1. Their Self Image
So, given all these powerful stimulants, given all the care, expense and manipulation that have gone into creating images of giant flawless female bodies, what's the effect these images have on the "typical" woman spectator? Is it the same, for example, as that for a man?
To Doane, there is a great difference. "The woman's relation to the camera and its scopic regime," she suggests, "is quite different from that of the male."
For the female spectator (a phrase, as we shall soon see, that Freud would consider oxymoronic) "there is a certain overpresence of the image she is [italics not added] the image."
Thus, the distance a man, by definition, might enjoy in viewing the woman on the screen which is the "essential precondition for voyeurism" is lacking, turning the process for the woman into a "kind of narcissism."
What, then, happens to the spectator if there is no distance between the image and herself? Does she just disappear? Perhaps. To the Victorian male, the problem of having a woman behave like a man whether she was a "spectator" or an "offender" was easily resolved: the woman was defined out of existence. Thus we have Freud's statement on the absence of the female spectator: "...to those of you who are women this will not apply you are yourselves the problem."
Women, in any capacity apart from that of reactive vessel as a mother perhaps, or a model of beauty or behavior were not really women at all. Lombrosco, for example, could argue that a female criminal could not really be a woman at all, that a female marked by an absence of maternal affection "...belongs more to the male than the female sex."
And if the non–existent female, perhaps seeking her relevance or her identity or maybe just some companionship had the courage in a film to pair up with another allegedly non–existent female, she was doomed to a tragic end. Consider Beaches. One of the women had to die. Or consider
Thelma and Louise
. Having taken a stand for their independence in a male–dominated landscape, the two women are destined, literally, to fall into a hole. Even as they desperately seek their freedom, fleeing from their vacant, male–defined former lives in Texas into the literal void of the Grand Canyon, their movement is contained within a "locus of absence."
So if movement in the outside world were impossible, severely restricted or doomed, what was left to the woman on the screen but movement within herself? This movement within defines the central question of love we see in the "woman's film." As Linda West points out:
It becomes imperative for [a] woman to reinvent herself, to create an identity that...will eventually enable her to go beyond herself to the world at large, to an interest in its history which she at last will have a hand in shaping.
To the outside world the woman was egoless, confined to a life without ambition, or at least without the worldly competition that made a man a man. The male, on the other hand, was not only permitted an ego, but his ego was held as "sacred." On the screen the woman's ego was "presumed to be nonexistent." (Ironically, though, in real life, or at least in the film industry, a female star became a star precisely because she herself was "a woman supremely driven to survive, a barely clothed ego on display for all the world to see."
) Conversely, the man on the screen was encouraged to be ambitious, to exercise that vaunted ego. And even if he went "too far" and crossed the line into criminality (as a spy, perhaps, or a criminal) he could still become a hero. On the other hand, if a woman went "too far" in the pursuit of the one career that same society allowed her that of being a beautiful image and crossed the line into vanity, she would quickly become "a figure of contempt, a laughingstock."
Questions for Class Discussion
1. What are some of the differences in the way males and females perceive the world? Themselves? Actors of their same sex in movies? Actors of the opposite sex? Give specific examples from your life experience.
2. Who are some of the actors with whom you most closely identify? Do they in fact look like you? Act like you? If not, what are some of the reasons you identify with them?
3. For females students: Have you ever identified with a male character in a movie? For male students: How you ever identified with a female character in a movie?
4. It is said that women prefer films about relationships and that men prefer films about action. Do you think that is true? If so, how much of that preference do you think is socially (rather than biologically) determined?
5. Would you tend to judge a woman who has "gone too far" more harshly than you would a man who has "gone too far"?
2. Their Identity and Stereotypes
Far more than men, women were used as the vessels of fantasy for both sexes. To the man, the woman on the screen acted out certain stereotypical roles: the broad, the prude, the love goddess, the she–devil, the vamp, the virgin, the spinster and the sex kitten. For women, the female star served as a model: she
fashion. Housewives, store clerks and secretaries lived out their fantasies through her. Her clothes, her hair style, even the shape of her body was able to influence popular culture in a way that no literary heroine ever could. But this power held a trap. As with every public figure whose esteem is based primarily on image, there was always the danger of becoming sacrificed in a role, of "...repeating the public's favorite 'act' until the free agent, the unpredictable human being, disappeared behind the image."
And for women more dependent than men on the whim of both fashion and their male bosses and afraid of losing the "few good years" allocated to an image that danger was greatly increased.
Questions for Class Discussion
1. List on the board the following roles. Ask each student in the class to decide for each role whether it is F = female, M = male, or B = both. Then tally the results for the class as a whole, write them on the board, and ask: To what extent did your answers reflect stereotypes?
2. Are women more concerned than men with body image and fashion? With their age?
3. Aside from the money, would you really like to be famous?
3. "Good Girl" vs. "Bad Girl"
For those "few good years," however, her image might be in demand, and she could exist as an image, even as a "bad" image. But that "badness" was allowed (progress having been made from the days of Lombrosco and his impossible female offender) only within a rigid dichotomy. The female, unlike the more complicated male, had to be either good or bad: "There were only two kinds of women in the world bad and good."
Yet even this artificial construct wasn't enough to comfort the worried male. After all, there was always the secret fear that an "apparently good woman might, at any unexpected moment, turn out to be bad."
The good girl/bad girl polarity is not always so blatantly depicted. The "bad girl" could take many forms. She could be a tease, or narcissistic, or, well, just too beautiful for anybody's good. For example, The
(1985) presents us with five standard high–school stereotypes, all together for an unusual Saturday morning detention. Molly Ringwald plays one of them, the pretty prom queen. Michael Hall, in the role of the high–school intellectual stereotype, says it for all the kids at his school (and for all the audience too) when he tells her: "You're just so full of yourself, Claire." Yet another version of the "bad girl" in the film the loner/compulsive liar is played by Ally Sheedy.
The poles of all good and all bad are, by definition, mutually exclusive. This rule of exclusion could jump from the screen into real life, as in the case of three characters from the film
The Woman in Red
. In the movie Gene Wilder pursued Le Brock, the woman of the title sumptuous and unattainable. But in real life, he married Brock's movie opposite the ordinary and very attainable Gilda Radner.
The man's fear of (and attraction to) the non–marrying kind of woman was literally codified and vigorously enforced in the Production Code, the standard that equated the "precarious edifice of civilization [with] ... the holy institution of matrimony."
Questions for Class Discussion
1. Is a male today more inclined than a female to judge a member of the opposite sex as
either good or bad
2. Consider Madonna. She has prospered by fashioning, and marketing, a public image of herself as a "bad girl." To what extent is the distinction between "good girl" and "bad girl" an accurate reflection of our society? To what extent is it an artificial creation to market personalities?
3. Aside from "good/bad," what are some other commonly accepted social dichotomies?
4. Love, Career and Maternal Desires
Ironically, however, the conservative Production Code aided the cause of the working woman, in yet another instance of the woman on the screen leaping out of the theater into real life:
Under threats from the Hays office, women were no longer able to languish in satin on a chaise lounge and subsist on passion; they were forced to do something, and a whole generation of working women came into being.
After a while the good girl/bad girl dichotomy was transformed into the motherhood/career dichotomy. This conflict between a woman's worldly urges (for career or for men) and her maternal duties would be played out repeatedly. In
Imitation of Life
(1959) the director Sirk constantly draws parallels between the "good" black mother (Annie) and the "bad" white mother (Lora) in both the way they related to their daughters and to their work. Once again according to Lombrosco and other backward–thinking men a woman is not really a woman if she is neither good nor maternal. In
Imitation of Life
a particularly late 1950's version of the dichotomy goodness, badness, motherhood and career (and, as we shall soon see, blackness and whiteness as well) are all blended together in the "maternal melodrama which tends to pit the concept of the 'good mother' against the concept of the 'bad mother.'"
Let us jump ahead twenty years to
Kramer vs. Kramer
(1979). There has been some progress. The man in this film (Dustin Hoffman)
learn how to suppress his ego drives, and he
learn how to be a nurturing and patient father. But the man is allowed to be a parent
have a career, whereas for the woman (Meryl Streep), it's still one thing or the other. The urge for female self–fulfillment, in this case through a career, is opposed to, outweighs and in fact precludes mother love.
A few years later, though, in 1987, Diane Keaton can have both and stick it to her former [male] boss, as well in
. But the vestiges of the old pattern remain: She still needs an understanding man (a college professor, of course). And her knees still shake when she confronts her ex–boss in the board room. And, before she is transformed by the baby and Vermont, while pursuing her career aggressively in New York, like Faye Dunaway in
, she can only have sex "quickly, like a man."
Let's return for a moment to the fifties and look at
(1955). In this film Jane Wyman, playing the woman of the title, agrees to marry Charlton Heston. At the same time, however, she "sounds like a man," both in her ambition to make her shop bigger and better and in her reason for doing so: "I'm going to give them [the local women] an opportunity to celebrate the way they like to, buying clothes." When Heston asks Wyman who's going to run the store after they get married, this exchange follows:
Wyman: I am.
Heston: I thought being married is a full–time job. What about kids? How are you going to manage that? Move the maternity ward into the store?
Later, when the store burns down Heston lends her the money she needs to pay off her bank note. Older now and wiser, recognizing the need of being rescued by the man, Wyman finally tells Heston she wants to get married. This exchange follows:
Heston: Who'll mind the store?
Wyman: What store?
(End of movie.)
Questions for Class Discussion
1. Is a woman wrong for choosing a career over motherhood? Are the two mutually exclusive? Does a woman who works necessarily make a less effective mother?
2. What do you think of Charlton Heston's comment in
: "I thought being married is a full–time job [for a woman]"?
3. Is a mother better able to raise a child than a father? Would you think a man is "less of a man" if he were a full–time househusband with a working wife?