Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Women&Film

Usually, as the semester draws to a close, I am giddy in anticipation of completing my courses. 
This is mostly true for my Fall 2013 schedule, but there is one class in particular I am going to miss. It's become my favorite class, perhaps that I've ever taken. 
Women and Film, taught at the University of Oklahoma by Professor Joanna Rapf, was the first film class for me. I didn't know what to expect. At first I was put off by the 90 minute long Tuesday/Thursday class times with an extra 2 hours on Tuesday nights for mandatory film viewing. 
But under the direction of Joanna, I fell in love with the times I had in that third floor Gittinger classroom. 
We watched movies dealing with the male gaze, female bonding, violence, lesbianism, and silence, to name just a few of our discussion topics. The patriarchy was the enemy and Joanna voiced her strong opinions, just as everyone else in the class did. Respectfully, of course. She sent her final thoughts on the course out in an email: "I hope we all come away from this course having learned "to see difference differently" and indeed, to see movies differently, and maybe even our own lives differently. The movies and the readings have not simply been "objects of study" for me; I have been able to see them connected to my own life. As a single mother with a career for whom marriage did not work out, I have personally struggled with many of the issues we've discussed. Feminist theory has been slow to deal with age, with race, ethnicity, class, the global community, but it still has something "to say" in some form of language to all of us. I believe there is some hope for the future especially in light of all of you in this class. You have been exceptional. Thank you."
How delightful to be a part of a classroom where the professor continues to learn. 
I wanted to share a portion of my own thoughts from my class journal on some of the films we watched and discussed. 

Goin' To Town
West's parody of the star system in this film is absolutely a feminist challenge. The entire plot seemed to be a giant feminist paradox. Cleo, played by Mae West, always ends up with the upper hand in all of her relationships, especially ones with males. Cleo returns nearly every male gaze with a gaze or suggestive glance of her own. Cleo embraces her sexuality and openly talks about her sexual exploits. She is a female who has sex for sex's sake, an aberration for women of the time. Her sparkling and ostentatious costumes draw even more attention to her female form. From an anti-feminist standpoint, Cleo's character and role as a star was an attack for women's respect. Yet from a feminist standpoint, that's the difference. She allows it and, furthermore, dishes it right back to her male suitors.
Cleo's initial dialogue with the oil driller, Carrington, begins by her shooting his hat to get his attention. He counters with, "I don't have to be a target, you know." She proceeds to lasso him when she loses his attention and he corrects her behavior, "you can hardly win a man that way." The entire exchange is an attack on the way men approach women, often treating them as a target. Rejection is not an option; they seem to think they can win women that way. 

Blonde Venus
This was the first real glimpse of motherhood in film that we saw in the course and Helen, played by Marlene Dietrich, is not a mother figure. For various reasons, Helen winds up alone with her son, Johnny, as she tries to work onstage as a showgirl. Her husband eventually catches up to her and takes Johnny with him, and she performs in Paris with "he travels fastest who travels alone" scrawled on the mirror in her dressing room, a tribute to her success without Johnny in tow. 
The poor portrayal of race in was prominent in several scenes. The very first performance was exceptionally racially charged with the presence of a Helen in a lifelike gorilla suit. The costume gorilla is lead around on a chain by a line 0f African American women with painted faces. The animalistic overtones are extremely racist. The song Helen sings at that point in the film contains several racial references, one in particular, "this African tempo has made me a slave," doubles as a traditional enslavement reference and also as an observation as the music has made Helen a salve to the male gaze during her performance on stage. 
The film also addresses the issue of working, independent women. Ned, Helen's husband, is very much against Helen working outside the home, even as a last resort, repeating, "I won't have you go back to the stage." While she is away, Ned assumes the homemaker role. Helen seems anxious to get back to her work and the money factor is merely the push she needed to get Ned reluctantly agree. Opposite to how awkward of a mother she is, Helen is in her element when she is performing, or subject to the male gaze.
Though Helen's capability and independence as a woman was a strong theme, I was bothered by the many scenes where she had men discuss her battles as though she didn't exist. She is never directly addressed or included in the conversation and instead stands meekly by while men dictate her value.

Queen Christina
How Christina, played by Gretta Garbo, surrounded herself in her morning routine was very interesting, especially considering her cross-dressing. For most of the film, when she is dressing as a man, her companion is a man. She washes her face in snow and lets this man attend to her boyish hair. Yet when she dresses up for the Spanish meeting in Parliament, she is helped by several women. She wants to be outside of gender expectations, but expects gender performance from those around her to help in her non normative performance. 
Christina's androgyny, while appealing to lesbians, is also equally appealing to heterosexual females, simply on the basis of her character. she is abrupt and hesitates to show emotion, knows politics and actively engages in it, and refuses to submit to any authority besides her inner self. She is an inspiration to women, period. Regardless of their sexual preference.
The famous scene at the conclusion of the film is a result of several emotional events. Christina kisses Ebba, her maidservant, goodbye, a symbol of farewell to both Sweden and her lesbian identity, even as she is dressed men's clothes again. As Antonio, whom she is leaving Sweden for, dies on the ship, she reveals she has said goodbye to everything. She has a blank mind as the ship sails because she is thinking of nothing. She has no more attachments.

Dance Girl Dance
I noticed the force behind the mere title of the film first. It's a command, not a request. The supporting and background characters play an important role in Dorothy Arzner's film. Olmy, a secretary, promises the aspiring young dancer Judy that if she gets a chance, she'll ask her boss, Mr. Adams to see her. Her helpful attitude toward her own sex is reminiscent of Frances Marion, a leader in film. Olmy also leads the applause after Judy's fiery monologue onstage, prompting the rest of the audience to join her. Besides that, Olmy asserts, "you can't condemn a girl for making her own living" when men want to put down the burlesque girls they are so fond of watching. 
Judy's quiet surrender throughout the film honestly angered me. I'm more of a Bubbles, her opposite character, in that I rarely shy away from expressing my emotions. However, Judy keeps hers in until the end of the film. I felt she was depicted as weak for the majority of the film, a tactic of Arzner's that frustrated me. 

Stella Dallas
This film focused greatly on motherhood and I had three pages worth to say in my journal for Joanna.  I'll keep it to a minimum here. I think mothers have high expectations for their daughters. I've heard it said, "mothers raise their daughters and love their sons." I recognized that dynamic between Stella and her brother, Charlie. Stella's mother caters to Charlie and his taste buds when he doesn't care for the lunch Stella packed for him. Stella's mother is always in the kitchen and dowdily dressed. The film presents the idea that mothers use their daughters to compensate for their own inferiority by creating someone better through their daughters.  Stella betters herself through marriage, perhaps urged by unseen encouragement from her own mother. Once she attains Dallas, her goal, her mother is never seen again. In the same way, Stella removes herself from Laurel's life once she realizes her daughter's socialite probability. 
Stella seems to take a lot of her ideas about life and mannerisms from the movies. It is possible that she stumbled upon her longing for a superior life in a theater, instead of from her dowdy mother. When she and Dallas attend the cinema on a date, she is enraptured by the picture. A female stereotype today is that women are unable to distinguish reality from acting. We get wrapped up in the movies, which some scholars suggest teach us about the life we should desire. If the stereotypical female cries in sad movies, dreams about cinema romance, and whispers with Rose, "I'll never let go, Jack!" which watching Titanic, then I am a stereotypical female, taught how to respond by the screen. 
Stella fetishizes herself, constantly paying homage to mirrors. She is certainly not dressing for any men, as there are virtually no instances of male gaze in the film. Stella does what she does and dresses how she does in order to make herself a woman in the movies.
Many argue that Stella is a good mother. I think Laurel is a far better daughter and mother than Stella will ever be. They have a very role reversal moment when both women are crying in their hotel room. Laurel is the one who offers a handkerchief to her mother. Mothers are never supposed to cause their daughter's tears and they should always dry their daughters tears. Stella fails on both accounts. 
Some may argue that letting Laurel go is an unselfish act of Stella's. I think Stella is still playing a part and trying to be the heroine in the movie who gives the ultimate sacrifice and is lauded by the audience. Through her actions, Stella earns the respect of socialite, Mrs. Morrison, honors she's wanted since first trying to better herself. When Stella watches her daughter's wedding through a window, she is pleased with her role in the marriage. She could have talked with Laurel and changed her behavior, but that scenario requires a level of humility and self-recognition Stella is not capable of. 
Stella is to focused on her life as film instead of reality. She even makes her daughter's marriage a movie. Caught up in the melodrama in the open window, Stella begs the officer, who tells her to move along, to let her "see her face when he kisses her!" Stella is an audience member to her daughter's movie and cannot distance herself from this screen.

The Devil Wears Prada
The very first shots of this relatively progressive and neo-feminist film are of various women slipping into their undergarments. Because this film is geared toward women, I surmised two possible reasons for the skin-flaunting beginning. Perhaps it was shot to catch the attention of male viewers accompanying female friends (or lesbian viewers) and/or it was shot in order to start showing costuming as self-expression and confidence. There's a contrast between Andy's (Anne Hathway) plain, practical underwear and the "sexy" scraps of fabric the other ladies don. Clothes are indicative of confidence, especially in neo-feminism. I saw two different portrayals of fashion, one toward the humanity as a whole, and the other toward the individual.
The collective portrayal of fashion acts on consumerism. Product placement was obviously an important dimension of such a fashion film. The role of fashion invited women back into decision-making for films instead of being only objects of the gaze. The film depicted the fashion industry as run by very successful women and it connects fashion with a woman's own agency, which brings up the individual portrayal of fashion in the film.
Andy is berated for her sense of style, or lack there of. Her clothes in her environment make her nobody, just another "Emily" for Miranda Priestly to dictate. Andy is constantly having fashion thrown at her. Miranda literally tosses her bag and designer coat at Andy every morning. Andy conforms to the discourses of fashion during the make-over portion of the film. She concedes to consume the designers like Gabbanna, Chanel, and Marc Jacobs, and brings the consumerism to her friends. 
Andy's makeover attracts a different cinematic gaze, one equal to male and female. It's a lustful gaze for the material objects Andy is wearing, not for her body. Andy's makeover is appealing to her coworkers, Emily and Serena, and Nate even does a double take at her new appearance. Miranda even glances up and down and half smiles to herself in approval. Andy is embodying third wave feminism and her choice to be glamorous for her own pleasure and advancement. She does not fully assume this neo-feministic identity until the end of the film when she is working as an investigative journalist. She dresses with some style because she chooses to, not because of pressure from an overbearing environment. 
This was one of the first films we watched that emphasized body image and an obsession with skinny. In the film, beauty expectations extend to size. The women in the opening scenes measure out small portions of cereal or nuts for breakfast while Andy chomps into a bagel. The focus on body image intensifies when Andy meets Nigel in the cafeteria. He comments that one of the main ingredients in corn chowder is cellulite and informs Andy that being a size 6 is like being a size 14. Andy obviously takes his words to heart, and in Paris she confides to him that she is now a size 4. Her conformity to societal expectations has extended to her weight. 
I think it's interesting to point out that Andy is making these outward changes for women, mostly, and not for a male, specifically Nate. Nate rejects her only when she no longer has time for him. She does not to change her appearance to appeal to Nate. She only needs to keep an open schedule so she can cater to him. Their relationships frustrated me because I felt he could have been a more patient boyfriend. Sometimes career dreams are time consuming and hard to chase; he didn't need to place even more stress on Andy. 

Nine to Five
Before even starting the film I openly wondered if Dolly Parton would be any good at acting, completely forgetting about her excellent role in "Steel Magnolias." I was blinded by the stereotype of southern, blonde, and buxom, similar to Monroe's role in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. 
The antics of the three women reminded me of a recent film, "Horrible Bosses." The premise is similar, but it's three males plotting to kill their three bosses, two male and one female , for some of the same reasons the "Nine to Five" stars were incensed. The female boss sexualizes her employee and the other two are incompetent and hold back promotions. Both films are comedic, but "Horrible Bosses" privileges the male by having only one female character. Comparing the solidarity  between the male protagonists in the two films, the women are better at working together to accomplish their goal.
Another character that intrigued me was Margaret, the office lush. She clearly drinks on the job, maybe to cope with the everyday injustices, but she does not directly join the revolt in the office. As Doralee, Violet, and Judy leave for the bar one by one, she remarks, "atta girl" each time. She encourages, but isn't willing to put in the effort to create change herself. I think a lot of women are similar to Margaret. They support the cause, but can't rock their own boat. I don't think Judy, Doralee, or Violet would have rocked their boat if it was not rocked for them! Women are scared to lose their momentum and small status they have gained in the patriarchy. 
The ending was not at all satisfactory in my opinion. Granted, since it was a comedy I should not have expected the same kind of closure that comes with dramas, especially since I never placed myself in the women's shoes or related to them, but I hoped for more victory than the trio received. The awful boss Hart still got the credit for the office advancements and the women didn't get their personal victories onscreen. Only in short blips of print on the screen in epilogue did they get what they desired. The political statement I read from that is that the audience does not want to see women succeed. It is one thing to watch and laugh as patriarchy fails, but another for feminism to prevail. 

A Question of Silence
When I left the viewing of this film, I distinctly felt two things. I hated the white male privilege, as demonstrated by the patriarchal court, but coupled with this hatred was an admiration and respect for the women who retaliate against the patriarchal society. At the same time, having witnessed the wild zone, I walked home afraid of what my own wild zone could be capable of. 
For those unfamiliar with the wild zone, here is a visual.
The pink male circle represents patriarchy, which is the world we live in everyday. The language we use and the structure we adhere to is patriarchy. Females understand patriarchy because we. live. in. it. Everyday. But the purple female circle is the wild zone. The realm of femininity known through our reading for the class as "the wild zone."
The entire film focuses on a specific moment in the wild zone, the one the shopkeeper of Boutique 22 gets caught in. The witnesses and the trio of perpetrators reside in the wild zone, a place not understood by the patriarchal society we live in daily. Thought the subtitles were hard to make out at times, the fact that this film was foreign was appealing for two reasons. First, the plight of women is the same the world over, whether they be Dutch or American. As a woman, I felt a solidarity with the strangers on the screen, despite the distant camera angles. Secondly, the unfamiliar language the film was presented in offered a way to read the scenes and characters beyond the patriarchal words on the screen. I often had to assume and make guesses as to what was going on by watching the actions and touch of the women. 
The actual crime was committed in an orderly fashion. All three women approached the shopkeeper, but Annie was the first to touch him by shoving. I was especially interested by that when I found out at the end that she was the oldest of the three. The oldest woman, the one who has been enduring patriarchy the longest, took the first shot. From there, it was a very matter-of-fact incident, a result of a build of unexpressed wild zone, with each woman seizing her turn to maul the shopkeeper. 
The symbolism of the man's genitals being unrecognizable after that attack is significant, but I would go further and argue that the means of mutilation are symbolic. The women use hangers that previously hung clothes patriarchy decided they should wear, a shopping cart females are expected to keep full of a family's provisions, jagged piece of a mirror designed to issue verdict on a woman's appearance, and lastly, the shopkeeper suffered injuries from heels the ladies wore, designed by patriarchy to limit mobility and enhance sexuality. I do not think the instruments of injury were on accident. 
Before Andrea hits the man, she deliberately sets her purse to the side. A purse is a female symbol of power. It is a woman's express possession for her express use. A purse is a metaphor for the wild zone, an artifact men know little about. I see Andrea's removal of it before getting to business with the rest of the women as a shedding of her secret wild zone and entering a public arena of wild. 
None of the women tries to run or cover up the crime. Annie readily admits to the crime when officers come to collect her at work. I questioned this obvious admission of guilt, and all I could think was that to hide from the law would only give power to patriarchy. There is a certain amount of power one gets from owning one's actions. 

Makers: Women Who Make America
We only watched the last portion of this documentary series, but we had a Q&A session with one of its fabulous producers, Pam Mason, afterward. I had chills at the very beginning of the film and the ending, too, left me cold in my own skin. Feminism has become very individualistic in its most recent wave in that it can mean different things to different people.
Several of the ladies toward the end of the film discussed the lack of passionate activism from the younger generation in in feminism today. I relate, for I know I personally do not have the same anger that I saw from women in the film like Anita Hill and Oprah Winfrey. I think the anger shift has to do with neo-feminism. Modern feminism is knowing what you want as an individual, not as a collective group. Collectively, women have made huge strides in America. The right to vote and sexual harassment laws are proof that feminism has come a long way. There is still a long way to go, no doubt. But I agree with Sheryl Sandberg's opinion that we are in dire need of a world in which men do half at home and women do half at home. This radical notion of a true partnership requires a change in mindset, an activity males have little experience in since their mindset structured the society in its current, patriarchal, order.
We had a class discussion about Lena Dunham of "Girls" and our surprise and admiration of her natural body and the way she chooses to flaunt it is proof that we have all learned "the female body was a problem which could be cured" (Patricia Mellencamp). Like Dunham, several other actresses are bucking the idea that their natural form is too much, or not enough, to success in patriarchal society. Among them are stars Rebel Wilson and Melissa McCarthy. However, in their films they usually star alongside the stereotypical visually appealing starlet, proving we still think they are not enough on their own.
I think we often forget that before we are men or women, we are human. 
As humans, we are entitled to our own prerogatives. But when those prerogatives deny your fellow human their basic rights, then change is required.
Personally, I don't have a desire for a family. I'm stubbornly independent and I look forward to a time in my life when I can heavily focus on a career. I am lucky to have a boyfriend supportive of my feminist tendencies. As a feminist, I do enjoy, from time to time, the traditional cooking and baking role by CHOICE. When I cook at Tyler's house, he almost always does the dishes, which bodes well for an equal relationship. Gendered chores are laughable to me. One thing that especially blows my mind is how the male population in college and bachelorhood is capable of cooking and cleaning up after themselves, but suddenly, when they get married, all of those survival skills are foreign and forgotten. The semantics of such amnesia escapes me. 
I'm proud to a woman. I'm proud of the history HERstory that has brought women to a place of choice. I want to be proud of the men in America for recognizing their need to change their mindset. I want to be proud of humanity for acknowledging their imperfections and correcting their mistakes. In the words of one of the Makers we saw, "I'm apart of the women's movement even if nobody ever knew it but me."

This class absolutely changed me and I am honored to have been taught by a professor who I felt genuinely respected me and my peers. In my final journal assignment she wrote, "It has been a privilege for me to read it [my journal]. Keep your fiery independence and live an exciting and worthy life. Much luck to you!" Her class made me want to be a Women&Gender Studies minor. It is too late for that, but I hope the older and more successful Very Lucky Girl, in a few years, remembers where her passion for the women's movement was ignited.

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