Posted by Susan Doll on October 17, 2016
This month, TCM spotlights “Trailblazing Women–Actresses Who Made a Difference,” a series of movies featuring female stars who contributed to the industry, culture, and society. The series covers all eras of movie history, from Mary Pickford, who was an industry powerhouse in the silent days, to Jane Fonda and Cicely Tyson, who were activists off the screen in 1970s and 1980s. The program is the second part of a three-year effort in partnership with Women in Film (WIF) in which TCM devotes October to championing the achievements of women in Hollywood
TCM viewers who are enjoying “Trailblazing Women” should check out the new, third edition of From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies by film historian Molly Haskell. Haskell, who sometimes cohosts on TCM, covers the silent era to the late 20th century, the same time frame as “Trailblazing Women.” While there is some overlap between the series and the book, Haskell’s focus is on the image of women in the movies, the stars who embodied these images, and the relationship of these images to women in society.
Long ago, when I was in film school, I was introduced to feminist film theory, particularly the work of Laura Mulvey, who innovated the concept of the male gaze, or the visual objectification of women in the eye of the male beholder. I was conflicted by the work of Mulvey, and the first generation of feminist film critics who followed her lead, because they didn’t seem to like the movies. In class, we were required to look critically at classic Hollywood movies for their conservative ideology and patriarchal perspective, with the unspoken assumption that we would ultimately reject the films from the Golden Age. The problem was that the grad students in my circle were all diehard movie-lovers. We spent endless evenings at the Varsity repertory theater watching double features of old movies. We regularly attended the college film series on the weekends and went to contemporary films at least once a week. As a young woman, I felt I should embrace a feminist perspective on films, but I was a cinephile first. Movies came before politics, religion, or boyfriends–always.
When I first read From Reverence to Rape, I was relieved that Molly Haskell also admitted movies were her “first allegiance,” and that the theory of the male gaze “seemed too monolithic, a narrow one-way street, allowing no room for the pleasure women take in looking and being seen.” Without discrediting earlier feminist writings, Haskell expanded perspectives and enlightened readers not only because she loved the movies but also because she knew cinema history. In discussing Rosalind Russell’s complex star image as a professional woman, she compliments the actress on her perfect comic timing; in evaluating Gloria Swanson, she dispels the star’s image from Sunset Boulevard by reminding readers of Swanson’s silent-era comedies in which she played “goofy” and “dippy” characters. She details a Swanson silent called Stage Struck that I was lucky enough to see, even though the comedy is rarely mentioned by historians or scholars. She freely uses terms such as “sexpots” and “nice girls,” which reveals her down-to-earth writing style. Somehow, I can’t imagine Laura Mulvey discussing comic timing, or using the word “sexpot.”
With her approach, Haskell reclaims classic films and female stars, explaining their meaning and appeal for women. But, she is no apologist for an industry that has excluded women from behind the camera, tried to pigeon-hole women characters as wives and mothers, shaped female archetypes that reflect male fears and desires, and turned on actresses who defied male standards of beauty and femaleness. After the female-friendly silent era, in which many women were able to produce, write, and even direct films, Hollywood yanked women from behind the camera during the 1930s. Haskell explains that despite this, female stars such as Mae West, Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, and Marlene Dietrich offered more than just glamour and fashion to women viewers. The confidence, grit, and powerful screen presence of these stars went beyond the limitations of their characters, creating subtext in their roles not found in the pages of the scripts.
Haskell’s analysis of West, Hepburn, Stanwyck, and Dietrich not only clarifies their appeal but also amplifies how significant the star system was during the Golden Age. Beyond the feminist perspective of From Reverence to Rape the description and elucidation of the star system, particularly the way star image served as a storytelling system for defining character, is very enlightening. The star system has disintegrated in contemporary Hollywood, because the studios are run by corporate hacks, and young actors dismiss or misunderstand the idea behind star image. It is important that film historians and critics chronicle the Hollywood star system of the silent era and the Golden Age so that younger viewers can appreciate and understand why the legendary stars of those periods remain so potent in meaning.
The most sobering part of Haskell’s original text, first published in 1974, is the way that it chronicled the beginning of the marginalization of female characters in Hollywood films. The gender divide began with the breakdown of the studio system and star system in the early 1960s. By the early 1970s, the Film School Generation’s preference for anti-heroes and unheroic protagonists led to a “separation of the sexes more radical than at any previous point in our history.” In the 1987 edition of the book, Haskell expands on her perspective, describing the depiction of women as fragmented and schizoid. As critic Manohla Dargis observes in her astute foreward to this edition, the separation of sexes is now complete. The vast majority of Hollywood films, which are aimed primarily at male youths, are divided into comic book adventures, cop or crime stories, and comedy bro-mances for male audiences, while female viewers are treated to “chick flicks,” a term that belittles female-centric movies and positions them outside the mainstream.
I know the third edition of From Reverence to Rape, which was published this month, will appeal to Morlocks readers, who are among the most articulate and informed cinephiles I know. It has always been an inspiration and pleasure to engage in discussion and debate with my readers.
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