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From Reverence to Rape
The Treatment of Women in the Movies
By Molly Haskell
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2016 Molly Haskell
All rights reserved.
THE BIG LIE
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 and men's superiority — fifty years ago. At about the same time, Virginia Woolf wrote, "Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size." How ironic that it was in the security of this enlarged image of himself, an image provided by wives or, more often, mothers, that man went forth to fight, conquer, legislate, create. And woman stayed home without so much as "a room of her own," her only "fulfillment" the hope of bearing a son to whom she could pass on the notion of male superiority.
The prejudice against women is no less pernicious because it is based on a fallacy. Indeed, to have sanctioned by law and custom a judgment that goes against our instincts is the cornerstone of bad faith on which monuments of misunderstanding have been erected. 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. The inequity is perpetuated as women transmit their sense of incompleteness to their daughters. But men, too, are victimized by the lie. Secretly they must wonder how they came to be entitled to their sense of superiority if it is to these "inferior" creatures they owe the debt of their existence. And defensively, they may feel "emasculated" by any show of strength or word of criticism from their nominal dependents.
In the movie business we have had an industry dedicated for the most part to reinforcing the lie. As the 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. But like the latent content of any good dream, unconscious elements, often elaborately disguised, came to trouble our sleep and stick pins in our technicolored balloons. The very unwillingness of the narrative to pursue love into marriage (except in the "woman's film," where the degree of rationalization needed to justify the disappointments of marriage made its own subversive comment) betrayed a certain skepticism. Not only did unconscious elements obtrude in the films, but they were part of the very nature of the industry itself.
The anomaly that women are the majority of the human race, half of its brains, half of its procreative power, most of its nurturing power, and yet are its servants and romantic slaves was brought home with peculiar force in the Hollywood film. Through the myths of subjection and sacrifice that were its fictional currency and the machinations of its moguls in the front offices, the film industry maneuvered to keep women in their place; and yet these very myths and this machinery catapulted women into spheres of power beyond the wildest dreams of most of their sex.
This is the contradiction that runs through the history of film, a kink in the machine of sociologists' generalizations: We see the June Bride played by Bette Davis surrender her independence at the altar; the actress played by Margaret Sullavan in The Moon's Our Home submit to the strait-jacket in which Henry Fonda enfolds and symbolically subjugates her; Katharine Hepburn's Alice Adams achieve her highest ambitions in the arms of Fred MacMurray; Rosalind Russell as an advertising executive in Take a Letter, Darling find happiness in the same arms; Joan Crawford as the head of a trucking firm in They All Kissed the Bride go weak in the knees at the sight of the labor leader played by Melvyn Douglas. And yet we remember Bette Davis not as the blushing bride but as the aggressive reporter and sometime-bitch; Margaret Sullavan leading Fonda on a wild-goose chase through the backwoods of Vermont; Katharine Hepburn standing on the "secretarial stairway" to independence; Rosalind Russell giving MacMurray the eye as her prospective secretary; and Joan Crawford looking about as wobbly as the Statue of Liberty.
This tension — between the spirited single girl and the whimpering bride, between the "star" and the "stereotype" — existed for good reason. Audiences for the most part were not interested in seeing, and Hollywood was not interested in sponsoring, a smart, ambitious woman as a popular heroine. A woman who could compete and conceivably win in a man's world would defy emotional gravity, would go against the grain of prevailing notions about the female sex. A woman's intelligence was the equivalent of a man's penis: something to be kept out of sight. Ambition in a woman had either to be deflected into the vicarious drives of her loved ones or to be mocked and belittled. A movie heroine could act on the same power and career drives as a man only if, at the climax, they took second place to the sacred love of a man. Otherwise she forfeited her right to that love.
According to society's accepted role definitions, which films have always reflected in microcosm, the interests of men and women are not only different, but actually opposed. A man is supposedly most himself when he is driving to achieve, to create, to conquer; he is least himself when reflecting or making love. A woman is supposedly most herself in the throes of emotion (the love of man or of children), and least herself, that is, least "womanly," in the pursuit of knowledge or success. The stigma becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. By defying cultural expectations, by insisting on professional relationships with men who want only to flatter and flirt with her, a woman becomes "unfeminine" and undesirable, she becomes, in short, a monster. This may explain why there is something monstrous in all the great women stars and why we often like the "best friends" better than the heroines, or the actresses who never quite got to the top (Ann Dvorak, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Mary Astor) better than the ones who did (Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Elizabeth Taylor). The arrogance, the toughness were not merely make-believe. In a woman's "unnatural" climb to success, she did have to step on toes, jangle nerves, antagonize men, and run the risk of not being loved.
In no more than one out of a thousand movies was a woman allowed to sacrifice love for career rather than the other way around. Yet, in real life, the stars did it all the time, either by choice or by default — the result of devoting so much time and energy to a career and of achieving such fame that marriage suffered and the home fell apart. Even with allowances made for the general instability of Hollywood, the nature and number of these breakups suggest that no man could stand being overshadowed by a successful wife. The male ego was sacred; the woman's was presumed to be nonexistent. And yet, what was the "star" but a woman supremely driven to survive, a barely clothed ego on display for all the world to see.
The personality of the star, the mere fact of being a star, was as important as the roles they played, and affected the very conception of those roles. In her original literary form — the long-forgotten 1920s novel by Olive Higgins Prouty — Stella Dallas was the prototypical lower-class "woman as martyr." As played by Belle Bennett in Henry King's silent-film version, she is a tasteful and remote figure of pity. But as played front and center, tacky, tactless, and bravura by Barbara Stanwyck in King Vidor's 1937 remake, she is something else again. Stanwyck, in what may be at once the most excruciating and exhilarating performance on film, takes Stella onto a plane where, no longer just Everywoman as victim, she is an outrageous creature who breaks our hearts even as she grates on our nerves. As the boozy, overdressed, social-climbing mother, Stella/Stanwyck ignores the socially accepted "oughts" by which she could keep our — and her daughter's — sympathy; she risks losing both by exposing in egregious detail the seedy and insensitive side of her nature, the unlovable side of her love. Stanwyck brings us to admire something that is both herself and the character; she gives us a Stella that exceeds in stupidity and beauty and daring the temperate limitations of her literary model and all the generalizations about the second sex.
Again, in Woman of the Year, screenwriters Ring Lardner, Jr., and Michael Kanin did everything possible to sabotage the career woman played by Katharine Hepburn. In their hands she becomes a Lady Macbeth of overweening ambition with so little of the "milk of human kindness" that she is guilty of criminal negligence toward the child she and her husband Spencer Tracy have adopted. Tracy, by contrast, is a doting father — though never to the neglect of his newspaper work, which seems to say that love and ambition can coexist in a man but not in a woman. Yet, because of the strength of character and integrity Hepburn brought to the screen, and the soft and sensual radiance with which director George Stevens illuminated her (thereby contradicting the screenplay), she transcended the meannesses of the plot without in any way excusing them.
There are many stories, some true, some apocryphal, all of them larger than life to fit the stars.
Jean Arthur's name was proposed by Frank Capra to Harry Cohn, the self-made oligarch of Columbia, for the lead in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. "Jean Arthur? D'ja ever hear of her," Cohn asked the director, and when Capra said no, Cohn phoned his yes-men, who also said no. (This was in 1936, when her only significant performance had been in The Whole Town's Talking, which apparently neither of them had seen.) "See," Cohn said triumphantly, "no name." "But she's got a great voice, Harry," Capra pressed. "Great voice," snarled the producer. "D'ja see her face? Half of it's angel, and the other half horse."
Bette Davis carried through her whole career the gallant epithet bestowed by her first producer, Carl Laemmle, that she had "as much sex appeal as Slim Summerville" and the memory (according to her autobiography) of Michael Curtiz directing her in Cabin in the Cotton and muttering from behind the camera, "God-damned-nothing-no-good-sexless-son-of-a-bitch!"
Katharine Hepburn got it from both sides. She was a regular winner of the Sour Apple award, as the most uncooperative actress of the year, from the Hollywood Women's Press Club. And she, Dietrich, and Mae West were the actresses smeared by W. R. Hearst in collaboration with the Catholic Legion of Decency as "box-office poison."
Of Judy Holliday, Harry Cohn, a caricature of both shrewdness and stupidity to the end, is reported by Garson Kanin to have said, "Don't waste my money [on a screen test]. You don't seem to understand. On the stage you can get away with a broad who looks like that, because the audience sits far enough away, but with the camera movin' in, she'd drive people out."
They didn't fit the mold and yet they made it anyway, the proud ones, the unconventional ones, the uppity ones. They were bucking the tide in an industry that, like the human race generally, preferred its women malleable and pleasing to the eye; and that, like men the world over, felt deep down that women should be seen but not heard. Like animals, or silent comics (Harpo Marx, Keaton, the silent Chaplin), women are more lovable without the disputatious, ego-defining dimension of speech. The conception of woman as idol, art object, icon, and visual entity is, after all, the first principle of the aesthetic of film as a visual medium, and filmmakers as divergent as Harry Cohn and Michelangelo Antonioni have subscribed to it. Monica Vitti's angst is a function of her blonde beauty — she can be effectively "used." For Jules and Jim, Catherine existed first as a work of art, a statue, an ideal vision to which there was, luckily, a true woman to conform.
And yet, in nefarious old Hollywood, where the feminine ideal could be, and often was, seen and stated in its crudest form, such stars as Davis and Crawford, Katharine Hepburn and Marie Dressler, Dietrich and Mae West, and so many others who were nothing if not unconventional and often troublemakers to boot, managed to survive. Sure, they had to be punished every so often, particularly as women's real-life power in society and in the job market increased. In the forties, once they had filled men's positions left vacant by the war, they were not so easy to dislodge. As women represented real threats to male economic supremacy, movie heroines had to be brought down to fictional size, domesticated or defanged. But even so, and in the midst of mediocre material, they rose to the surface and projected, through sheer will and talent and charisma, images of emotional and intellectual power.
Women have figured more prominently in film than in any other art, industry, or profession (and film is all three) dominated by men. Although few have made it to the seignorial ranks of director and producer, women have succeeded in every other area where size or physical strength was not a factor: as screenwriters, particularly in the twenties and thirties; as editors; as production and costume designers; as critics; and of course, and most especially, as actresses — as the stars who not only invaded our dream lives but began shaping the way we thought about ourselves before we knew enough to close the door. In the roles of love goddesses, mothers, martyrs, spinsters, broads, virgins, vamps, prudes, adventuresses, she-devils, and sex kittens, they embodied stereotypes and, occasionally, transcended them.
Some, like Mae West, Greta Garbo, Katharine Hep burn, and Joan Crawford, were institutions: stars powerful, eccentric, or intimidating enough to choose their projects and determine their own images, for at least some of their careers. Others, like Lillian Gish, Marlene Dietrich, and Monica Vitti were Galateas, molded and magnificently served by their Pygmalions; or, like Marion Davies and Jean Simmons, ruined by their patrons. Having made it as a star on her own, Norma Shearer sustained her career by marrying M-G-M's boy-genius Irving Thalberg. But not all of David Selznick's more tasteful efforts on Jennifer Jones' behalf (Carrie, with Laurence Olivier, William Wyler directing; We Were Strangers, with John Garfield, John Huston directing) could turn her into a star, probably because women didn't like her. There were actresses like Bette Davis and Ida Lupino who got off on the wrong foot through miscasting or mismanagement, but eventually found themselves. (In the You-Can't-Win department, Davis tells the story of being sent onto the set of the first film of a prop man-turned-director named William Wyler, force-dressed in a low-cut cotton dress that made her feel common, only to have Wyler turn to an assistant and say, "What do you think of these girls who show their chests and think they can get jobs ?") There were others — Patricia Neal, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Mary Astor — who were also-rans, actresses of promise who never became stars, but who were as vivid in one or two roles as others were in a lifetime.
Some, like Carole Lombard, were at the right studio at the wrong time, and others, like Marilyn Monroe, were at the wrong studio at the right time. If Lombard, a classy Paramount comedienne in a decade of oversupply, had been at the same studio in the forties instead, her wistfully zany style might have been turned to better advantage by directors like Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder. Conversely, with Monroe (who was nothing if not fifties), at a studio other than Fox and paired with leading men other than the sexless freaks and mock-lotharios she was always being saddled with, her image might have taken on the spiritual contours of a real woman (as Harlow's did) instead of constricting into a joke.
There was always that danger, and temptation — as there is for every public figure — of freezing in a role, of repeating the public's favorite "act" until the free agent, the unpredictable human being, disappeared behind the image. To women, being more dependent on the love of their public and the good grace of their bosses, and anxious not to lose their "few good years," this course was even more irresistible. To survive, Monroe, Crawford, and others became "signs" or caricatures of themselves, yielded to the pressure of mediocrity that emanated from the American public as much as from the pulses of Harry Cohn and Darryl Zanuck. Audiences didn't want to see Monroe as a sensitive comedienne, but as a sexual monster; nor did they want to see Ingrid Bergman as the soulful middle-class heroine of Rossellini's spiritual pilgrimages. Crawford became imprisoned in a tough heroic image, a mask of nobility that was finally shattered by the sledgehammer caricature of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Excerpted from From Reverence to Rape by Molly Haskell. Copyright © 2016 Molly Haskell. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of ContentsPreface to the Second Edition
The Big Lie
The Woman's Film
1974-1987: The Age of Ambivalence