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Media and sexuality - a feminine touch
Art acts as a form of escape. It provides people with an outlet to release the emotions that they cannot necessarily put into words. Film specifically gives a director an opportunity to focus on certain aspects of human nature or life that are absurd or especially important in his or her eyes. However, when the film industry first began booming, the restrictions placed upon filmmakers were so severe that it limited their ability to freely express themselves. And as Hollywood tried to suppress the growing desire to show sexuality of all types in film, directors somehow found a way to get past the restrictions and to subtly reveal a hint of themselves through their work. Therefore, it is important to carefully dissect the little elements found in early “classical” film to truly understand the sentiments that existed at that time despite the industry’s attempt to mask such feelings.
In Mayne’s article about Lesbian Looks, she highlights the work of a talented director of the 1920’s-40’s, Dorothy Arzner. In a period in Hollywood history in which the Hays Code prohibited direct portrayals of lesbians in film, Dorothy Arzner subtly found a way of communicating her identity through her films. Being one of the few successful women directors of the time, Arzner already came in from a position of inferiority in an industry led by males. Therefore, in order to communicate her lesbian feminist identity, she had to be sure to dance around the subject. For example, in the clip that we saw of Dance, Girl, Dance, Lucille Ball’s character represented the fetishized idea of the female identity. Showing her routine followed by the male reaction to it revealed the demeaning attitude inflicted upon women. However, in the very next scene, Maureen O’Hara’s character seems to step in and correct all that was so degrading about the preceding act. She speaks directly to the audience telling them very bluntly that they make her sick and that everyone can see right through them. As she speaks, it seems that with the use of lighting and close ups on Maureen’s face, Arzner is subtly getting her message across through this character. It represents a break in the film in which the director’s true voice can be heard through the way in which this character is portrayed. However, as soon as her speech is finished, the approval from the audience reflects the sad truth that to them, anything she says will be made into an instrument for their entertainment. And thus Arzner returns to the conventions of Hollywood in order to mask the identity that she allowed to be shown momentarily.
Through Hollywood’s tight restrictions on early film, each movie is shown to the spectator in the manner in which Hollywood would like for us to view it. Even in most film classes today, when dealing with classical Hollywood cinema there is no critical analysis of the subtle underlying meanings behind classic pieces. We seem to continue to go along with convention and view films the way in which Hollywood would have had us view them back then, remaining almost oblivious to the fact that those directors might have had other messages that were pushing to come out in their work. However, in taking a class that focuses on the underlying messages in film, the viewers perspective changes dramatically and elements are revealed that were completely unnoticeable before. In a sense, when put on notice, the audience can open up its field of vision and can finally truly see the picture without the classical conventions.
When I took my first class about early film history last year, we were shown many films dealing with classical Hollywood filmmaking. One of the films was Dorothy Arzner’s, “Craig’s Wife” made in 1936. At that point, I was unfamiliar with Arzner because it was of little importance in our discussion of the film at that time. We discussed the linear style of editing and the series of shot-reverse-shots that appeared throughout the films entirety. The film was about a woman who was obsessed with her house and maintaining its perfection at all times. As the movies goes on, she becomes so concerned with maintaining this perfection that in the end she drives everyone away from her including her once devoted husband. At the end of the film, Harriet is left with her perfect house but she is perfectly alone. As she walks to the front door, the widow from next door comes over, and at the end of the film the two of them are left there alone together.
In Mayne’s discussion of this film, she presents two possible ways of portraying the same final scene. In George Kelly’s play version of this script, the two women are left alone in the end and have become mirror images of one another. They represent figures to be pitied. Therefore, Kelly’s interpretation of this script is that Harriet has lost all the elements that made her life so perfect and it seems that in the end she finally realizes what she has let go of. It is a sad ending, and one that is supposed to bring up the warning to always appreciate what you have. In reading this interpretation of George Kelly’s play, I found it funny how similar this description was to the way in which my class had viewed the ending of Arzner’s film. Any presence of lesbian or feminist identity in this film was overlooked, perhaps because of the time period or perhaps because of the focus of the class. But as I continued reading Mayne’s interpretation of Arzner’s ending, it was shocking how much the films ending was opened up to me.
The ending, according to Mayne, is not important necessarily because Harriet is alone, but rather because she is alone with another woman. It seems that in the end, through Harriet’s incapacity to please her husband and the people around her, she is left with one more chance to have a connection with another human being, this time it is with a woman. And although Harriet has pushed everyone so far away from her throughout the entire film, it seems that as the widow places her hand on Harriet’s hand, she is now starving for company and affection. In this one instant, the widow provides Harriet with everything she needs. And in the end, the woman seems to become her last hope of survival. Therefore, although Arzner’s film version ends in a sad way as well, there is also something somewhat liberating in it. As Harriet has driven away all the people in her life who have failed to make her happy, she is left with her house and one other woman. And it seems that Arzner is hinting at the fact that all hope is not lost and that she can create happiness out of the two things she has left. Ending the film with the possibility of a connection with another woman is not conventional, but ultimately it is the only time that we actually see Harriet as a real person.
In this way, although Harriet’s character is one to be hated throughout most of the film, I believe that there is something incredibly symbolic in her actions. During this era of classical Hollywood cinema there seemed to be only one image of a woman—that of the submissive and inferior one whose primary purpose in film existed to portray the perfect wife and mother. In Craig’s Wife, the character of Harriet is anything but typical. She is opinionated and does exactly as she pleases without doting over her husband. And in the end, the fact that she is left alone is all by her own choice. As she watches her husband leave, she watches her seemingly perfect life slip away from her as a more realistic life is presented. In the end, Harriet has chosen to renounce the role of the perfect wife that so many movies depict. But of course Arzner makes the ending ever so subtle, allowing for the possibility of more classic interpretations of the ending just in case an audience is not ready for it.
As we have seen, in early film history a female lesbian director would not be able to make a film that truly focused on feminist topics. It seems that as times have changed and restrictions have been reduced, we now find ourselves in a world in which we can freely express ourselves. Women are no longer forced to hide their identity and to communicate messages subtly. However, it is shocking to see just how few big films are actually about lesbian women or feminism. It is sad that in an age in which we are finally “allowed” to express ourselves that more of us don’t speak out and represent things as we would like to see them. Unfortunately this is largely due to the market that is not looking for lesbian films and an audience that sometimes does not want to see them. Even in the films that do show lesbian interaction, it is either for the male pleasure or it is cast with a strikingly beautiful and feminine woman who represents a sex symbol to the knowing audience. Therefore, it seems to be a bit of a ‘chicken or the egg’ question. Is it the low demand for lesbian films that had led to the lack of this genre film, or is it the lack of these types of films that leads to an unawareness and hence a low demand for them? The only way to truly find out is through our own action.