Divine Femininity

Paper by Kylie Johnson.

In the controversial history of Hollywood film-making, women have been through it all. Between stereotypical and racist casting, to having almost no representation in the movie-making workforce, women are just now starting to have an impact in the industry. The representation of women has changed drastically through different eras of film, from classic film noir to current pop-culture movies, but many feminine stereotypes have remained quite stagnant. In 1945, Mildred Pierce​ demonstrated the male gaze and several unflattering stereotypes of women and presented the idea that women need to return to a domestic lifestyle. In 1991, ​The Silence of the Lambs​ dealt something similar, showing that a woman cannot be independent without a man’s guidance. In 2020, ​The Invisible Man​ demonstrated an even more extreme and sinister version of the male gaze. Even though every 30 years, women have made drastic strides in terms of equality and representation, women are still struggling in the film industry to this day.

The industry has always been dominated by white men, since the dawn of its creation. So positions in the film industry like writing, directing, casting, etc, were never filled by women. This was mainly due to the fact that “women at this time rarely had the economic power to bankroll a film company or indeed produce a single film project” (Benshoff and Griffin, 222). Because of their lack of input in creating the films, women were essentially forced into several racist and unflattering stereotypes on-screen that almost never had a positive impact in terms of representation. Beginning in the 1920s and 30s, there were tropes created such as the “vamp”. The vamp was “a dark and exotic woman who used her potent sexuality to control white men” (Benshoff and Griffin, 220). This is one example of many that were created by white men to keep them from ever needing to take accountability for their own indiscretions. However, it was tropes like this that have had a lasting damaging impact on feminine representation to this day.

As the industry progressed through the 40s, ​Mildred Pierce​ was born and offered a slight glimmer of hope for an independent women’s movement but snatched it away at the resolution of the film. ​Mildred Pierce,​ directed by Michael Curtis in 1945, was unique for its time in that it gave its protagonist, a woman, a commanding independent role. Out of context, it sounds great, but the sinister undertones of the film convey a completely different message. To provide context, this movie was released in October of 1945, when “women were heading home after an unprecedented welcome in the workplace” (Jurca, 30). This mirrors the plot of ​Mildred Pierce​, in which Mildred finds herself entering the workforce and climbing her way up via independence and determination. By the end of the film, she has lost everything she worked for and returned to the husband that cheated on her, and to a life of “proper” womanly duties.
Mildred Pierce​ not only set back the women’s movement, but it was considered “violent repression” as well. By watching this film, women were to understand that “their wartime freedom was dangerous to family and society and therefore justly coming to an end” (Jurca, 30) because heaven forbid women to have any freedom when there are babies to be had and dishes to be cleaned. This promoted the stereotype that all women should be refocusing on domestic work, rather than being part of society’s workforce. The work to be done was for the men returning from the war, because they took priority over women. In ​Mildred Pierce​, her choice to be part of the workforce and be independent ultimately led to her demise. In constructing the narrative this way, the film becomes a cautionary tale for all women to stay home, listen to their husbands, and don’t attempt a life of work outside the home.

Mildred Pierce​ is also an example of a noir whose characters fit several other unflattering stereotypes being displayed at the time. Mildred’s daughter, Vida, represents the femme fetale, which is a woman “who lured men into their sphere of influence and would just as easily murder a man as marry him” (Benshoff and Griffin, 232). This description could not be more apt, because Vida wishes to marry a man named Monte for his wealth and influence. When he refuses, claiming no feelings for her, she murders him.
The other blatant stereotype/complex represented by Vida is the “virgin-whore complex”. This complex was usually represented by a rigid dichotomy “and women’s roles usually were reduced to either the saloon girl (itself a Hollywood euphemism for a prostitute) or the good daughter of a rancher” (Benshoff and Griffin, 228). Vida’s issues exemplify this complex in a very blatant way. For example, she gets married to a boy who has been convinced by her that she is pregnant. In 1945, it was shameful to get pregnant out of wedlock, thereby making her a whore. The image one would want people to see as a young woman is an innocent virgin if she is not married. Vida used this to her advantage, convincing her boyfriend she was pregnant to receive hush money from his family to avoid any shame.

Speaking of marriage and sexuality, this film was also an introduction to the “male gaze” as coined by Laura Mulvey in Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. This is a gaze that has followed women throughout all eras of film and is painfully evident in ​Mildred Pierce​. The male gaze, as described by Mulvey is centered on women who are to be “looked at while simultaneously displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact” (Mulvey, 62). In this way, they become little more than a sexual object. One of the biggest issues with this is that the narrative is told from an extremely heterosexual, white, male point of view, which accounts for less than half of the population watching films. Women don’t seem to have a place in the viewing experience, as this type of cinematography and storytelling is obviously not catered to them, forcing them to become passive objects. This topic can be further examined by looking into the character of Wally, Mildred’s friend who assists her in building her restaurant business. The shots often favor his point of view, showing uncomfortable shots of her legs, and a full view of her body in a swimsuit. There are more aggressive moments when he tries to kiss and touch her, but Mildred is forced to keep her face reserved and do her best to ward off his advances, unable to react more dramatically for fear of retaliation.
The male gaze continued to follow women through the end of the twentieth century, including in the 1991 film, ​The Silence of the Lambs,​ directed by Jonathan Demme. In the case of this movie, the gaze is intensified. “This possession and control of the female by the male gaze becomes, in the storyline of the serial killer movie, with its typically female victim and male killer, a more literal kind of ‘body possession’” (Dubois 299). This takes the male gaze a drastic step further than simply looking at and lusting after a woman. It may seem extreme, but this has become a trope in “serial killer movies”. With Lector, a cannibal, he has a literal appetite for the female body. Even though he evidently respects Clarice, it’s worth noting that he reveled in the split second he was able to touch her when he handed her file back to her through the cage bars. Of course, in the sequel, ​Hannibal,​ his attraction to her becomes more conventionally apparent. However, in ​The Silence of the Lambs​, the attraction is more nuanced and shown through the visual storytelling of the cinematography and the characters’ body language.

This film seems to have conflicting ideologies. On one hand, it’s very evident that Clarice is intelligent and she ultimately cracks the case and takes down the infamous Buffalo Bill, not the hoards of male FBI agents that surround her. This would suggest a degree of independence. However, on the other hand, she is surrounded by men constantly guiding her. They do seem to believe in her, but she hardly ever gets anywhere on her own. Circling back to the male gaze, the male characters in the film definitely made it obvious that her body was to be heavily desired, despite her lack of interest and mask of professionalism she wore. However, this was an important critique of male and female relationships in the working environments of America. In fact, “the prominence of its female protagonist as well as its explicit and critical depiction of the demeaning sexual politics surrounding women in contemporary America led many to hail it as a landmark feminist film” (Phillips, 21). This is a heavily controversial topic, but one worth noting considering that even in critiquing the male gaze, it was still overwhelmingly apparent throughout the film.

In the opening scenes of the film, Clarice enters an elevator with several male agents. In the shot, we can barely see all of their faces, because she is so short in comparison and her body is so tiny compared to the massive chests that are eye level to her. Right off the bat, she is established not only as a sexual object but as a smaller and weaker agent too. She is never established as an equal until the very end when she completes her training. Another example is during the climax of the movie when Clarice is expected to run a fool’s errand while the men take care of the killer. However, because of their own errors, the men left Clarice to battle the real killer all on her own. This ironically allowed her to prove her ability and worth in the eyes of her superiors and coworkers. Perhaps this suggests that the strength of women simply lies in the mistakes and stupidity of men, however that is debatable.
Another movie in which the female protagonist’s hardships ultimately lead to much needed physical and mental strengthening is the brand new 2020 film, written and directed by Leigh Whannell, ​The Invisible Man​. This film follows a woman named Cecilia, hopelessly trapped in the clutches of a rich, brilliant, and sociopathic husband, who faked his own death to stalk and terrorize her while invisible. This film focused heavily on the very real fears women who experience physical and mental abuse face, especially when trying to escape such a relationship. Not only were the fears of physical and mental abuse prevalent, but isolation and gaslighting were key factors in the narrative as well.

The movie had all the characteristics of Hollywood films dating back to the 1930s “monster movies” in which “women were primarily helpless victims waiting to be carried off by marauding madmen, so they may be saved by patriarchal heroes” (Benshoff and Griffin, 228). While told from a very modern perspective, ​The Invisible Man​ has all the characteristics of a classic monster movie. Cecilia is the helpless and traumatized woman, and her sociopathic, invisible husband is the monster. These gender roles were established over 100 years ago, and are obviously still prevalent to this day. There is also a patriarchal protector, 6’2”, incredibly buff policeman, James Lanier, who is also guilty of gaslighting the traumatized Cecilia.
This film lacks the typical “male gaze” cinematography, but it is still completely present. Rather than focus on her body, it focuses on the close-up reactions and terrified body language of Cecilia, because, throughout the movie, most of the damage being inflicted on her is mental. The progression of Cecilia’s character development is demonstrated in up-close shots, showing the bags under eyes growing darker, the shaking of her hands, the empty gaze of a woman who has given up. Hollywood is no stranger to inflicting misery on women. “The sanity and stability of women are routinely questioned and undermined; the machinations of men who abuse them routinely ignored by other men or, worse, facilitated by them” (Rivera). This abuse leads to the “body possession” trope that was earlier discussed. For instance, in the very public restaurant scene, Cecilia is desperately pleading with her sister to believe her, when her sister is killed by the invisible man, right in front of her eyes. However, we don’t see the scene through her point of view, we see her reactions the entire time.

The Invisible Man​ is still shot through the male gaze, her husband’s gaze. The perspective shows how the sociopath views the situation, which shows us how much he observes and understands his wife, Cecilia. While this is a completely different type of male gaze, the key factors are all the same. There is observation without permission, body obsession, and a lack of awareness to how wrong the viewer’s actions are. However, in The Invisible Man, this is to accommodate the perspective of the villain, so it is a much more acceptable approach than the prior two films discussed.
In all three films, women’s fears are a source of fascination and subject to being explored. In ​Mildred Pierce,​ Vida manipulated the fear of being a whore into financial compensation for herself. In ​The Silence of the Lambs​, Clarice’s fear of being undermined in the workplace because of her lack of physical ability and experience was exploited. Finally, in ​The Invisible Man,​ the fear of being terrorized, coupled with being constantly gaslighted took the center stage. Every movie in this essay was written and directed by a man as well. Almost every story about women and her fears is told by a man, even in 2020. Again, ​The Invisible Man​ may be considered an exception because the man and his gaze are the antagonists, but nonetheless, it is a woman’s story. It could also be argued that Blumhouse is simply capitalizing off of the Me Too movement, without any real interest in telling a woman’s story.
Even if it was capitalizing off of the movement, the way that it displayed abusive relationships and gaslighting was incredibly accurate and worthy of praise. “​Men, as it happens, tend to support other men who are brought to answer for their actions, while women who speak out are castigated, cast out, and blamed for their own victimization” (Chaw). The issue of gaslighting has been present since before the Shakespearean days, and holds true to this day with a steady lack of accountability for men that cause it. Regardless if this movie was a woman’s story told through a man’s eyes, at least that element was presented well with respect to the severity of situations like that.
Now, in the present day, women are still wildly underrepresented in the workforce of cinema. Of the highest-grossing films in the world, less than half of them were directed by women. In the same pool of movies, women only filled the role of cinematographer in five percent of them. So quite literally, most movies are still not shot through women’s eyes. However, if ever there was a time for women to thrive in Hollywood, it is now. Several years into the Me Too movement, abusers such as Harvey Weinstein are behind bars and women are beginning to feel safer in the workforce of cinema. Representation of women and minorities is growing slowly, but growing nonetheless. Equality in the film industry is not so far ahead of us.

Works Cited

Benshoff, H. M., & Griffin, S. (2009). ​America On Film​ (2nd ed.). West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.
Chaw, W. (2020). The Invisible Man (2020). ​Film Freak Central ​. Retrieved from https://www.filmfreakcentral.net/ffc/2020/02/the-invisible-man-2020-1.html
Dubois, D. (2001). ‘Seeing the Female Body Differently’: Gender issues in The Silence of the Lambs. ​Journal of Gender Studies,​ ​10(​ 3).
Jurca, C. (2002). Mildred Pierce, Warner Bros., and the Corporate Family. ​Representations,​ 30–51.
Mulvey, Laura. (1989) Visual and Other Pleasures. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan.
Phillips, K. R. (2008). Controversial cinema : The films that outraged america. Retrieved from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com Created from callutheran on 2020-04-08 19:04:14.
Rivera, J. (2020, March 5). The Invisible Man Haunts Us the Way Abusers Always Have. Retrieved April 13, 2020, from https://www.theverge.com/2020/3/5/21166333/invisible-man-review-abuse-uncanny-vall ey-the-assistant-harvey-weinstein

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