I took a feminist film studies course when I was in college and quite enjoyed it. I don't think I had any expectations since I was still fairly new to film theory at the time. In the years since, obviously, I've become a rabid cinephile, especially of the classics. From that course I learned a great deal about women in film and to this day much of it still determines how I break down and analyze films. But the further I delve into the greats that made Hollywood the legend it now is the more I feel modern audiences take little time to appreciate the women who not only made Hollywood incredible amounts of money but also had to fight tooth and nail to get to where they were and have even a shadow's amount of power compared to the men of the same Hollywood era.
So many of these actresses are not forgotten but more-so neglected by a majority of today's male and female audiences as they find more interest in pictures like Blue Jasmine, American Hustle, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Divergent, or even Twilight. I think that's perfectly alright considering we're all a product of our times. And though I do think all those films have their merits (yes, even Twilight) and can do wonderful things for young girls, just like in the textbooks there's a lot of history to be found on various subjects in the movies. I still hold to the fact that things are better today than they were 50 or more years ago, especially in Hollywood. (I said better, not perfect.) But there's a lot to be learned from the women that starred on the silver screen long before J-Law and Cate Blanchett.
I think we Universally reflect this attitude that the discrimination we face today is as bad if not worse than it has been historically and I think that's just how everyone feels when they're young and opinionated. But if we could go back into time 50 years you'd find a much harsher, more rule laden world than what we have now, especially for women and minorities, and especially for their roles in Hollywood. Actresses like Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Myrna Loy, Ginger Rogers, Katherine Hepburn, and Lucille Ball just to name a few. (And there were many.) Davis, for instance, had so much star power in getting big pictures made that she was dubbed "the fifth Warner Brother".
Barbara Stanwyck was reviled by many "traditional" men and women of the time for playing characters that were transgressive and encouraged women to be in possession of their sexuality.
Frank and Ernest comic strip writer Bob Thaves famously said of Ginger Rogers and her in comparison to her screen partner Fred Astaire that, "Sure he was great. But don't forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards and in high heels."
Myrna Loy famously lobbied against racism and against discrimination in Hollywood. "Why does every black person in the movies have to play a servant?" She asked MGM execs in 1934. "How about a black person walking up the steps of a courthouse carrying a briefcase?"
Lucille Ball was THE first female studio head in Hollywood. It doesn't get bigger than that.
To really put things in perspective, Katherine Hepburn, who said she was "unaware that women were a second rate sex," was one of the first female screen legends to make women wearing pants popular. She said, "I realized long ago that skirts are hopeless. Any time I hear a man say he prefers a woman in a skirt I say, 'Try one. Try a skirt.'" Her biographer Christopher Anderson said, "She is the person who put women in pants, literally and figuratively. She is the greatest star, the greatest actress that Hollywood has ever produced."
I think many actresses today are furthering the effort of equality in cinema and in Hollywood. Cate Blanchett's recent Academy Awards acceptance speech wonderfully reflects that women "are not a 'niche' audience." I'm fairly certain that the only people who don't like Jennifer Lawrence are crazy people and her attitude toward the Hollywood elitism is refreshing and real.
I think much of today's Hollywood royalty, like those who came before them, are just as powerful, interested, and passionate about pursuing equality in film. I don't seek to diminish or lessen the importance of women in contemporary cinema but rather illuminate the classic actresses I grew up watching whom I really love and value for being some of the first to start shaking things up and pave the way for the women of today.
Baby Face (1933)
Widely regarded as an early protofeminist film (the movement before it had the name, recognition, and steam it does today), Baby Face is a wonderful pre-code (The Hays Code) picture about Lily (Barbara Stanwyck), a former speakeasy bartender who's often forced by her father to sleep with his customers in order to keep his business afloat. Upon learning of her power over men, Lily makes a break for New York City in order to use her sexual charm to climb her way up to the top of a the Gotham Trust.
What's tricky with proto-feminism films is that on the surface or based on an initial summary they come across as being wildly sexist. Often times these were men telling tales of women the ways they wanted so the feminist perspective in classic cinema isn't as it is today, which can be portrayed by women for women or by people who truly understand the movement. Classically, you're looking at men, or women with pen names or acting as a background influence, trying to make statement that turns a traditional genre on its head. Proto-feminist cinema falls more under this type of film making or storytelling.
Baby Face is reflective of early feminist films because it treats Lily as its hero. Unlike some films of the late 70's and 80's which seemed to reflect this sort of "revenge on or punishing of women", classic films like Baby Face were profound for treating the female protagonist exactly the same (or as close as it could come) as it would a male. If, hypothetically, it were a film about a man sleeping his way to the top there would be little rancor for a character like this. A male audience would likely cheer him on for being "a man" and women would be further forced to remain silent and accept the discrimination in practice that a man is just allowed to do these things and a woman is not. So Baby Face was one of the first of its time to really empower a woman with her sexuality the way men have been portrayed as being empowered with theirs. No one questions a man's sexuality (unless it concerns homosexuality) in film because he's "cool", "suave", and "manly".
And Barbara Stanwyck doesn't play a sort of Glenn Close ala Fatal Attraction here. She's not crazy or insane or a temptress seeking to upset a "perfect" family. Fatal Attraction is a prime example of a setback in feminist (the revenge on women themes I mentioned above) cinema since Michael Douglas' character, a seemingly happy, perfectly content married business man, is tempted by Glenn Close who seeks to destroy his marriage and his family since she is so wildly obsessed with him. Eventually (spoilers) she wants to kill them all and boils their child's pet rabbit in a pot. Unsurprisingly the film ends with Close dead and Douglas' wife and children forgiving him, smiling, hugging, happy it's all behind them now. All is well THE END.
Close's character in Fatal Attraction, Alex Forrest, is completely unsympathetic because she is completely crazy. She's also the mouthpiece for a male film maker who displays little regard for women in film and considers the independent, working, business woman (like Alex) to be insane and the complacent, innocent housewife (Douglas' wife Beth) to be the "ideal woman" who loves and forgives her man no matter his transgressions. So in films like this the concept of women being on an equal playing field as a man is first punished and then these "dangerous" women are put in their place, which is six feet under.
Baby Face uses Lily in the complete opposite way Fatal Attraction uses Alex Forrest. Lily is a victim of abuse and has long suffered at the hands of her father and his customers who've raped and assaulted her. She's grown a hard shell because of it and, rather than consider herself a victim and act helpless, she takes her revenge out on men. It's a nice flip from the traditional more commonly held gender roles in film. And this revenge isn't psychotic or crazy but clear and calculated and there is an end to these means. She isn't just sort of skipping along the busy streets of New York, willingly giving herself to anyone who'll have her, no, she's playing Chess with the rich businessmen of the big apple and she's the Queen, the most powerful piece on the board and taking the pawns one by one.
The film also portrays these wealthy businessmen as idiots and fools who let the blood rush to their penises rather than their brains. But, in all honesty, that's much the reputation that these type of men really do have. Society embraces and allows men to mistreat women, but if a woman commits the same act she's immediately Hester Prynne. Even the bible condones a man divorcing and remarrying but a woman who has been divorced is committing adultery if she remarries. I'm sorry, what?
So it's easy for Lily to climb her way up the ladder because she's the only one with any real power in the film and is thus it's hero and protagonist. The men she seduces and soon replaces are old white men from old money or young white men from old money. None of them show clear skills or business savvy, rather they represent how much of the outside world views the heads of big business; as rich, greedy know-nothings.
But, as is true to form of most all classic films, Lily finds her man. Most modern audiences would consider this a betrayal to the grounds its laid as a feminist film, but context is key with any argument, especially one being analyzed historically as the beginnings of a movement. And it's one of the reasons people avoid studying classic films with a feminist eye, because they don't consider them valid to the contemporary argument. But we have to remember that, without films like these, the contemporary argument would be very different and likely not as powerful. The idea of Lily, basically, winning the game of chess and empowering herself is achieved. She has everything she wants and needs. Though even someone seeking self empowerment or self actualization can understand that no human being, male or female, deserves to be destroyed in order for us to get what we want. Because of this Lily is the perfect example of a proto-femnist film hero. She's not so callous or selfish or insane that she's willing to go down with the ship so long as it means killing all the evil men on board. She is a real human being with a heart and a conscious and she uses them. Some of the men she's toyed with have died as a result of her and she doesn't consider herself completely innocent. And she understands that this sort of thing can't go on forever or else she will become the same type of person who abused her in her past. So rather than become her own worst enemy she falls in love instead.
That might sound simple and like a typical male film maker tying a neat little bow on a cute kind of, sort of feminist picture but when you consider what it means for the films that would follow, it's truly ground breaking. The film was even cited as one of the top ten main reasons why the Hays Code was enacted in the first place. Because it was edgy, brave, and displayed the sexual empowerment of a woman, society wanted it, and all films like it, gone and forgotten because they were "dangerous" and "bad" for the public. Simply because of the fact that it still exists and can be studied as a prime example of early feminist cinema shows you can't keep a good film down and that, in the long run, you cannot suppress a powerful and important movement.
The Thin Man (1934)
Few films truly define what a modern genre has become as much as the "screwball comedy". The way most audiences think of comedies today, especially romantic comedies, fundamentally come from screwball comedies. I read a nice definition of the genre recently that really hit the nail on the head, and that is a male-female dynamic in which the female dominates both the relationship and the male and in turn challenges his masculinity. Beautiful.
A lot of films in this genre are flawless and each of them would make prime examples of early feminist films, particularly It Happened One Night, My Man Godfrey, Bringing Up Baby, Ball of Fire, and The Philadelphia Story to name a few personal favorites. All of these display strong female protagonists acting opposite men often regarded as "strong" or "masculine" and rob them of the way they're used to being treated by women who often belittle them amidst a slew of funny mishaps and errors that cause the two to fall in love.
As is typical of all films, not just the classics, a love story is often a key component to the screwball comedy. Falling in love or finding love at the end of a film was, and still is, a sure fire way of allowing the audience to leave the theater happy. I've heard a lot of arguments, especially in regard to feminism in films, that falling in love with a man or vice versa can cheapen the argument or themes of empowering women because settling down with a man means trading in your independence for complacency. Personally, I think love stories are equally relevant to feminist cinema as non-love stories simply because, you know, people fall in love a lot. It's kind of an important component of living life and creating a film that the majority of your audience can agree with. Valid arguments can be made around the block for each different way of thought, but for the sake of classic feminist cinema we sort of need to be okay with it here, like in Baby Face, because History has already happened and we can't go back and make it different.
The Thin Man, however, is a little different in that the film's protagonists, Nick and Nora Charles (played by William Powell and Myrna Loy), are already husband and wife. So during their mishaps and adventures and sleuthing, they don't fall in love for the first time. However, what I think is so wonderful about the film, and its franchise as a whole (they made 6 total), is that the two are always falling in love all over again. Not that it's lost and regained but that they appreciate, value, and cherish one another and recognize each other as equally important components of their marriage and their success as a crime solving couple. However, on the surface, the films don't paint Nick and Nora as being equals. In fact Nick is often guilty of locking Nora in cars or rooms or trying to find other ways to leave her out of the crime solving in order to keep her safe. But true to screwball comedy form, Nora always finds a way back to the adventure and to solving the mystery or bringing the film to its resolution.
Since sexism seems blatant on a surface level it shouldn't be surprising that on a subtextual level it's truly Nora who pulls all the strings, much as all the female protagonists in screwball comedies often do. Without them, the men would crash and burn and fail and its the absolute truth. You know the scene in the movie 300 in which, before making the ultimate decision to start a war, Leonidas looks to his wife first and only upon her nod does he shout, "THIS IS SPARTA!" and kick the Persian messenger into the big well? It's like that except without all the yelling and bloodshed. On the surface, all these handsome, suave, fancy, strong, manly men are nothing without their better half, she who truly holds all the power. Without a woman who rationalizes reasonably, kingdoms would fall and people would suffer needlessly. Or mysteries would go unsolved.
Myrna Loy, despite starting her career as a typecast vamp style temptress (often playing Asian characters even though she was not being Asian) eventually became the top of the town, being dubbed "Queen of the Movies" in a 1936 poll taken by movie goers. In part it was because of her character in The Thin Man which came out only 2 years prior. Nora Charles is the real brains behind the operation and often the reason the mysteries she and her husband are investigating are solved and her real life counterpart is undoubtedly one of the biggest reasons they franchised the series into 6 Thin Man pictures.
Myrna Loy and Barbara Stanwyck are probably my two favorite actresses primarily because of the power they have on screen. They own themselves, their sexuality, are whip smart, and have the ability to make men feel smart or stupid, worthy or worthless with only a flash of their eyes. The films they were in, whether they were intended to be this way or not, are structured around them and the power they hold over their male counterpart. Particularly in The Thin Man, Myrna Loy's Nora Charles
Born Yesterday (1950)
My absolute favorite. Partly because of how much I love Judy Holliday and mostly because it's quite an important and well crafted picture. Holliday won the Oscar for best actress with her fun, quirky, ditzy performance as ex-showgirl Emma "Billie" Dawn, the girlfriend of wealthy but uncouth tycoon Harry Brock. Harry's making a run for a top spot in Washington politics and is finding his mistress an unfortunate drag on his plans since to the rest of the upper crust she comes across as an uneducated no nothing bimbo. But we find that couldn't be further from the truth when Harry hires newspaperman Paul Verrall to tutor her and Billie takes to her new-found intelligence like a duck takes to water, eventually doing what we've been waiting for her to do, stand up for herself against the oppression of both Harry and the upper class.
Judy Holliday was fairly typecast, not unlike Marilyn Monroe, as the ditsy blonde and Born Yesterday is partially responsible for that since it was a role she originated on Broadway. In reality, however, she was whip smart and even famously channeled her character of Billie when being questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee about her involvement in, or knowledge of any of her friends' involvement in, the Communist party. She essentially acted her way out of actually testifying, playing the ditsy, dumb Billie instead of Judy Holliday herself. Because she appeared to know so little about anything, she was not pursued or black listed like some of her fellow actors were.
Born Yesterday is like a movie from the future. It's so spot on in its themes and tones that the same exact film could be released this weekend and be equally as effective. But what's most effective about the film is the unabashed oppression by men in places of power against their "dames". When treated like they're not supposed to know anything or that they have a lesser place in society, many women end up believing that of themselves. This is Billie at the start of the film. She knows little of the real world or how politics work because she's been arm candy her whole life. And since she appears so ditsy at social gatherings since she can't carry on an "intelligent" conversation then it creates a problem for the politician types who are looking to make a name for themselves.
But the film goes to show that intelligence is something everyone has, especially in their own individual way. And that oppression can be the greatest cause for ignorance. Billie appears ignorant and unintelligent at first because she's been a victim her entire life. Men have treated her poorly and as a former showgirl it's not hard to imagine the way other people looked at her and perceived her. When people say things about you long enough to start to believe them. Not until Paul begins to tutor her does she understand that she isn't just a "dumb bimbo", but a human being who has value, one capable of believing and doing whatever it is she decides to do.
When Billie finally rises up against Brock it's one of the greatest, stand up and cheer moments in cinema history and is a moment that will stay with me forever.
These are just three of the many, many films out there showcasing powerful, talented women from Hollywood history. There may be more to come from me on it in the future, but if you were looking for a good jumping off point in your exploration of classic feminist cinema, these are an excellent place to start.