|As slow and shallow
Hollywood's responses to the socio-political upheavals of the 1960s proved
to be, the film industry at least tried to create semblances of change in
its productions. That
is in regards to males participating in the black empowerment movements,
the counterculture, and the anti-war demonstrations.When it came to women,
however, Hollywood made determined and decisive steps to cage the female
to her longstanding social identities - maternal, sexual, and pathetic.
Even when sounds of empowerment or agency reverberated in the words and
actions of female characters, they fall on deaf ears of audiences who only
see an object of propagation, possession, and domination.
While reinforcing male superiority, these images sought to undermine female authority. Contrasting these depictions of women Hollywood endeavored to ingrain on the American mind, women off-screen found themselves in the midst of a radical identity redefinition. The fight for women's rights began long before the 1960s; unlike before, the women's liberation movement sought to provide females autonomy in all areas of life, from the boardroom to the bedroom. Not that women could no longer be mothers, sex objects, or wives, but that these roles need not anchor their femininity. Yet, their ideologies found a formidable foe in the inarticulate female of the silver screen.
For a decade replete with stereotypical and degrading depictions of women, Breakfast at Tiffany's began the 1960s with promise. Holly Golightly is a prostitute. She uses sex to get what and where she wants. And she has wants and satisfies them. On the one hand, she says her ambitions to marry an affluent man stem from her desire to provide for her brother Fred; on the other hand, her "husband" Doc Golightly already pledged to do that. That Fred's needs justify her needs undermines her agency, but her autonomy stands. Fifty dollars for every trip to the powder room does not entitle Sid Arbuck to anything. She chooses when to belong to somebody. Despite her affection for Paul Varjak, her mind keeps focused on her goal of assuming another's fortune. Varjak is the one to fall madly in love; he is the one to give up his gig for her. Indeed, the authority asserted by women in this film proves unabashedly emasculating. The lead male, Varjak, is at the disposal and discretion of a woman, Mag Wildwood. In keeping up the façade, Wildwood coyly calls her male gigolo in the presence of her husband. Though in the end he assumes his independence from her sexual appetite and generous checkbook, he does so for another woman. Mr. Yunioshi, Holly's neighbor, fills the screen with his anger for Holly, which quickly dissipates with a simple bash of the eye or empty promise of a photo session. Holly abandoned Doc and all the matronly duties their marriage entailed, something he seemingly can't get over.
Breakfast at Tiffany's certainly did not intend to be an ode to women's liberation, and to an extent, it is not. Not appearing in the conventional role as a housewife, the film takes great pains to demean these alternative takes at womanhood. When Wildwood launches into her lecture on why Varjak deserves a "vacation" as any employee as a last ditch effort to preserve their arrangement, she becomes a female grotesque and reveals her enslavement to sex. Through the insights of Varjak who says, "She is someone who can't help anyone, not even herself," the audience is meant to perceive Holly as a pitiable character, much like her nameless cat. Her bathtub for a couch and alcohol for escape only reinforce her helplessness. Saving Holly from herself in the end, Varjak emerges as the film's hero. Nevertheless, the advances Breakfast at Tiffany's makes is in its albeit limited portrayal of women as self-determined and self-empowered.
Rethinking the life of the housewife gained strides in events occurring outside the movie theater. On bookstore shelves, Betty Freidan's Feminine Mystique openly challenged women to build lives beyond the domestic sphere. A year later in 1964, Samantha Stephens revealed the secret "powers" of housewives in the television series Bewitched, an idea continued in I Dream of Jeannie series beginning to following year. 1966 witnessed the foundation of the National Organization for Women. Sex for sex entered into the daily regiment of countercultural females engaged in the Haight-Ashbury scene of San Francisco, especially during the 1967 Summer of Love. Watching the Ms. America Pageant of 1968 introduced viewers to a new conception of womanhood as protests against the event in Atlantic City sparked the beginnings of the Women's Liberation Movement. And a year later, this force developed "consciousness raising" groups, further achieving solidarity and agency for women. As their efforts to empower the female grew stronger, however, Hollywood's efforts to demean the female grew stronger.
Though a flower child off-screen, Mia Farrow embodied the dutiful housewife on screen as Rosemary Woodhouse in Rosemary's Baby. She and her husband Guy may be a hip married couple, complete with a stylish wardrobe and a swinging pad, but their relationship as husband and wife upholds traditional family values. He as an actor is the breadwinner and she as the wife is the housekeeper. Furthermore, in spite of a wonderful husband and a charming home, Rosemary just wants baby. And her maternal desires become Guy's ticket to success. Essentially renting out his wife's womb to the devil's progeny, Guy receives fame and fortune as an actor in return. Later defending his choice to his wife by claiming, "I did it for you," seems erroneous given his subsequent actions throughout the film. He lets the devil rape Rosemary, leaving scratch marks all over her body. While carrying the baby, Rosemary loses weight and experiences excruciating cramps, which Guy dismisses as natural and hyped up in her imagination. Moreover, anytime Rosemary contradicts the advice of their neighbors, the Castevets, whom are the cult leaders in charge of this entire affair, he admonishes and rebukes her. No, Guy did this only for himself.
Neither Guy's self-indulgence nor the Castevets demonic practices prove to be the most disturbing aspect of Rosemary's Baby. Rather, it is Rosemary's maternal instincts. Against her better judgment, she believes all the lies Guy and Dr. Sapirstein shower her with at first. Dumbstruck by her exceptional pain and her odd inclinations, gobbling raw meat for example, she presupposes all males to be wiser than she, at the least to be keeping her best interests at heart. Except for Edward "Hutch" Hutchins, she is wrong. When she does come to learn the truth, she for once sets out to take matters into her own hands. She will kill the demon child. Ever so slowly, she creeps down the Castevet's hall wielding a knife making it all the way to the crib. Then she falters, dropping the knife upon seeing the body of the child. Beckoning Rosemary to the crib once again, Mr. Castevet entreats her to be a mother to her child. Rosemary initially refuses, until a female cult member roughly rocks the bassinet to soothe the crying baby. Then, all her maternal instincts rise up within her, as she takes her place as mother to her child. Using another woman's negligence to arose her maternal sense, the film frames Rosemary as the real woman thus making her actions markers of genuine womanhood. In this way, the film suggests female values lies in their birthing and nurturing capacities.
The same year females protested the demeaning parade of women at the Ms. America Pageant, Barbarella filled theaters with a space aged female superhero who sets out to defeat an evil dictator. Full of campy dialogue and fantastical scenery, Barbarella is not a film to be taken seriously. It makes feeble attempts at tongue-in-cheek humor when it defines war as "a primitive state of neurotic responsibility." It mimics countercultural markers as it adorns cast members in skimpy outfits and smoky halos. It plays with the idea that the fate of the world depends on a woman, who instead always seems to be the damsel in distress. These "signs of the times" lampoon the sincere ideological efforts of 1960s revolutionaries. But it is the film not they who come out appearing completely ludricrous.
While women strove to clothe their gender with dignity, Barbarella endeavored to strip them of it. Sure, Barbarella may be the savior of the universe, but the Great Tyrant she set out to defeat turned out to be a member of her own sex. Though the male character Duran Duran threatens them both, his sexual impotency and minimal authority demonstrated in the film nullify the menace he represents. Furthermore, Barbarella's sexual appeal proves to be her most powerful weapon, but she does not control it as much as it controls her. Each episodic dilemma moves to the next by Barbarella's sexual encounters with alien strangers, at first a pittance she pays them for saving her life. Notably, circumstances leading up to this event strip Barbarella of most of her clothes. The only exception is when she has sex with Duran Duran's machine, which her multiple orgasms ruin the device and foil his scheme to kill her. Opening with an erotic scene of Barbarella undressing herself, the film begins with the statement, woman equals sex, for by that point the audience does not know who she is, and spends the remainder of the time underscoring their assertion.
Tina Basler is a housewife and hates it. Her children loathe her. Her husband ridicules her. Her friends ignore her. Unmasking the trials and tribulations of domesticity, Diary of a Mad Housewife contradicts the belief that the life of an upper middle class woman is enviable. Hearing sounds of industrial clamor during scenes depicting Tina cleaning the house and conducting Christmas shopping, the audience garners an appreciation of the hard work required of domestic life. The film, released in the same year as the Washington DC Women's Strike for Equality march, builds upon the attempts of the women's liberation movement to force women and men to redefine gender roles. However well intentioned, these efforts prove wanting. The film can see the problem, Tina's lack of individual identity, but Tina cannot. Worse yet, neither can name the solution, self-actualization. Her affair with George Prager may entail a lot of good sex, but her investment in the relationship is emotional not physical. Prager makes her feel wanted, something all her husband's petty demands fail to do, so she dotes on him as she wished her husband would on her. But even their relationship is a sham, because it is nothing more than sex for Prager. And Tina doesn't get it. Hurt by his continued sexual engagements with other women, Tina leaves him feeling cheated, for which she has no right given the beginning "just sex" definition they agreed to. Before exiting his apartment, she alleges he is homosexual and thus puts up a façade of virulent masculinity. As the film provides nothing to substantiate this claim, her accusations seem petty and self-serving. Her self-help group provides little direction and relief as the other members hold her privileged condition in contempt. Indicative of society's failure to address problems within traditional conventions, Diary of a Mad Housewife points to an important problem but gives its protagonist and audience nowhere to go.
Questioning notions of morality, Klute speaks through the voice of Bree Daniel, an aspiring actress working as a prostitute to enhance her acting skills and her wallet, who asserts, "Nothing is wrong." In word and deed, Bree launches a challenge to conventional definitions of womanhood held by tradition bound thinkers, represented in the straight-laced character John Klute. As a call girl, Bree gets money and "the comfort of being numb," but her appropriation of sex doesn't get her what she wants - a legitimate acting career. Her failure leads her to desire what she does not want but feels she is able to have, articulated by her as she says, "What I'd really like to do is be faceless and bodiless and be alone." Klute voices female angst, which it remedies with a romantic heterosexual relationship, hardly satisfying for woman espousing the ideologies of the women's liberation movement. Unlike Holly Golightly, Bree's sexual prowess further subjects her to masculine authority. Much like Breakfast at Tiffany's, Klute concludes with the upright male saving the wandering female from herself. Yet that Klute came out ten years later after the revolutions of the 1960s makes its ending all the more devastating. Before exiting her apartment and lifestyle to be with Klute, Bree promises she'll return, but the fact remains that she is leaving. As she does so, she gains neither a face nor a body, neither an identity nor ownership of herself; instead, she assumes that of another, of a male.
Looking at films of the 1960s, one would never know the triumphs of the women's liberation movement ongoing that decade. Determinedly pursuing self-empowerment, self-actualization, and self-love, these females strove to elevate their identity out of the bedroom and into the boardroom. Whatever achievements they made could not deter Hollywood in its attempt to reinforce male superiority on the backs of women. The cries of female activists for free love, equal opportunity, and respect received promises of sexual enslavement, domestic bondage, and patronization in return.
|TUNING IN | TIMELINE | STUDENT MOVEMENT | CIVIL RIGHTS/BLACK POWER | VIETNAM WAR | COUNTERCULTURE | WOMENS LIBERATION|