’m feeling fine, filled with emotion, stronger than wine….”
    And, of course, it was before Scott Baio turned into a complete and utter a*******! But I guess he was on his way by then already, lol…….

    Liked by 1 person

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