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10th of December 2018

Entertainment



What the Movies taught me about being a woman | The Star

One of the most ravishing kisses in movies is in The Quiet Man, a John Ford classic. Maureen O’Hara plays an Irish villager who falls for John Wayne’s Irish-American stranger. They first see each other while she’s tending sheep barefoot, and initially, they mostly trade searching looks. But one night he finds that this wilful woman has sneaked into his house. She runs for the door. He pulls her to him. They scuffle and, as he holds her right arm behind her back, her left arm goes limp. He leans down to kiss her, enfolding her. It’s exquisite; some might call it rapey.

I was a movie-struck kid, and I learned much from watching the screen, including things about men and women that I later had to unlearn or learn to ignore. I learned that women needed to be protected, controlled and left at home. I learned that men led, women followed. And so, although I loved Fred Astaire, I merely liked his greatest dance partner, Ginger Rogers. I was charmed by her sly smile and dazzled by the curve of her waist as she bent in his embrace. But I saw her as a woman in the great man’s arms, a message I didn’t learn just from films.

In the first film book I owned, The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book, critic Arlene Croce wrote of an Astaire-Rogers number: “The way she gazes up wordlessly at this marvellous man she’s been dancing with exalts him, her, and everything we’ve just seen.” Croce promised me, “Only in Astaire musicals do we dream like this.” The dream metaphor is seductive unless you remember what women are often told to dream. In the wake of Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo, I have been thinking a lot about what movies have asked me to dream, including the image of the forced kiss and all that it signifies about women and film. I’ve been thinking about what else I learned from them.

This brings me to Mae West, whose voice I could passably imitate by the time I was 10. I didn’t get her double-entendres and was too young to understand camp. For me, West was beautiful, funny, mouthy and generously padded (which I read as plump, like me). She had the best lines and Cary Grant’s adoration, and her sass and saunter compelled everyone to follow her lead. Only as an adult did I learn that she had negotiated great creative control in her films and that her depiction of female sexuality made her a target, including of Hollywood censors. It put her sass into perspective; it also felt like vindication for a mouthy girl.

Movies teach us all sorts of things: how to aspire, whom to fantasize about (all those princes will come), how to smoke, dress, walk into a room (always like Bette Davis). They teach us whom to love and how, as well as the ostensible necessity of sacrificing love along with careers. They also teach us that showering, babysitting, being in underground parking lots or simply being female might get you killed. There isn’t a causal relationship between viewer behaviour and the screen. There doesn’t have to be. Because movies get into our bodies, making us howl and weep, while their narrative and visual patterns, their ideas and ideologies leave their imprint.

The forced kiss can be nuanced; much depends on the movie and your point of view, what turns you on cinematically and in other ways. In Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street, Richard Widmark’s pickpocket hits Jean Peters’ intruder so hard in the face he knocks her out. He doesn’t know whom he’s hit because the lights are off. Soon enough, the two are steaming up the joint in a fog of erotic violence. In Blade Runner, Harrison Ford’s cop chases Sean Young’s replicant, slams shut a door she opens, grabs her and shoves her against a window. He orders her to kiss him, and she obeys. In Baby Boom, Diane Keaton’s 1980s former big-city career woman tells off Sam Shepard’s local veterinarian who kisses her as he then pushes her against her car.

The forced kiss suggests a world view that is no longer fully or at least thoughtlessly permissible, given contemporary consent laws and initiatives like “yes means yes.” And it’s only because of #MeToo that I’ve faced how common forced kisses have been and how often I didn’t give most of them a second thought. Now they jump out at me, reminding me that sexualized violence and its threat has been beautifully directed, and is a way that movies signify relations between men and women. This hasn’t led me to reject certain films and filmmakers. Policing desire isn’t of interest to me, understanding film is.

Lesson 2: Women need a spanking

In movies, male domination sometimes includes punishment that’s framed as playful. In The Thin Man Goes Home, Nick Charles spanks his wife, Nora, with a newspaper and she jokes about wife beating. John Wayne spanks Elizabeth Allen in Donovan’s Reef and Maureen O’Hara in McLintock! One of his screenwriters once said: “All you gotta have in a John Wayne picture is a hoity-toity dame with big tits that Duke can throw over his knee and spank.” In Blue Hawaii, Elvis saves a would-be suicidal woman, whom he then vigorously spanks. Afterward, they eat happily together with her seated on pillows, presumably because her rear is now sore.

In the Fifty Shades of Grey movies, sexual domination has been commodified and a designer dungeon is merely part of an aspirational lifestyle for mind-numbingly boring heterosexuals. Kink aside, the movies speak to an ambivalence about power, women and men evident in both female-driven stories and male ones, which also dominate the box office. This might be easier to tolerate if fewer movies stuck women in the same gender box, like the waiting woman who, similarly to Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, stays home while he goes off on his adventure. In In the Heart of the Sea, Charlotte Riley asks Chris Hemsworth to promise that he will “come back” to her. He does, alas.

Lesson 3: Women live to support men

In In the Heart of the Sea, Riley plays both the waiting wife and another thankless stereotype: the cheerleader wife who signals the hero’s heterosexual bona fides and delivers support. “If you don’t speak for them, who will?” the wife played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw asks her pathologist husband (Will Smith) in Concussion. He’s on the verge of greatness, and she exists to help him achieve it. Other filmmakers try to expand the wifely role, as Damien Chazelle does in the Neil Armstrong biopic First Man. But while he gives Claire Foy’s wife, Janet, screen time, it’s her husband (Ryan Gosling) who rockets to the moon, and Chazelle never manages to make these two realities equal.

He tries, mainly through a child’s death that humanizes Neil. But by lingering on grief’s impact on Neil, Chazelle sidelines Janet and her role in her husband’s emotional and psychological life. In the end, the child’s death blurs with all the other deaths in Neil’s life — all his losses — which shifts First Man into familiar terrain as it becomes another story of male sacrifice, triumph and redemption. Like many filmmakers, Chazelle flounders in the domestic realm here. He fails to show what the heroic journey means for the men who leave and for the women and children who stay behind, a divide that James Gray radically explores in The Lost City of Z.

Lesson 4: Women can transcend stereotypes

Of course, if movies were all bad, we wouldn’t love them; I couldn’t love them. One of their miracles is that despite everything, they bring us sublime female characters who surmount often degrading stereotypes and lavish, punishing abuse. This ambivalence fuels the 1937 weepie Stella Dallas, in which Barbara Stanwyck’s good-time gal suffers being her. But Stella is indomitable, like many memorable female characters, and her strength of will connects her to later heroines like Ripley in the Alien franchise. Stanwyck’s performance along with her radiant charisma and her humanity convey a fullness of female life that many movies have tried — and still try — to deny.

A few years ago, I reread Molly Haskell’s 1974 book, From Reverence to Rape, which remains relevant as a guide for how women can love the movies without surrendering their politics or self-respect. Haskell observed that although the male-dominated industry did its part to keep women in their place, female writers and editors continued to shape cinema, as did female stars. These “love goddesses, mothers, martyrs” embodied stereotypes that they also at times transcended. I had already learned this lesson from watching the movies, which I passionately loved, grew to hate and had to learn to love again.

Lesson 5: Women can be heroes

When I was a kid, that love was unconditional. I watched everything, often alone in theatres. (In the 1970s, my pre-helicopter-era parents didn’t monitor my filmgoing.) Then, as now, a lot of what I watched were movies about men. But I always saw the women, the funny and sad ones, the weak and the strong, those who survived to the end and those who didn’t. I adored performers like Cicely Tyson in Sounder, a childhood favourite, and Shelley Winters in The Poseidon Adventure, radically distinct characters who remained with me because they were strong but also because they were strong in recognizably human ways. They felt real to me, like people, not decoration.

Feminism complicated my movie love and eventually enriched it. First, I had to struggle with theoretical orthodoxies, including those about visual pleasure and women in film existing to be looked at by men. A lifetime of watching movies — and their women — told me otherwise. So did discovering female directors like Claire Denis (Chocolat), Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust) and Kathryn Bigelow (Blue Steel), who offered up new visions of what a woman could do and be onscreen. One pleasure of their work isn’t that the stories are simply female-driven, but that women can be archetypal heroes, a role today still largely played by male characters.

That was a lesson I learned from other favourites, too, like Thelma & Louise, though admittedly things didn’t turn out well for them. I prefer to focus on everything that happens before their big drive into the beyond, on all the running amok and fun. Bette Davis bemoaned the finales of some of her films. “Those in charge of studios changed endings after a film was finished as often as they changed titles — both detrimental to our work in the film.” She was right, but few Hollywood endings can erase the preceding 85 or so transporting, liberating minutes, when stars like Davis and West as well as characters like Thelma and Louise own their films — or share them like Ginger Rogers.

Lesson 6: Women can be dangerous

This will surprise no one who knows (or reads) me, but I have a thing for difficult women, whom I am drawn to in life and onscreen. I have a particular weakness for the kinds of dangerous, sometimes unhinged femmes fatales in film noirs like Gun Crazy and Out of the Past. Invariably, women like these are put in their place (and a box in the ground). Yet in many movies, they present a vision of female power, however sexualized and pathological. The story is saying one thing, though sometimes just winking. The magnetic performers and characters convey the overriding fear of women (desire, too), but with visions of female unruliness and a life force that no censor could expunge.

This brings me back to The Quiet Man. Perhaps it seems absurd, but I deeply love it despite its sexism and everything that I later learned about John Ford’s abusive behaviour toward Maureen O’Hara. As her director, Ford roughs up O’Hara, but she conveys a self-determination that far exceeds the film’s concept of female sovereignty. As an actress, she can’t fix everything, including the suggestion that sexual relations are a struggle for power. But O’Hara’s sympathetic portrait of resolve — her palpable will — is a vision of attenuated female liberation, which is what gives the film its truest glint of realism.

Lesson 7: Women can be complicit

Women in movies are often greater and more complicated than their stories. In Gone With the Wind, a film with several forced kisses, Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett suffers, but her pain is meant to seem more profound — and help obscure — the agonies endured by the enslaved characters, including Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy. In many ways, Scarlett is the antithesis of the kind of suffering woman that movies still adore, but her triumph is possible only because of racism, which has long been the off-screen story of white women in Hollywood. Another painful lesson the movies have taught me is that just because a woman is a victim doesn’t mean she isn’t culpable.

Lesson 8: Women can speak out

It took me years to understand how I could do more than try to ignore, laugh off or simply rail about onscreen sexism and racism and all of the innumerable outrages that were — are — always there. I learned to find pleasure despite these paradoxes and sometimes in them, to see beyond the goddess-whore dualities, to sometimes love both the simpering patsies and the shrewish man-eaters. I could ignore the ugliness of the movies, wish away the bad parts or watch selectively. Instead, I accept that movies are one way that people make messy meaning of life, and the greatest thing I could learn from them is to refuse to let them or my equally messy pleasures off the hook.

Here is what else movies have taught me: They rarely get women right. Forced kisses and (most) spankings are no longer freely, carelessly, dispensed, but the power dynamic they represent remains. Instead of lonely male heroes, we sometimes get cartoons of female empowerment, with aspirational princesses and one-dimensional warriors brandishing the same old guns and poses. Sometimes these women have adventures; at other times, they resemble the classic movie wife, mainly there to support the man, except now wearing spandex instead of an apron. Their second-rate status speaks to much that is wrong with movies, yes, but the fault is scarcely the movies’ alone.

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