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Hollywood and Catholic WomenVirgins, Whores, Mothers, and Other Images
By Kathryn Schleich
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2012 Kathryn Schleich
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCatholic Women's Place in Film—An Introduction
Motion pictures have existed for over a century. From the beginning, filmmaking has had a powerful ability to shape myths and fantasies that have left an indelible impression on the consciousness of filmgoers. As the noted film historian Peter Biskind writes, it has:
never been much of a secret that movies influence manners, attitudes, and behavior. If we add up all that movies say and show about how we are supposed to be, we find that they present a "worldview", an "ideology" that conveys an attitude toward everything from the trivial to the profound....
In this context, artists mold the film images of both Catholicism and women, who in some way speak what society thinks or feels, or at least how the artist interprets society's feelings and ideology. Separately, Catholicism and women have affected motion pictures in various ways. First, filmmakers have long been fascinated with Catholicism, and no other religion has served as the subject of film as frequently. Second, women have become the focus of many filmmakers and critics, particularly over the last fifty years. Areas of discussion are diverse, covering the portrayal of women in film, the development of various avenues of feminist theory, and the emergence of women writers and directors—many of whom have worked with the film medium from a strictly female point of view.
In recent years, women have made significant gains as directors, writers, and actresses within film and as executives working inside the studio system, but progress could be considered glacial. It wasn't until 2003 that Julia Roberts joined the elite group of actors in the $25 million per picture club—the first woman to do so. Interestingly enough, Roberts's career domestic box office for that period was $1.9 billion, just shy of Tom Cruise's career domestic box office of $2.2 billion or Mel Gibson's $2.3 billion—yet both men had been getting paid those salaries far longer than Roberts.
By 2009, it appeared women had made significant strides in Hollywood, but that assertion depends on whom you talk to. Women and Hollywood, a blog committed to bringing attention "to the films, TV shows, theatre, and other entertainment that highlights women and our contribution to the culture" presents just the opposite view. The author, Melissa Silverstein, believes that things aren't just tough for women in Hollywood, they have reached crisis proportions; and she has sobering statistics to prove her point. Women make up:
17% of all executive producers 23% of all producers 18% of all editors 2% of all cinematographers.
Silverstein obtains much of her statistical data from Dr. Martha Lauzen of San Diego University, who releases an annual Celluloid Ceiling survey of women working behind the scenes on the top 250 grossing movies each year. Lauzen's survey notes that in 2009, only 16% of women held the position of director, executive producer, producer, writer, cinematographer, and editor. Worse, that number was down 3% from 2001 and exactly the same as 2008.
But if women in Hollywood—particularly in jobs behind the camera—were not showing improvement, the image of Catholic women in film and television was. In Dogma, released in 1999, Kevin Smith provided a number of positive images of women. There is the lapsed Catholic Bethany who ultimately saves humanity, the muse Serendipity who discusses the Bible being written solely from a male point-of-view, and a female God.
Writer Nancy Miller created the cable series Saving Grace about a hell-raising, hard-drinking, and sexually adventurous Oklahoma City detective named Grace Hanadarko, who is given a "last chance" angel named Earl. Much like Theresa Dunn in Looking for Mr. Goodbar, Grace is committed to her job as a police detective, is sexually promiscuous, and wants nothing to do with the Catholic Church that betrayed her. Unlike Theresa, however, Grace is not punished for being a strong woman who challenges patriarchal society. Instead, the portrayal of Grace shattered stereotypes about what it meant to be a modern Catholic woman.
These are just two positive examples; and while I do believe that women have indeed gained ground since my work was published as a thesis in 1992, it remains clear that women still have much work ahead. Whether dealing with the patriarchal systems of Hollywood, the Catholic Church, or society in general, women will have to continue to push beyond the existing barriers in order to finally achieve equal status with men in all realms of life.
Women, Catholicism, and Film
The primary objective of this work remains the same as its predecessors, which is to study films that portray women in "Catholic" situations or environments in an effort to determine how women are treated physically and emotionally within the selected works. The main difference is that the work has been expanded to include more recent films and television programs. While tracking the progress of women in Hollywood over the last decade, it seemed a logical step to research whether the images of Catholic women in Hollywood films has also benefited from any positive changes within the entertainment industry.
This work continues to explore some of the oppressive attitudes still frequently condoned by the interrelated patriarchal systems of Hollywood, the Catholic Church, and Western society that often carry over into the portrayals of Catholic women. As in the original study, in order to obtain a representative sample of films fitting this topic, a defined body of eighteen films and two cable-television series, dealing with predominantly Catholic issues or characters, were analyzed.
The Problem Facing Catholic Women in Film
Throughout my original research, the themes of fear, mistrust, and even hatred of women were prevalent in the majority of literature covering Roman Catholicism, Hollywood films, and feminist theory. It became clear that such attitudes are deeply ingrained and had a definite effect on how women were portrayed in films that were predominantly Catholic in nature. Women fare much better on television and are making positive strides, however; these themes are still very much in existence.
Uta Ranke-Heinemann, one of several theologians to explore the existence of such fear within the Catholic hierarchy, writes in Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: "At the root of the defamation of women in the Church lies the notion that women are unclean and, as such, stand in opposition to the holy. In the assessment of clerics, women were second class human beings."
This idea is echoed in the work of film critic Molly Haskell, who takes a different perspective through addressing the existing fear within patriarchy in a cultural context. Discussing what she labels, "The Big Lie," in her book From Reverence to Rape, Haskell writes:
We can see that women live longer than men, give birth, and endure pain bravely; yet they are the "weaker sex." They can read and write as well as men—are actually more verbal according to aptitude tests. And they are encouraged to pursue advanced education as long as they don't forget their paramount destiny to marry and become mothers, an injunction that effectively dilutes intellectual concentration and discourages ambition. Women are not "real women" unless they marry and bear children, and even those without the inclination are often pressured into motherhood and just as often make a mess of it.
Society, of course, is not the only system that pushes the idea that women can only be fulfilled as mothers. As almost any good Catholic knows, if a woman cannot be a virgin, preferably in life-long service to the Church, then she is strongly encouraged to marry and to be fruitful. Her salvation then comes through proliferation of the multitudes of the faithful. Bringing the third component of film into the equation, Haskell demonstrates how Hollywood perpetuates this myth:
In the movie business we have had an industry dedicated for the most part to reinforcing the lie. As a propaganda arm of the American Dream machine, Hollywood promoted a romantic fantasy of marital roles and conjugal euphoria and chronically ignored the facts and fears arising from an awareness of The End—the winding down of love, change, divorce, depression, mutation, death itself.
The original three questions dealt with how the interrelated patriarchal systems of Roman Catholicism, Hollywood, and Western Society expressed their predominant attitudes and ideologies toward women. These attitudes generally focus on women not being as valuable as men. The three questions were:
Is the fear, mistrust, or hatred of women present in the patriarchal ideology of Roman Catholicism reflected in the selected body of films?
Are the resigns of the devaluation of women in the films that can be attributed to the patriarchal ideology prevalent in Western society?
Are the reforms in the Catholic Church reflected in the film portrayals of women?
In looking at these questions, the component of cable-television is also being added, expanding the pool of material. In the first edition, there was a fourth question addressing the increasing influence of women within the Hollywood system. With strong data indicating that is more myth than reality, the question that should be considered is this: Have women's expanding roles in society led to improved images of Catholic women in Hollywood films? This final one casts an eye toward the future, speculating on where the cinematic images of Catholic women may be headed.
The premise behind the first question centers on the fear, mistrust or even hatred of women that is still evident within patriarchal systems. In this instance the dilemma focuses primarily on Roman Catholicism. To determine how this perceived fear is presented, chapter two outlines a brief history of women and the Catholic Church. The next step is to examine the chosen body of films in depth, applying this philosophy to film portrayals. Understanding the traditional teachings of Catholicism regarding women can illuminate how the pattern of oppression has continued throughout history and has carried over into film as part of a natural order.
The theory behind the second question also extends from the concept of an entrenched belief system. In this instance, the world view or political system suggests the idea of women's inferiority within Western society. Molly Haskell expands on this concept when she notes:
The big lie perpetrated on Western society is the idea of women's inferiority, a lie so deeply ingrained in our social behavior that merely to recognize it is to risk unraveling the entire fabric of civilization. Alfred Adler, unique among his professional colleagues as well as among his sex, in acknowledging that occasionally women had ambitions similar to men's called attention to this "mistake"—the notion of women's inferiority—fifty years ago.
My original criteria of obtaining a representative sample of films still applies to this edition. All films were American, produced by mainstream Hollywood, and considered popular—distributed to a wide audience. The definition of "predominantly Catholic films" films was applied to those centering on Catholic issues or topics; these were not necessarily films made by Catholics. Screen roles were those identified as Catholic characters, not roles performed by Catholic actors.
Also of note, since it would be physically impossible to review all the films containing portrayals of Catholic women (not to mention new works constantly in development across the globe), this work is obviously limited. Eighteen films and two television series have been selected for description and analysis, representing the clerical/religious, romantic and musical comedy, comedy, drama, crime, and melodrama genres.
The selected films were produced between 1943 and 2008, spanning over 60 years. It is nearly impossible to read the minds of the artists and the way they presented Catholic women, and this also limited the research.
Nine of the films are described as fitting into the category of the clerical/religious film, and the relationship between those in religious life and women was central to the film. The second group of nine films portray Catholic women in secular situations within the larger realm of society.
Each of the films was chosen for two main reasons. First, these films featured women often as a lead character, having an opportunity for more participation than, for example, in the crime or war movie. Second, since women were central to the story, these movies best illustrated the fear and oppression often exhibited toward women within the patriarchal structures of Roman Catholicism, Hollywood, and Western society.
There was also an important differentiation between the selected films. Within the clerical/religious films, the issues of Catholicism were primary to the story, with frequent emphasis on the lives of those in religious orders. In the case of the second group of films, Catholicism was still important; but within this genre, it was viewed as a secondary aspect of the narrative. The majority of the characters might still be Catholic, but the story was told within secular situations.
The films in the clerical/religious category studied were: The Song of Bernadette (1943), The Bells of St. Mary's (1945), The Nun's Story (1959), Lilies of the Field (1963), True Confessions (1981), Agnes of God (1985), Sister Act (1992), Dead Man Walking (1995), and Doubt (2008). Films categorized as non-clerical included: The Quiet Man (1954), The Sound of Music (1965), Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977), The Verdict (1982), Moonstruck (1987), Mystic Pizza (1988), Godfather III, (1990), Dogma (1999), and Return to Me (2000).
The two television series chosen were The Sopranos (1999-2007) and Saving Grace (2007-2010). Both of these would fit into the non-clerical genre. Because a TV show spans a much larger time frame than a movie, individual episodes were not analyzed in depth. Rather, how Catholicism affected the overall program and characters were considered the defining factors.
Feminist criticism remains the best type of critical analysis for this work as it accomplishes two things: It addresses issues relating specifically to women and then determines how these issues are correlated with the place women are assigned in society. Additionally, this type of critical theory debates the traditional values and existing models within society through challenging the nature, development, policy, ideas, and effects of film.
Defining Feminist Theory
Both Hollywood and the Catholic Church constitute patriarchal systems, each of which has frequently contributed to the oppression of women. Often such oppression occurs through relegating women to the status of what E. Ann Kaplan has called "absence, silence, and marginality," where the controlling patriarchy believes women's perceived threat can be minimized.
In an effort to highlight the existence of such attitudes, feminist theory will be applied to the film analysis and interpretation. Feminist theory can be a useful tool in guiding the interpretation of alternative or hidden meanings within the film text. However, because there are numerous types of feminist theory, in this work, feminist theory has been defined through the sources cited. (Refer to the Appendix for a review of the sources.)
In the area of film, feminist scholarly works include: Lucy Fischer, "The Lady Vanishes"; Jane Gaines, "White Privilege and Looking Relations: Race and Gender in Feminist Film Theory"; Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape; E. Ann Kaplan, Women and Film: Both Sides of the Camera; and Madonna Kolbenschlag, "The Female Grotesque: Gargoyles in the Cathedrals of Cinema." These works advocate a liberal, even radical feminism.
Scholars focusing on the area of Catholicism are also generally categorized as advocating liberal or perhaps even radical feminism. These scholars included: Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven; Rosemary Radford Ruether, writing in a number of sources; Contemporary Roman Catholicism, From Machismo to Mutuality, Religion and Sexism, and Women-Church; Sandra Schneiders, Beyond Patching; and Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her.
The common denominator of these two groups of literature is that both espouse a feminism that goes beyond surface equality, to demand the dismantling of patriarchal systems. These scholars see patriarchy as harmful to both men and women, a system in which a select few maintain control. In order to survive, they believe society must jettison this structure built on racism, sexism, and classism, replacing it instead with one centered in peace and justice.
Excerpted from Hollywood and Catholic Women by Kathryn Schleich Copyright © 2012 by Kathryn Schleich. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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