9 Women in Cinema
“It seems like a silly, girlish thing to do.”
That’s what Léon Gaumont, owner of a Parisian photography company, said to his secretary, Alice Guy-Blaché, when she asked if she could film a few scenes with the new cinematograph in 1896. They had just come from the exhibition where the Lumiere brothers had unveiled their invention with such riveting classics as Workers Leaving a Factory and Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station (okay, that’s sarcasm, they were super boring). But Alice saw the potential of the new technology. She saw a whole new way to tell a story. And she wanted to see what she could do with it. Her boss was less enthusiastic, “On one condition: that your office work doesn’t suffer.”
So, after hours, Alice wrote, directed and edited The Cabbage Fairy (1896), a short, one-minute film about a young woman plucking babies out of a cabbage patch:
By all accounts, it was the first entirely fictional film ever produced. Before Georges Melies. Before D. W. Griffith. In fact, Alice Guy-Blaché would go on to establish her own studio, Solax Pictures, in the United States in 1910, and make as many as 1,000 films over the course of her lifetime. Many of those films featured women in principle roles or gave women at least equal weight to men. She experimented with synchronized sound, color cinematography, and pushed the boundaries of what was possible in cinematic storytelling.
She was a force of nature in the fledgling film industry. One of a kind.
And that was the problem.
For those first several years of her professional life, she was one of the only women making cinema in the world. Others would follow, of course, including Lois Weber (who got her start by working for Guy-Blaché), the great Mabel Normand (the female Charlie Chaplin… or maybe Chaplin was the male Mabel Norman), and eventually, during the Golden Age, the trailblazing Ida Lupino (who also formed her own small studio). And there were many women employed as writers and, especially, editors in the early film industry. But the fact was, that industry was (and unfortunately still is) dominated by men:
I know. What’s new, right? An industry dominated by men that historically marginalizes women, forcing them to work twice as hard to achieve half as much. It’s an all-too-common theme in modern history. But there’s something much more important at work here than “simply” unfair labor practices. The films produced out of this imbalance became part of our shared cultural experience, they showed us ourselves to ourselves, or at least a version of ourselves. And that version was shaped almost entirely by men.
Just take a look at the earliest films ever made. George Melies’ A Trip to the Moon, for example. An intrepid group of astronomers – all men – set off on a scientific expedition to the moon (shot from a cannon inexplicably surrounded by bevy of young women in skimpy sailor suits). Remember Lev Kuleshov’s experiment with editing? It pointedly featured a man “reacting” to a scantily-clad woman. Heck, even Edison’s early 5-second film The Sneeze is an uninspired image of a man sneezing.
Guy-Blaché’s first film? It featured a woman without a man in sight.
Perhaps if there were more Alice Guy-Blachés and fewer D. W. Griffiths in those early years I wouldn’t need to write this chapter (but, come on, who are we kidding?). But the net result of this lopsided control over one of the most influential forms of mass media in the 20th century was a seemingly infinite loop of images crafted by men and re-enforcing the idea that women were the “weaker sex”. In fact, in almost all of those early films women characters were relegated to two conflicting roles: the virginal, saintly Madonna in need of saving; or the debased, fallen “loose” woman who must be cast out if not eliminated.
It was right out of Freud. Literally. Sigmund Freud had a term for it: The Madonna-Whore Complex. It explained what he observed as a paradox of male desire: the degraded “loose” women men desired were not worthy of love; and yet the women worthy of men’s love were too pure to be desired. Film critics have applied this concept to the (mostly male) portrayal of women in early film, a kind of psychoanalysis of cinema, and have found a startling pattern of women cast as either the chaste “damsel in distress” or the wanton temptress. Remember this scene back in the chapter on editing:
It’s from D.W. Griffith’s Way Down East (1920). I used it to demonstrate an early example of parallel action, an element of cinematic form. But what about the content? Well, it’s about a young woman, played by Lilian Gish, who is tricked into a fake marriage, gets pregnant, is abandoned by the father, loses the baby, tries to start over in a new town and when her “disgraceful” past is exposed, is cast out into the snow by the town mayor. Sheesh. Fortunately, the mayor’s own son heroically saves her. A kind of two-for-one in the Madonna-Whore Complex.
And it turns out Gish and Griffiths made a habit of leaning hard into this trope. Remember this scene:
It’s from Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (1919). I used it to demonstrate an early example of acting style, another element of cinematic form. And the content? This one is about a young woman, again played by Gish, who is brutalized by her abusive father and finds solace in the (chaste) arms of a Chinese immigrant. When her father finds out, he beats her. To death. The Chinese immigrant, played by Richard Barthelmess (the same actor who saves Gish in Way Down East, and no, he was not Asian), kills her father and then kills himself. This one has all the trappings of the Madonna-Whore Complex and xenophobic racism. Griffith was on a roll.
But perhaps the best (worst?) example of the Madonna-Whore Complex in early cinema, at least in terms of the villainous temptress aspect, would have to be Theda Bara. Bara was arguably cinema’s first sex symbol, appearing in over 40 films during the silent era. The term “vamp” was actually coined to refer to her recurring character, an intoxicating temptress who could lure even the most morally upright men into sin. Rumors circulated that she was born in the Sahara, a mysterious and wanton woman.
The truth is, she was born Theodosia Goodman, and her father was a tailor from Cincinnati. The name Theda Bara? Fox Studios made it up. It’s an anagram for “Arab Death” (Oh, how I wish I were making this up).
These are just a few examples of early cinema’s narrow view of women and the roles they were allowed to play. But how does this happen? Are the men behind the camera all raging misogynists? Maybe. But it’s not that simple. To understand how this pattern developed and what effect it has on society, we have to understand how certain kinds of power work, and what happens when that power intersects with mass media.
The first concept we need to understand is hegemony. In the most basic sense, hegemony refers to any political or social dominance of one group over another. Now, any good colonizer will tell you that anyone with a large enough army can exert a certain amount of control over another nation or region simply by brute force. But violence will only get you so far. Sooner or later, the oppressed will resist violence with violence. Instead, what if you could convince them their oppression is somehow beneficial, or even divinely ordained? What if you could establish a set of cultural institutions – politics, education, religion, the arts, etc – that built this narrative of colonization as the “natural order of things” from the ground up? What if the oppressed internalized this narrative and actually participated in their own repression? Well, then you’d have a hegemony on your hands. And perhaps the most insidious aspect of this form of power? It works both ways. Those in power also internalize that narrative, believing that their oppression of whole nations and regions is somehow divinely ordained and, ultimately, for everyone’s own good.
Don’t believe me? Just ask the British Empire how they managed to rule over 1/4 of the earth’s population at the height of their power.
The second concept we need to understand is patriarchy. The term refers to any cultural system in which men hold the primary power (political, social, economic, moral), including authority over women. To be clear, just because a nation elects a woman as head of state (I’m looking at you, basically every modern democracy except the United States) doesn’t mean they’ve suddenly ushered in a matriarchy. Patriarchies are complex, historically produced and institutionally affirmed systems where power is multi-layered and distributed unevenly throughout society. A woman president of the United States, for example, would not instantly shift that balance of power (any more than an African American president instantly eradicated racism).
So, two big ideas – hegemony and patriarchy – put them together and what do you got? That’s right, hegemonic patriarchy: a cultural system in which men hold the primary power to manipulate meaning and values such that even women perceive their own subjugation as the natural order of things. Whew. Quite a mouthful. Let’s break it down. This is a system in which men wield extraordinary power over women, not through physical violence (though all too often that is employed as well), but through an array of cultural institutions that convince women that their oppression is somehow for their own benefit, divinely ordained, the “natural order of things.” And the trick is, men come to believe it too, convinced by that same narrative. The result is that no one, neither the oppressed not the oppressor, recognizes it as a cultural invention, a product of history. They all believe it to be a truth that exists outside of themselves, and no one thinks to challenge it.
Okay, I know. This book is supposed to be about movies. What does hegemonic patriarchy have to do with cinema? Well, it turns out, mass media is one of the most effective means of communicating the values and ideas that prop up hegemonic systems. And cinema, a medium that has historically been controlled almost entirely by men (and white men at that, but more on that later), is one of the most effective examples of mass media. In fact, for the previous eight chapters I’ve discussed in great detail how cinema manipulates meaning through a host of tools and techniques that remain largely invisible, by design, to most viewers. And that’s exactly how we like it. We want to be manipulated. But maybe we should think a little more deeply about what is being manipulated and just who is doing the manipulating. In film after film, from the earliest narrative cinema, through the Golden Age and the New Hollywood, and arguably into the modern era, the Madonna-Whore Complex has shaped how cinema, and by implication we the audience, see women. For the men in that audience (and behind the camera), that has meant decades of objectifying of women as either virginal or villainous. For the women, it has meant decades of internalizing that same paradox.
WOMEN IN THE GOLDEN AGE
The Madonna-Whore Complex was clearly alive and well throughout the early years of cinema. But remember that cinema and society exist in a kind of ongoing feedback loop, where cinema both reflects the values of society and also influences those same values. Typically this process results in a net re-enforcement of the status quo, where cinema, controlled by a narrow slice of society (again, mostly men and mostly white), remains inherently conservative. But change happens. And as the industry and the technology has evolved over time, we can trace the shifts in that cultural feedback loop, observing where cinema reflects political, economic and cultural change, and where it influences society to potentially resist those same changes.
Let’s look at a couple of examples.
The Golden Age of cinema covers the period in Hollywood production from around the adoption of synchronized sound in 1927 to the anti-trust case that dismantled studio monopolies in 1948 and the rise of television in the 1950s. During that period, the world was plunged into a second great war right on the heels of a global depression. When the United States entered the war in the 1940s, there was a massive mobilization of resources, including a seismic shift in how women fit into the nation’s economy. With thousands of men off fighting in the war, someone had to keep the factories going. Women entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers, doing manual labor and other jobs historically reserved for men. Desperate times called for desperate measures… like giving a woman a wrench, apparently.
Around this same period, one of the most popular genres produced by Hollywood was the hardboiled detective story, gritty, urban and full of morally ambiguous characters. Eventually, this trend in cinema would come to be known as Film Noir. Every studio got in on it, though Warner Bros. was the most prolific. The Maltese Falcon (1941), Double Indemnity (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), there were dozens of them every year. And each one invariably featured two main characters, the righteous if fatally flawed detective, and the beautiful if emotionally damaged temptress, the Femme Fatale. The Femme Fatale typically set the story in motion, stepping into the (male) protagonist’s life with a tale of woe, desperate for his help, but usually hiding a secret that could get them both killed. Sometimes the Femme Fatale would wind up behind bars or dead, and sometimes they could be redeemed and live happily ever after. But that was the point. You never quite knew if you could trust them, they were mysterious, morally ambiguous, and most importantly, didn’t seem to know their place.
At a time when thousands of women were forced to cross an invisible but sacrosanct line and engage in public, manual “men’s” work, Hollywood was filling movie houses with images of unpredictable, dangerous women pushing the boundaries of acceptable behavior, reflecting society’s anxiety over the moral ambiguity of women leaving the home for the factory. But more than merely reflecting a contemporary reality, these films also seemed to have strong opinions about these women, and thus exerted a certain influence over movie-goers. Echoing that tried and true Madonna-Whore Complex, these films (and their male filmmakers) suggest that these women would eventually need to be redeemed by a good man or end up in jail (or worse).
In the years that followed, especially after the war, the United States experienced an incredible economic expansion, known as the post-war boom. Not only did the men return to take their places in the factories, white-collar work became more available and higher paying. New housing developments, the “suburbs”, developed to cater to the higher salaries and growing families. Women were not only sent back to their homes; those homes were bigger and more luxurious than ever before.
But the genie was already out of the bottle. Thousands of women had experienced the psychological and economic freedom of work outside the home, and many were reluctant to fall back into pre-war patterns. This would eventually grow into a social and political movement for gender equality in the 1960s and 70s, but in the short term, during the 1950s and the tail end Hollywood’s Golden Age, there was a collective restlessness in U.S. society.
And what was the response from Hollywood? With the 1950s came the end of Film Noir (though it would survive in various forms and at various periods throughout the century), and the rise of the domestic comedy and the Blonde Bombshell, portrayed most famously and consistently by Marilyn Monroe. Films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) and Tunnel of Love (1958) all featured women, mostly blonde, often portrayed as naïve innocents (and sometimes willfully unintelligent) who were either blissfully happy housewives or desperately wanted to be. The unifying theme of all of these films was that a woman’s place was in the home, preferably with a wealthy, successful husband. Cinema in that historical moment reflected a kind of nostalgia for the gender dynamics of pre-war America, but it also presented that image as an ideal for women to internalize and ultimately pursue.
What is crucial to understand about the dynamic described above is that it is bound up in a much larger hegemonic process. This is not the malevolent scheme of a few powerful actors bent on controlling society. I am fairly confident there was never a room full of men from all the major Hollywood studios working out how to make films that would convince women to stay subservient to men (I mean… fairly confident). And that’s because there doesn’t have to be. That’s the power of hegemonic patriarchy, everyone – men and women – are bound up in the same system, internalizing and re-producing the meaning and values that support inequality… without ever recognizing it as un-equal.
SECOND WAVE FEMINISM AND THE MALE GAZE
By the time we get to the 1960s, enough women had had enough of the status quo, and they didn’t care what Hollywood had to say about it. Women like Betty Friedan, who founded the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966, were tired of the limitations placed on women in the post-war period. Not just in terms of where and how they could work, but how they dressed, what they thought, and who they loved. Inspired by women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony who, a half century earlier, fought and won the right for women to vote, Friedan and women like her wanted to build on that political revolution with a more wide-spread cultural revolution. To them, the women’s suffrage movement was the “first wave” of feminism, the beginning of real change. They wanted to usher in the Second Wave of feminism that would fundamentally alter the way women engaged with politics, the economy and society in general.
There was just one problem. They were still living in a hegemonic patriarchy. Second wave feminists wanted to change the fundamental values of society, but they had little or no access to the mechanisms that controlled and manipulated meaning. Namely, mass media and, more specifically, cinema. Their strategies involved mass protests, marches, support groups, lectures, and other more traditional forms of political activism. None of which could effectively compete with the hegemonic machine of cultural production churning out a counter-narrative in cineplexes (and on televisions) around the country. Not to mention the fact that their main source of resistance wasn’t from men who wanted to hold onto their social position, it was from other women who had internalized the patriarchal idea that their place was in the home, that it was the “natural order of things.”
The result was wave after wave of cinematic responses to the Women’s Movement that echoed the earlier responses from Film Noir to the Blonde Bombshell. First up was the late 60s trend toward sexploitation films. These films, like Sex and the Single Girl (1964) and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965) (not to mention the lower-budget, grindhouse films that were more akin to pornography), embraced one small part of the movement, the sexual liberation of women. These films managed to both undermine the movement by using sexual freedom as an excuse to further objectify women’s bodies, and conveniently ignore every other issue important to second wave feminists. By the late 1960s and into the 1970s, this tactic shifted into ignoring women altogether in favor of male buddy comedies like The Odd Couple (1968) and The Sting (1973), films that seemed to suggest that men could get along quite well without any women at all.
It was around this time, 1975 to be exact, that film theorist Laura Mulvey wrote “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” a pivotal essay that helped clarify how hegemonic patriarchy worked, specifically in cinema. It was like pulling back the curtain to see how meaning was manipulated and by whom. And she did it by giving it a name: The Male Gaze.
Mulvey’s premise is pretty simple. First, she suggests we’re all inherently narcissistic. That is, we tend to think of ourselves as the center of the universe. So, when we see the (male) hero in a film, all of us, male and female, tend to identify with that hero. Second, she suggests we are also all inherently voyeuristic. That is, we like to watch others but remain unobserved ourselves. Which is, essentially, what cinema offers. As I’ve written several times in the preceding chapters, the camera is our only way into the cinematic world. We watch events unfold through the frame, which can suggest the frame of a painting in terms of composition, but also a window frame in terms of our fascination with watching the private lives of others. Put those two together, and you get two mutually re-enforcing phenomena: We identify with a male hero in his objectification of female characters (as Madonnas or whores), and we identify with the camera as it mirrors that objectification. Put more simply, the Male Gaze suggests the camera is never a neutral observer, but rather it forces all viewers to assume a heterosexual male point of view.
And since you can never have too much irony in your life, here’s a guy mansplaining the Male Gaze that I just mansplained for you:
Or we could just hear Mulvey talk about it herself:
The Male Gaze explains a lot about the cinematic examples I outline above. And it makes sense when you think about how rare an Alice Guy-Blaché or Ida Lupino was throughout most of 20th century Hollywood. The fact was men were overwhelmingly the ones making the films, from the studio executives right down to the production assistants. But even if there were more women involved, the hegemonic patriarchy was so firmly in place we may well have seen them reproducing the same images, adopting that Male Gaze and thinking it was neutral.
By the 1980s, it was as if Hollywood, and society in general, knew that the game was up. Mulvey’s theory of the Male Gaze had exposed cinema as a tool of hegemonic patriarchy (at least for those who had bothered to read her work). But instead of opening up the process to more voices, allowing the machine of meaning production to evolve with changing times, the industry doubled down on resisting the revolution of second wave feminism. Whether it was role reversal comedies like Mr. Mom (1983) and Three Men and a Baby (1987) that affirmed a woman’s place in the home by showing us the comedic anarchy of men trying to change a diaper or do the shopping, or the trend toward blockbuster action movies like Commando (1985), Rambo (1985), and Die Hard (1988) starring hypermasculine men – Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Willis – capable of saving the world without a woman in sight, Hollywood did its best to reproduce images of a woman’s place (or complete absence) in line with traditional patriarchal ideals.
But the most interesting and enduring of these trends was the 80s slasher movie. The horror sub-genre arguably got its start in the late 70s with John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) (or even earlier for horror purists who point to Black Christmas and Texas Chainsaw Massacre, both from 1974), but really hit its stride in the 80s with Prom Night (1980) Friday the 13th (1980), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and a host of sequels and knockoffs that continue to this day. In each, a familiar pattern develops. A group of young men and women gathers at a cabin, a lake house, a suburban neighborhood, and test the boundaries of moral purity through drinking, drugs, and most often, sex. One by one they are brutally killed by a faceless killer, as if being punished for their transgressions. Until the last victim. Almost always a woman. And almost always the one character who remained pure, who didn’t drink or engage in sex. And it’s that character that either escapes with her life or overcomes the faceless killer. Madonna-Whore Complex anyone? The trope became so common we gave the character a name: The Final Girl:
WOMEN IN CONTEMPORARY CINEMA
Obviously, the Male Gaze is alive and well in contemporary cinema. As is its corollary, the Madonna-Whore Complex. Women continue to be objectified and marginalized in mass media entertainment, and cinema, whether in the multiplex or streaming across the internet, continues to be a powerful tool in perpetuating hegemonic patriarchy. But, fortunately, there has been more resistance and critique in the years since Mulvey’s essay.
One important source of that contemporary critique originated from an unexpected source: a 1985 LGBTQ comic strip in Dykes to Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel (Though perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a critique of marginalization would need to start at the margins of mass media). In one ten-panel comic strip, Bechdel shows two women contemplating a trip to the theater. One of them explains that she has a rule about going to the movies. Basically, it has to satisfy three requirements: 1) It has to have at least two women in it; 2) Those two women have to actually talk to each other; and 3) They have to talk about something besides a man.
That’s it. Pretty simple, right? Now think about the last few movies or even tv series you’ve watched. How many of them could pass that test? In fact, by the early 2000s, that’s exactly what this became, a test. The Bechdel Test, to be more precise. A kind of basic test to see if a piece of filmed entertainment could muster even the absolute bare minimum of equal representation. Here’s a quick video essay about it (that is mercifully not narrated by a man):
It is astonishing how little of even contemporary cinema can pass this test. Don’t believe me? Check out this relatively depressing running tally: https://bechdeltest.com/
As the feminist critique of cinema gained steam through the 2000s, even film and tv advertising came under scrutiny. For example, Marcia Belsky started a social media campaign to highlight a bizarre but largely unexamined trend in Hollywood advertising: they like to chop women’s heads off. Her Tumblr The Headless Women of Hollywood is an endless scroll of headless women in film and tv series advertisements. This kind of visual dismemberment, not uncommon in the films themselves, is the height of objectification. A woman’s body, or even just one body part, is isolated as an object of visual pleasure (see The Male Gaze above).
These calls for greater awareness of the representation of women on screen are useful and productive. But much of the discussion above regarding the Madonna-Whore Complex and the Male Gaze in 20th and 21st century cinema hinges on the reality that the entertainment industry, like many other industries throughout that period, has historically been owned and operated almost entirely by men. Unless and until there are more women behind the camera actually telling the stories, cinema will remain steeped in that patriarchal point of view.
Fortunately, there’s some light there too.
Despite the early successes of female filmmakers in the silent era, women were rarely “allowed” behind the camera throughout much of the 20th century. Unless they took control themselves. That’s what Hollywood movie star turned filmmaker Ida Lupino did. As an up and coming actor in the 1940s, she was offered the usual stereotyped roles that actors on contract were required to perform during the Golden Age. Fed up, she started her own independent film company and made several films that foregrounded controversial (for the time) subjects like out-of-wedlock pregnancy and sexual assault. Still, she remained on the margins of the industry as a director and producer, a rare exception that seemed to prove the rule of male dominance.
Others would follow in Lupino’s path, especially in the era of low-budget indie filmmaking. Shirley Clarke, for example, made a series of underground, independent films starring non-actors in the 1950s and 60s, most famously with The Connection (1961). Julie Dash was another trailblazer for women filmmakers, picking up where Clarke left off in the 1980s and early 90s.
By the 21st century, the work of those pioneers began to finally pay off as more and more women stepped behind the camera to take control of the cinematic narrative. It helped that more and more women were also rising in the ranks at the major Hollywood studios, able to greenlight film and television that supported that narrative (or at the very least, passed the Bechdel Test). Writers like Diablo Cody (Juno, Young Adult), Amanda Silver (Jurassic World, Mulan) and Andrea Berloff (Straight Outta Compton) and directors like Katherine Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty), Ava DuVernay (Selma, When They See Us) and Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird, Little Women) have generated cinema that, even if it doesn’t directly dismantle patriarchy (What’s with the high heels in Jurassic World? Oh, right, a man directed that), poses a direct challenge to the iron grip men have had on the medium from the beginning.
Still, we are a long way off from true gender equality when it comes to who controls the medium. A recent study showed that out of 1,335 entertainment professionals surveyed, only 14.4% of the writers were women, 21.1% of the producers were women, and most startling, only 4.5% of the directors were women. And even when a woman finds herself in a position of power or influence in the entertainment industry, they are often paid much less than men in the same position. This wage discrimination has been highly publicized when it affects well-known movie stars, like when Mark Wahlberg was paid eight times more than Michelle Williams for the film (ironically titled) All the Money in the World (2017), but it affects women at every level of the industry. Add to this humiliation the rampant sexual misconduct, harassment and outright assault suffered by women throughout that same industry, as exposed by the #metoo and Times Up movements, it may seem like an absolute miracle that there are still women willing and able to work within the system to tell their stories.
But it isn’t a miracle.
It’s the result of more than 100 years of struggle, from Guy-Blaché to Greta Gerwig. And yes, as I made clear earlier in the chapter, simply having a woman behind the camera does not necessarily translate into a uniquely feminist cinema. Hegemonic patriarchy implicates everyone, and women are just as capable of reproducing the tropes of inequality. But the more voices we have telling our cinematic stories, the more likely those stories will reflect the diversity of our collective experience.
Video and Image Attributions:
La fée aux choux 1896 The Cabbage Fairy – 1st Female Filmmaker – Silent Short Film – Alice Guy by Smells Like Popcorn. Standard Vimeo License.
Way Down East (1920) D. W. Griffith, dir. – Final Chase Scene by FilmStudies. Standard YouTube License.
Lillian Gish in BROKEN BLOSSOMS — The Closet Scene by veiledchamber. Standard YouTube License.
Theda Bara. Public Domain Image.
Jane Greer as the Femme Fatale in Out of the Past (1947). Public Domain Image.
Marilyn Monroe in Niagra (1953). Public Domain Image.
Are women still objectified? | Laura Mulvey Male Gaze theory explained! by The Media Insider. Standard YouTube License.