The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice

The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice

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by M. G. Lord
     
 

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Movie stars establish themselves as brands—and Taylor's brand , in its most memorable outings, has repeatedly introduced a broad audience to feminist ideas. In her breakout film, "National Velvet" (1944), Taylor's character challenges gender discrimination,: Forbidden as a girl to ride her beloved horse in an important race, she poses as a male

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Overview

Movie stars establish themselves as brands—and Taylor's brand , in its most memorable outings, has repeatedly introduced a broad audience to feminist ideas. In her breakout film, "National Velvet" (1944), Taylor's character challenges gender discrimination,: Forbidden as a girl to ride her beloved horse in an important race, she poses as a male jockey. Her next milestone, "A Place in the Sun" (1951), can be seen as an abortion rights movie—a cautionary tale from a time before women had ready access to birth control. In "Butterfield 8" (1960), for which she won an Oscar, Taylor isn't censured because she's a prostitute, but because she chooses the men: she controls her sexuality, a core tenet of the third-wave feminism that emerged in the 1990s. Even "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966) depicts the anguish that befalls a woman when the only way she can express herself is through her husband's stalled career and children.

The legendary actress has lived her life defiantly in public—undermining post-war reactionary sex roles, helping directors thwart the Hollywood Production Code, which censored film content between 1934 and 1967. Defying death threats she spearheaded fundraising for AIDS research in the first years of the epidemic, and has championed the rights of people to love whom they love, regardless of gender. Yet her powerful feminist impact has been hidden in plain sight. Drawing on unpublished letters and scripts as well as interviews with Kate Burton, Gore Vidal, Austin Pendleton, Kevin McCarthy, Liz Smith, and others, The Accidental Feminist will surprise Taylor and film fans with its originality and will add a startling dimension to the star's enduring mystique.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Elizabeth Taylor is synonymous with “icon” both on and off the screen, but culture historian Lord’s (Forever Barbie) analysis of her film persona viewed through the lens of feminism is shaky at best. Lord alternates between rehashing biographical details of Taylor’s life—from her upbringing as a child star under strict control of her mother to her multiple marriages and lifelong friendships among the Hollywood elite—and surface-level film theory. She admits that the actress might not be synonymous with feminism in viewers’ minds, but argues that “the Taylor brand deserves credit for its under-the-radar challenge to traditional attitudes,” using films such as National Velvet (1944), A Place in the Sun (1951), Giant (1956), Butterfield 8 (1960), and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) to illustrate her point. But while Lord makes a convincing case that many of Taylor’s best-known roles do go against the grain of prescribed attitudes toward women in studio era Hollywood and beyond—for example, Taylor’s Leslie Benedict in Giant is a mouthpiece for social justice and Gloria, the call-girl she plays in Butterfield 8, is in control of her own sexuality—ascribing that feminist bent to Taylor’s onscreen persona as a whole is much murkier. Perhaps it’s Elizabeth Taylor’s status as a Hollywood legend, but Lord has bitten off more than she can chew, rather than narrowing her focus to a few films that could substantiate her point. (Feb.)
From the Publisher
"For MG Lord, it’s curvaceous, charismatic icons of femininity that hold her imagination hostage…What Lord did for Barbie, she now does for La Liz in ‘The Accidental Feminist’…Lord takes her readers on a chronological journey through the actress’s signal performances, analyzing each film with a theory scholar’s eye for telling detail, brightened with bloggerly brio, emotion, and use of the first person…When watching her significant films in succession, you see that, as Lord maintains, each serves as a cinematic Rorschach of social changes percolating through postwar society, in which Taylor stars as the protean blot…With ‘The Accidental Feminist,’ MG Lord makes the intriguing case that for Elizabeth Taylor, too much as never enough—not for the woman, not for the actress and not for the society that produced the theater of her life."—New York Times Book Review

"An affectionate portrait of Taylor and her event-filled life… an excellent, compact guide to Taylor's film roles."—Wall Street Journal

Library Journal
Lord (Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll) combines Elizabeth Taylor's biography with a confetti of quotations on feminism and coverage of Hollywood censorship, psychology, contemporary events, and current lore. She revisits Taylor's well-known films and, with reverence, relates experiencing an impression of powerful feminism. She asserts that Taylor's motives in choosing roles were primarily idealistic and that her AIDS activism is evidence of her feminism. Lord summarizes A Place in the Sun, Giant, Suddenly Last Summer, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and attributes to Taylor her characters' sensitivity, assertiveness, strength in victimization, or challenge to gender stereotyping. The potential for full analysis is lost as Lord dismisses the more traditional roles in The Last Time I Saw Paris, Ash Wednesday, Boom, and The Only Game in Town. Comments on BUtterfield 8 maintain the hagiographic tone that pervades the book. VERDICT The author hopes the Millennial generation will "glimpse a recent past" in Taylor's films. She provides a glimpse—quick, light, and entertaining—better for readers of Cosmopolitan than Jon Krakauer. William J. Mann's How To Be a Movie Star is a better consideration of Taylor's career.—Ann Fey, formerly with SUNY Rockland Community Coll., Suffern
Kirkus Reviews
A chatty, name-dropping little work based on the notion that actors are, or become, the characters they portray in film and on stage. Like those who think of actor John Wayne as a real-life He-Man, Jimmy Stewart as a sort of grown-up Scout master and Humphrey Bogart as a genuine tough guy, cultural critic Lord (Masters of Professional Writing Program/Univ. of Southern California; Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science, 2005, etc.) sees a feminist in Elizabeth Taylor. The author analyzes Taylor's portrayal of characters from the spunky little girl who rode her horse to victory in National Velvet to the strident middle-aged wife in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and in her stage performance as the fierce Regina in The Little Foxes. Into what is essentially a glowing mini-biography of the actress, Lord inserts detailed plot summaries of Taylor's films, which she admits to having watched repeatedly , along with tidbits about Taylor's several husbands and some of her fellow actors: Richard Burton, Eddie Fisher, Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson and others. Besides finding material for her thesis in the scripts of Taylor's movies, the author interviewed people who knew her, worked with her, were related to her or wrote about her, including gossip columnist Liz Smith and Burton's daughter Kate. In Lord's view, the actress' work in the fight against AIDS in the 1980s demonstrates that roles played by Taylor as a young woman influenced her thinking about social justice as an older woman. Not central to the book but an informatory sidelight is the author's account of the Hays Code, which dictated the moral content of Hollywood films from the early '30s through most of the '60s. It forbade nudity, adultery, sexual perversion, miscegenation, drug use and irreverence to religion and the flag. How the code shaped scripts and how directors worked around the restrictions is a story worth telling. Light reading most likely to appeal to star-struck fans of People magazine.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780802716699
Publisher:
Walker & Company
Publication date:
01/31/2012
Pages:
224
Sales rank:
1,433,096
Product dimensions:
5.32(w) x 8.52(h) x 0.82(d)
Age Range:
3 Months to 5 Years

Meet the Author

M.G. Lord is a celebrated cultural critic and investigative journalist, and the author of Forever Barbie and Astro Turf. Since 1995 she has been a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review and the Times's Arts & Leisure section. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including The New Yorker, Vogue, the Wall Street Journal, and ArtForum. Before becoming a freelance writer, Lord was a syndicated political cartoonist and a columnist for Newsday. She teaches at the University of Southern California and lives in Los Angeles.

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