One of the most powerful forces reshaping American culture in the seventies and eighties was the feminist movement. Initially characterized by radical gestures of rejection and separation from male domination, in its purest form feminism described all male sexuality as exploitative and turned to lesbianism as an alternative. As the seventies proceeded, the movement came to focus on issues of economic and political power, as well as on such sectoral concerns as rape and pornography which many feminists saw as essential to the exercise of male domination over woman. The movement found itself in the late seventies and early eighties divided between radical groups which were powerful in the world of intellectual culture (signaled best, perhaps, by such publications as Ms., The Woman’s Review of Books, Signs, and Feminist Studies) as well as in local subcultural arenas and a mainstream sector content to equate sexual equality with acceptance into the male professional business world. By the late seventies the phenomenon of the “professional woman” had eclipsed the earlier popular image of the feminist as avenging Amazon. The movement faltered somewhat in the early eighties in the face of conservative counterattacks, often violent in character (the bombings of abortion clinics), centering on abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment. Despite the conservative backlash, however, it was clear by the mid-eighties that feminism had succeeded in transforming American life. Like the civil rights movement and the student radical movement, it had shifted the parameters of public discussion, obliged conservatives to accept as givens certain rights and principles which had hitherto been denied or rejected, and established a strong presence in American public and intellectual life which had to be contended with.
Avoidance and denial were the first responses to feminism in a film industry dominated by men. The challenge to patriarchy appeared more in the form of an absence that defines the tenor of crisis-film metaphors than in the form of something actually present on the screen. Yet when men got the wagons together in a circle of buddy films in the early seventies, one suspected something was provoking their anxiety, although the band of bra-burning renegades remained below the Hollywood horizon—so threatening, apparently, they could not even be looked at. It was not until after 1977, in the “women’s film” revival, that Hollywood film came to examine some of the issues raised by feminism, although only a few of the films made could be called feminist. And no film, to our knowledge, dramatizes the feminist movement, although Rich and Famous presents a bourgeois version. Yet, as in crisis films, that movement is the object of reaction through indirection. Many neoromance and family films of the late seventies and early eighties project positive representations of mothering males while portraying women as in need of a strong male arm to lean on. At the same time, independent women are depicted negatively as neo -noir spider women or stigmatized as homewreckers. These representational reactions should be read, we would argue, in relation to the broader cultural backlash against feminism unleashed by the Right in the late seventies, a backlash that called for a defense of the traditional family, the abolition of abortion, attacks on gay rights, and the curtailment of government support of birth control for young and lower-income women.
Women are constructed as subordinate subjects by cultural representations. In the seventies, feminist critics argued that women were positioned by cinematic representations as emotional, domestic, and dependent.1 In addition, feminist film theorists argued that male cinema was inherently voyeuristic and scopophilic; women were positioned in the Hollywood tradition as objects of male pleasure. Male stereotypes paint women as unable to relate rationally to the world, an incapacity that takes the form of images that connote psychological immaturity and an inability to differentiate objects or to relate to the world objectively. If the fuzzy emotional world of domestic melodrama traditionally belongs to women, so also does the crazy, crossed world of the screwball comedy, as well as the extremely undifferentiated shadow world of the film noir. Women are portrayed as rule-breakers, crossers of legitimate boundaries. They are also positioned as fetishes of male desire, passive confirmations of male power. Some feminist critics noticed a deconstructive potential in these representational strategies. If women were depicted as boundary crossers, it was possibly because they threatened the order of legitimacy and propriety males needed to maintain if their social power was to remain intact. And if women had to be reduced to sexual fetishes, perhaps it was because they represented a threatening sexual power or difference (the absence of the phallus) which males needed to disavow if their narcissistic psychosexual integrity was not to be punctured.
When women have had access to the power of representation they have often represented their lives in ways quite different from the ways promulgated by men. The differences are marked out clearly in Mildred Pierce (1945), a celebrated “women’s film” which was in part scripted by a woman. The woman’s sections of the film consist of highly realist, well-differentiated, “mature” representations of Mildred as an independent woman who leaves her husband and becomes successful in business. But a man did the final script, and his major contribution was a film noir frame that associates Mildred’s independence with a crime against patriarchy. The noir style blurs distinctions between objects, suggesting the breakdown of clear moral boundaries, and connotes immaturity on the level of representation by suggesting that women are excessively emotional, irrational, and immoral. Thus, what seems for women to have been a positive crossing of patriarchal boundaries, especially the separation of the private from the public spheres, is for men seen negatively as a transgression of the law.
Consequently, how women are represented and who does the representing are crucial political issues. We will take up the question by comparing a number of films about women’s lives made during this era. Our focal concern will be the differences between male and female representations of women. And we will address some of the major issues of concern to feminist film theorists during the period—whether there is such a thing as a “patriarchal form,” whether women employ forms that are by virtue of socialization significantly different from men’s, and whether the traditional Hollywood forms used by men are appropriate to women’s lives and issues, or whether women need to create altogether different forms appropriate to their own voice.
The seventies were distinguished by films about women’s lives by male filmmakers, from Martin Scorsese (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) to Paul Mazursky (An Unmarried Woman). By the eighties, more and more women directors, from Susan Seidelman (Desperately Seeking Susan) to Donna Deitch (Desert Loves), were making films that focused on such issues as lesbian love, domestic violence, and liberation from patriarchy. Men’s films tend on the whole to impose either mythic or dichotomous schemes of representation on women’s lives. If indeed men have been socially constructed to be rational and schematic, as opposed to emotive and contextual, then there is a symptomatic appropriateness in this fact. The dichotomy imposed most often on women by male filmmakers is that between career and marriage or love. The choice is usually either between work and children or between a vulnerable public life and male protection. Each of these oppositions is socially significant. The first is predicated on the allocation of child-rearing and domestic labor to women in patriarchal societies, and the second on the actual fact of male violence against women which in part results from the monopolization of the competitive public sphere by men. In the tradition, independent women are usually domesticated (with forties films like Now, Voyager being the most famous examples), and the thematic construction of an interior, domestic sphere as the one appropriate for women is frequently conjoined with certain formal (usually melodramatic) properties that execute a similar function. A sense of closure at the end of the narrative suggests that there is no beyond that need concern women; the plot and dialog generally revolve around personal rather than public issues; the spaces in which action occurs are usually circumscribed, suggesting domestic limits; camera framing portrays women as relational rather than independent; and the use of beautiful actresses and frequent intimate close-ups tends to reinforce a sense of women as objects of male desire. This history provoked feminist film theorists during this time to contend that the very apparatus of Hollywood narrative film form, the way it creates a sense of narcissistic continuity or unity between male spectator and film spectacle, actualized a misogynistic social structure, whereby passive women become the sites upon which male power is validated. Hollywood form is inherently patriarchal. If this constitutes a sort of visual violence, other film theorists, such as Joan Mellen, have pointed to the high incidence of acts of actual violence, including rape, against women in Hollywood films, especially in films made during the period of reaction against feminism in the seventies. Such renewed violence seems due in part to a reaction by men to women’s escape from domesticity and subservience.
A number of films of the early seventies engage these themes, examining women’s attempts to live in the public world. Made for the most part by men, they generally conclude with a restoration of traditional domestic order. One of the first films of the seventies to foreground a woman’s life problems, Klute (1971) is symptomatic of its historical moment in that its title is the name of a male character, yet the film primarily concerns a woman. Jane Fonda plays Bree Daniels, a young woman who wants to make it as an actress and model but who chooses to be a prostitute in order to survive economically. She lives independently of men until she meets Klute (Donald Sutherland), a detective from a small town in Pennsylvania, who is looking for one of her customers who has disappeared. She helps him, and eventually gets sexually involved and falls in love. The killer of the man for whom Klute is searching is a businessman named Cable. He tries to kill Bree, but Klute saves her. In the end, they leave her apartment, which has become symbolic of both her independent life and her vulnerability as a public woman, apparently heading for hometown Pennsylvania, where they will presumably settle down together.
Despite its traditionalist and even prefeminist conclusion, Klute critically dissects the cultural stereotype of the happy suburban family and offers a somewhat positive picture of an autonomous and sexually independent woman. The clean, polite family dinner at the beginning of the film is shown eventually to harbor murderous desires and crimes and to be not all that distant from the urban nightmare that it seems successfully to keep at bay. Even if it is presented through the refracting filter of her role as a prostitute, Bree’s open sexuality marks a breakthrough for the depiction of women in modern Hollywood film. Bree’s sexual freedom and emotional honesty (which are made a verbal motif through the repeated and obsessional playing of a tape of her voice by Cable) contrast with the murderous repression of the businessman killer.
The motif of the taped voice points out an antinomy in the way women are positioned socially by men. Bree’s voice placates male sexual anxiety; it is partly coaxing and partly soothing. Yet male violence is also elicited by it. This double character suggests the dual reality of women’s social positioning. Their training in the soothing role of domestic caretaking is shadowed by the threat of male violence in the nondomestic sphere. The soothing voice on the tape brings together those two exclusive yet conjoined realities. It is a figure for woman’s role as caretaker; yet it also is defensive in that the act of soothing placates an anxiety that threatens to become violent against the woman if she ceases to soothe and to allay male fear. What this suggests is that male public violence against women (in both its real and symbolic forms, rape as well as representational debasement in film) lurks within the private, domestic sphere, where it is soothed and allayed. Woman’s role as caretaker is less a choice than the result of coercion, of the permanent possibility of violence that is embedded in her caretaking as the anxiety such caretaking assuages.
The symmetrical structuring of the characters in the film brings the point home, so to speak. There are two women and two men as primary characters. One woman is a wife who is missing a husband, who is lost in the public sphere. The other woman lives in the public sphere, also without a husband. But in the end she relinquishes the public for the private and finds a potential husband. At first untamed and isolated in the frame, in the end she is domesticated and subordinated within the frame. The two men shape the trajectory of her change. One represents male public violence against women. The other, who represents male protection, emerges from the private sphere into the public, removes the public male threat, and returns to the domestic world with a wife. Just as the two women seem minted from the same ore of female socialization, so also the two men seem to be two aspects of the same male project in regard to women. One punishes public independence while the other rewards the assumption of the proper domestic role with protection. But it is protection from essentially the same man.
Therefore, the film works from the perspective of an unstated opposition between independence and paternalist coupleship, and its rhetorical argument is in favor of the latter. Though Bree is more a victim than a failure, there is a note of failure in the final scene, when she abandons the apartment that symbolized her independence. A number of women’s films of the era portrayed women as incapable of gaining independence or as neurotic and self-destructive (A Safe Place, Play It as It Lays, Images, A Woman under the Influence), and it is also possible to read Klute from this perspective.
Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) differs from earlier woman films in that it depicts a woman both struggling to become independent and being supported by other women. Alice (Ellen Burstyn) is left on her own when her husband dies. She decides to move away with her ten-year-old son to try to realize her dream of becoming a singer. The film details her attempts to live without a man. Although the film was directed by Scorsese, many women collaborated, and there is frequent evidence of their perspective in the film. For example, a major subplot is the developing friendship between women from different worlds who at first do not understand each other (the motif that becomes the basis for a successful TV show of the era).
The film, however, depicts Alice as failing in her attempt to live alone. Her first love affair turns out badly when she discovers the man is married and a violent brutalizer of his wife. She barely escapes attack herself. Finally, a fairy-tale rancher rescues and “conquers” her, while taking her to task for not disciplining her son properly. This ending is foreshadowed by the opening scene, a grandstand vignette of Alice as a young girl walking home along a country road singing. The vignette situates her dream of becoming a singer as an unreal fantasy. Alice concludes with mother and son walking along a neon strip toward a sign that reads “Monterey,” the name of the place they had been striving for before being waylaid by economic necessity and hogtied by romance. This scene is, like the opening vignette, a sign of the artificiality of dreams. Both are situated outside the boundaries of the film’s narrative, whose extremely realist style evokes an attitude of grim realism toward the world, which seems impermeable to a common woman’s dreams of success.
The issue of career vs. love or marriage was so important during this era because women were increasingly moving into the workforce. Without a national daycare system or a rational social consciousness regarding male parenting, that move raised problems for many women. Entry into the work world also proved more hazardous than women initially might have expected. Women were generally given jobs that paid much less than men’s jobs, so much so that “69” (cents for women for every man’s dollar) became a common women’s movement button, and the struggle for comparable worth (equal pay for equal jobs) became a major issue of the late seventies and the eighties. Moreover, the move into corporate life gave rise to a new phenomenon—the corporate woman who bought into the conservative male-identified system of capitalism. Images of “strong” women could no longer easily be equated with either feminism or political rectitude. Jill Clayburgh’s strong women of the late seventies, in films like First Monday in October, in which she plays a conservative Supreme Court justice, or It’s My Turn, in which she plays an upper middle class professional who “goes for it,” are paradigms of this particular form of feminism. The phenomenon became more evidently questionable in the mid-eighties, as Elayne Rapping notes, in films like Marie (1985), in which a strong woman’s success depends on the “successful” incarceration of black women welfare “cheats.” The strength of such women often seemed to owe more to Ronald Reagan than to Betty Friedan or Kate Millett.
Not all men’s films about women in the seventies oblige women to choose between career and love. The Turning Point (1977), one of the new updated melodrama revivals of the period, explicitly engages the issue by staging a conflict between one woman who sacrificed career for marriage and another who sacrificed marriage for her career, and the film attempts to resolve the issue in a way that does not privilege marriage. Julia (1977) also positively represents both a woman who chooses marriage and one who chooses public life. Yet each of the films evidences a male perspective. In Turning Point, the two women engage at one point in a clumsy “cat fight” that would have been high drama if it had involved two men, while Julia is marked by woozy flashbacks, hazy tones, and a lace-fringed emotionality in the voice-over narration that is equally “feminine” within the dominant cultural representational code for women.
Male representations of women, even well-intentioned ones, must necessarily look on women’s lives from outside, and they often conceive of women’s liberation as consisting of gaining (or deciding against) access to the traditional male realm of work and public endeavor. If early seventies male films suggested that women couldn’t make it in the big world without male patronage, mid-seventies films began to permit women a bit more independence and power, although these films generally concentrate on upper-class women, ignoring the issues of daycare, abortion, and subsistence that faced many other, especially poor and black, women. Films directed or scripted by women do touch on such issues as domestic violence, and they also tend to show women more subjectively, less as objects of conquest and more as agents of life struggles. Comparing a male film like Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman (1978) with a women’s film—Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends (1978)—also broaches the question of representational style or form—whether or not there is a woman’s form that is distinct from the form men are socialized to practice. Is there a closure-oriented, voyeuristic patriarchal form that is opposed by a more open-ended, non-scopophilic form appropriate to women?
In Mazursky’s film, Erica (Jill Clayburgh) is a happily married housewife whose husband leaves her for a younger woman. Although initially disabled and distraught, she manages to make it on her own. The early parts of the film sympathetically depict her struggle to survive alone, although her major concerns seem to be more romantic than anything. The group of women friends is portrayed as an empathetic enclave from a fairly mean world of sexual predation.
The male perspective of the film appears most clearly in its insistent focus on Erica’s relations to men. All of her significant choices are posed in terms of men. It is indicative that the film’s title situates her as out of wedlock to a man, not as being a subject in her own right. From the male perspective, the resolution of the “problem” of being “unmarried” and of having to go out with unhip guys is to meet a really hip guy, an artist played by Alan Bates whose mellifluous ruminations through the last quarter of the film turn Erica into a silent, slack-jawed gawker at his brilliance. While he paints and talks, she cooks breakfast. In the end, she decides to live alone, although in this too a male model of nonrelational, decontextural independence seems to prevail. In part, Erica’s feminism consists of adopting certain male postures. She is not represented as confronting any of the everyday life problems that non-upper-class divorced or independent women face—daycare, work, unequal treatment, etc.—and she certainly is not shown struggling for something like equality. The male perspective also displays itself in the voyeurism and objectification of the scenes where Clayburgh prances seminaked through her apartment.
An Unmarried Woman successfully expunges all radicalism from feminism and repackages it as a “new woman” or “corporate” feminism which equated liberation from patriarchy with enlistment in its ranks. It is significant that the film appeared in 1978, since, as we have noted, around that time an important shift seems to occur in American culture; just as more movie theaters moved to white suburbs beyond the reach of the carless urban underclass, so also films themselves became more concerned with suburban dwellers, or those who lived high above the city streets. Erica’s version of angst is to gaze down from her penthouse, pensively sipping white wine.
Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends is quite different in style, characterization, and theme. Weill made her film as an independent, and whereas Mazursky’s film reflects the high production values of mainstream Hollywood, Weill’s displays all the roughness of a low-budget production. While this has its drawbacks (characters walking out of the frame and almost knocking the camera over), the film’s lack of slickness also lends it a greater sense of proximity to lived experience. It is much less continuous in its image construction and less oriented toward drama in its narrative than Unmarried Woman. It catches the episodic quality of life, with all of its metonymic disjointedness, as well as the lack of firm dramatic boundaries between those episodes. Thus the economic power of men makes a significant difference on the level of style, but Weill seems to derive advantages from that shortcoming. Indeed, it becomes a playfully reflexive motif at one point when the electricity fails in an apartment and the soundtrack music conks out.
Girlfriends also suggests that women do indeed represent the lives of women differently from men. The story concerns two young women, one of whom, Susan, is an aspiring photographer, while Linda is a writer who marries and has a child, to the detriment of her work. Unlike Erica, who hangs out with artists (all men), Susan is an artist. Thus, the woman filmmaker accords a greater subjectivity to her character. Moreover, unlike the women’s group in Unmarried Woman, which discusses primarily romantic concerns, women’s friendship in Girlfriends focuses primarily on issues of work and survival. One woman friend advises Susan on how to succeed in her work by advising her to be more aggressive. And Susan and Linda discuss their feelings for each other, not for men. Finally, Weill refrains from ending on the sort of false note of hope and optimism that concludes Mazursky’s film (Erica’s decision to live alone). Linda’s husband returns to break up the friendly encounter and reconciliation between the two “girlfriends.” Men represent an outside, an other that intrudes, rather than a secure peg one can finally hang one’s wayward life on.
Weill’s film invites comparison with Independence Day (1982), an exceptional “minor” film scripted by Alice Hoffman that explores a scarcely-ever-represented reality of domestic violence. Independence Day concerns a young woman who decides to leave her small-town home to go to an urban art school. Portrayed as sexually independent, she actively pursues a young man, who becomes her lover, then befriends his sister, a housewife who is brutally mistreated by her husband. The film emphasizes the young woman’s relationships to others—the dying mother she does not want to leave, the housewife whose plight she tries unsuccessfully to alleviate, the boyfriend she loves but whose desires she won’t let keep her from her artistic goals. And it dramatizes her sense of entrapment between a feminist-age desire to have an independent career and her desire to stay with her family. A negative parallel is established between the independence of the young woman and the brutalized dependence of the housewife. The film suggests that the housewife’s victimization is in part the fault of her own fear, in part the fault of a social system that obliges women to accept domestic domination because they are “one husband away from the poverty line.” It ends with parallel acts of redemption: the housewife blows up her husband, using the symbol of her torment—a match—and the young woman escapes and proves she is strong enough to live alone.
The film is distinctly metonymic in its approach, and, along with Girlfriends, it raises the issue of whether or not female socialization gives rise to a representational form that differs significantly from the dominant patriarchal forms. Both films seem to represent women in ways closer to female socialization in that their drama relies on the exploration of relations, and both seem to appropriate traditional male self-representations (autonomy, activity, etc.) for women. If Independence Day suggests that women conceptualize women’s lives differently, more metonymically, Girlfriends suggests that traditional “patriarchal” forms such as meaningful resolution, narrative closure, and nonrelational character construction can be given feminist inflections. To a certain extent both films transcend these distinctions. The young women of Girlfriends and Independence are presented as capable agents who lay claim to an identity separate from that the culture imposes and who presume the same rights as men regarding sexuality and careers while nevertheless maintaining their sense of relationality. Narrative resolution works in favor of this appropriation in Independence when the boyfriend gives in and joins her in the city, and in Girlfriends when the two friends are reconciled. A traditional representational form—narrative closure—is thus recoded to promote alternatives—female dominance, female friendships—to the patriarchal ideology such closure usually fosters.
But the films also display formal traits that reflect feminine socialization patterns. Women are generally considered to be field dependent—that is, contextual, relational, dependent, etc.—while men are considered to be field independent in that they are socialized to be autonomous, less relational, more objectifying, etc. However ideological that polarization may be, it probably reflects real socialization patterns. The character in Independence Day is depicted in relation to many people; her camera does not objectify; it puts her in contact. She is moved by a spirit of support and solidarity in relation to other women. In Girlfriends, the narrative establishes a deep context for the little “action” that occurs. Compare these representational modes to those of a consummate conservative male film like Dirty Harry in which context and character relations are kept to a minimum to facilitate narrative closure and action development. Women’s films about women tend to show women involved in a number of parallel, contigously connected relations. More field independent men project images of women who are mirrors of their own socialization—more autonomous, less dependent on contextual relationships—and this, of course, accounts for the male tendency to objectify (scopophilically), since independence is a way of separating from others, reducing their subjective attachment to oneself and constituting them as separate objects. To use our rhetorical terminology, one could say that the women’s films are more metonymic in their representational form. Rather than promote decontextualization and the transcendence of relations, they anchor singularity in community and social context. Indeed, if one compares a woman director’s film about a group of people—Joan Micklin Silver’s Between the Lines (1977)—and a male director’s—Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1982)—one notices that the woman’s sensibility is one which equalizes relations, while the man’s is one which establishes a superior male center around which all the other characters revolve.
Yet representational form does not seem to be gender specific in any biological or ontological sense, although one strategy of male ideology regarding women is to impose such a fixed identity. No form seems to be appropriate to a nature or being of femininity, and women’s use of patriarchal forms suggests that the putative nature of masculinity is itself a construct posited by the forms or representations it supposedly underlies. Different representations do, therefore, posit or construct different natures for men and women. And the mode of representation each practices seems to be influenced by the socialization that occurs during immersion in a culture in which certain representational forms are assigned exclusively to one gender group. What is interesting about the mix of appropriated male representational forms and socialized feminine forms in the women’s films about women is that it opens up the possibility of gender positions that are neither “male” nor “female.” The women are represented acting like “men” in some respects, like “women” in others. This is more possible for women because they are in the process of taking over a traditionally male-monopolized set of representations and socialization patterns, and although the taboo against feminine traits in male socialization makes that more difficult for men, traces of such a move are also evident in a film like The Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985). One could even say that women’s films by men, ideological as most are, also reflect similar subliminal desires.
All of this would suggest that what one sees emerging in the seventies, as more and more women move into filmmaking and as women become more realistic, rather than voyeuristic objects of cinematic attention, is a deontologized gender reality, one that points forward to the possibility of a world without gender oppositions, one in which sexual characteristics and traits would circulate freely without being anchored to one sexual position. Indeed, one can speculate that this possibility is partly what motivates the right-wing backlash against feminism and the new sexuality in the eighties. If representations are what pin down gender positions, then it is important that male and female filmmakers during this period have begun to develop alternative representations which underscore the indeterminacy of such positions. The “other” world to patriarchy toward which female forms seem to point might not so much indicate a different being or nature of femininity as the possibility that the resolute and determined male forms may merely be ways of defending against the inherent indeterminacy of sexual positions. The alternative to patriarchy which female filmmakers seem to indicate may be less another female nature than the possibility that all sexual nature is merely a social and cultural construct fabricated out of reigning representations. This is why it is so important that women have begun to toy with the dominant gender representational system. Rather than an epiphenomenal gesture, it gets at the root of the construction of gender positions.
Threats to the dominant system of gender construction have been most evident in films by liberal and radical filmmakers that deal with the instability of gender positions. Both Robert Altman’s Three Women (1977) and Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan (1984) concern women who undergo or undertake changes in socialized gender position. While Altman’s film tends to recuperate this potentially radical insight into the constructed nature of such positions by ontologizing an ideal of feminine nature, Seidelman’s film goes further toward elaborating an alternative to the reigning sex gender oppositions.
Rather than associate women with myth, mysticism, motherhood, and the irrelevance of social roles to women’s true being as Altman does, Seidelman emphasizes the malleability of woman’s psychology and “being,” the way the adoption of different representations can transform what only appears to be “natural.” It employs the traditional representational form of the fantasy romance comedy of self-transformation whereby an ordinary person changes magically into someone new (and better) to argue that different representations posit different “natures.”
In Desperately Seeking Susan, a New Jersey housewife who reads the personals finds herself living the life of the character in the personals who most fascinates her—a punk ne’er-do-well whose romantic free life is very different from her own boring suburban existence. Entering the life of her fantasy through a knock on the head, she is restored to her senses at the end only to recognize that the fantasy life is more real than the real world she left behind. She decides to leave her husband for a young man in Manhattan. It is a fairy tale of rebirth with all the traditional elements—magic (a talismanic jacket), doubling (housewife/punk queen, as well as a sawing-in-half scene), witchery (Madonna in black), death and rebirth imagery (being knocked out; emergence through a window into a costume room that reinforces the idea of the malleability of woman’s social roles—so many changeable costumes), etc. The narrative follows the conventional romantic format by moving from a place of social restriction, to a midsection of confusion in which the previous identity is broken down, to a final liberation from confusion (of identities, in this case) that entails a reconstruction of society (the housewife’s decision to leave her husband). The playful and inventive style of the film stands in contrast to the ponderous, mythic style of Altman in Three Women. Rather than posit a stable women’s nature, the film suggests that what passes for nature (passivity, dependence, etc.) is an internalized representation or role that can easily be exchanged for an alternative one—just as the film itself adopts the traditional male stylistic costume of romantic adventure and recuts it to suit a woman’s figure.
Seidelman’s film points to a deontologized indeterminacy of sexual positions which lies beyond the opposition between male and female. The alternative to partriarchy is not an exaggeration of the “feminine” into a mystical ideal, it suggests, but rather an appropriation of the realms of representation that have served the ends of male power in a way that turns them against themselves. The film signals the possibility of a deconstructive recoding of supposedly patriarchal representational forms into feminist ones. Rather than being scopophilic, the film depicts a moment of voyeurism, but it defuses its power; the man is fearful, and the woman at that moment is departing on her own. And after having been an object of male sexual pleasure, Susan rips the man off, stealing his money and his jewels. These feminine men and male women are probably closer to what psychologists during the era were discovering to be the actual range of social gender possibilities in both sexes. And the film’s own appropriation of patriarchal forms and its depiction of shifting gender identities indicate the extent to which form or representation plays a role in occluding that broad differential spectrum of possibilities and in constructing simple oppositional gender positions. Within that oppositional system, with its psychological structures of oedipal desire, castration anxiety, and disavowal, what motivates the fetishism of patriarchal form is sexual difference, but our analysis suggests that behind this fear lies another—the fear of sexual indeterminacy. And it is that indeterminacy which increasingly obtrudes in the cinematic culture of sexuality.
Not all patriarchal forms can be appropriated by women, and the feminist search for alternative, uncontaminated, specifically women’s forms is motivated in part by the recognition that male narratives of radical individuation through power and violence pertain to a pathological worldview derived from occupying a position of domination in a system of oppression and inequality. Yet because of the interconnectedness of gender positions, their interconstitution, the feminist alternatives transform male patterns of representation, sometimes in progressive directions, sometimes in regressive ones. As women move more and more into the traditional male world, as they dress, look, and act increasingly like men, the boundaries between the two break down. Men no longer seem like men in the traditional sense, and women, as they mix tradition with modernity, seem less and less like either men or women.
Most women’s films deal with middle-or upper middle class white women. Women of color are still outside the expanding limits of Hollywood, and it is symptomatic that a white male (Spielberg) directed the film of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. If white women have been cultural products rather than cultural producers up to this point, nonwhite women scarcely make it even as products. It is unfortunate, since that excluded position has generated powerful literary statements during this era that are enabling models for all women, and one suspects that cinematic statements by women of color would be equally empowering. This is underscored by the changes wrought by the emergence of white women filmmakers like Weill, Seidelman, May, Silver, Deitch, and Hackerling during this period and the sorts of alternative representations they developed. It all points to the importance of gaining access to the power to determine what the dominant cultural representations will be. It is an important concern for those who have been excluded from public power, both socially and culturally, since it in part determines what the substance of their lives will be.
Most Hollywood movies are “men’s” movies in one way or another; it could not be otherwise in a patriarchal society. Yet just as the assumption that the word “race” means “nonwhite” presumes the centrality of a non-racial white subject, so also the traditional Hollywood category of “women’s films” acknowledges that the male subject occupies the central position in the cinematic world, the one that is not named as a genre, because it is the nongeneric norm. Because men dominate the public realm, however, it would be difficult to narrow down a specific genre of films that deal with men’s issues without including most public issue films. Yet the late sixties and early seventies witnessed a surge of “buddy films” that deal with the friendship between two men. And other film cycles exemplify a specifically male point of view—the romance films that began to appear in the late seventies reposition women as objects of a male quest, and the film noir revival films participate in this process by designating the deviations from the norm the romance films seek to reestablish.
Feminism troubled the system of cultural representation that imposed male norms on women, and thereby troubled the construction of male sexual identity, inasmuch as that depends on idealized representations of males as agents and of women as passive objects of pursuit and as tokens of male prestige. For this reason, men’s movies of this period are marked by high levels of self-protective bonding and, eventually, overt rage against women.
The sort of tight bonding between men that characterizes the buddy genre (Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Sting, PapiHon, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Scarecrow, Mean Streets) can be found in many earlier war, musical, western, and comedy films. What distinguishes the buddy genre is the absence of a romantic interest. Women, in fact, are sometimes absent altogether, but if they are present, as in Butch Cassidy (1969), they are in secondary roles; the real romance is between the men. Because this era was also characterized by the resurgence of the lone, neo-Natty Bumppo frontier male films (the “Dirty Harry” tendency), one could read this development as an initial, excessive reaction to feminism, a projection of male representations that suggest that male-male friendship could replace an increasingly troubled arena of intergender relations. To cite Butch once again, it is of note that the woman is a schoolteacher, an independent woman, and that she ultimately abandons the two men to their fate.
The films can also be read as compensatory fantasies of a male union unavailable without the taint of stigmatic fear in a world in which men, because of sexual socialization patterns, are not permitted the sort of close friendships permitted women. But the constraints are still operative even within these fantasies. Men in these films are always engaged in quests or tasks that face them forward. They stand side by side, not face to face, as women do in films like Girlfriends. The constraints still operate because the fear of homosexuality is still at work in these films. Occasionally it is waylaid by one male’s mock adoption of a “feminine” role, as in the bar strip scene in Scarecrow. The reality of the fear is metaphorized in a film like Deliverance, in which a group of men set out down a southern river and are sexually assaulted by rednecks. The homosexual attack can be interpreted as a projection of the fear that inhabits such male-on-male group relations. It is fitting that the film should end with a man in bed with his wife, having a nightmare of the return of the repressed, a clammy hand that emerges from the water of the river.
In male/male buddy films, women also appear as tokens of exchange between the men. Women are ways of securing a homophilic bond of the sort that is the basis of male social power. The other male’s desire for the same woman allows her to function as a link between the men. The first male in part desires the desire of the other male as a confirmation of his own power and status. This assures his male identity by validating his desire in comparison to another male’s desire, and it allows the males to bond without fear of homosexuality, since the mediating female reassures both of their male sexual identities. Moreover, the structure also assures male power because the threat of subjective equality that is always there in a male-female relationship is defused by the fact that the woman cannot escape the objective position which allows men to compare their desires and to establish a bond. She cannot share in their desire for her and must remain outside the alliance.
In Butch Cassidy, for example, the woman is the Kid’s lover, but she relates closely to Butch and circulates between the two. After she leaves them, they choose to die together, and death is both a traditional metaphor for sexual union and a literal apotheosis of bonding as mutual self-sacrifice. The establishing of an alliance around a shared female object is critically examined in Carnal Knowledge (1971). Two college men compete for a coed; one marries her, although it becomes clear later the other had an affair with her. One ends up divorced and with a much younger woman, while the other ends up alienated entirely from equal sexuality. Their regression is symptomatic of the more general law of regression operative in the buddy film phenomenon, a desire to return to an earlier, less threatening phase of mutually validating comradeship before the encounter with the troubling difference of another sex, an object that turns out to be a subject.
Yet the buddy phenomenon can also be given a somewhat more affirmative reading. If the changes of the sixties and early seventies broke down boundaries between hitherto hermetic social arenas, they also lifted repressions that had previously been in place around sexuality. The era saw the birth of the modern gay and lesbian movements most notably. The general air of cultural liberalism at the time permitted a variety of desires to be expressed. The prevailing heterosexual cultural system was in part neutralized, and this allowed nonheterosexual urges to emerge. The buddy genre could be read in this way—as the expression of a natural homoeroticism which a pervasively heterosexual culture does not permit to flourish but which did get articulated in the liberal climate of the time. In this light, Redford and Newman are the most important romantic couple of the period.
However the phenomenon is interpreted, it must be placed in relation to another major development of the early and mid-seventies—the decline of romance. We interpret this as an effect of the critical pessimism of the era. Romance is a traditional representational mode for sanctifying fairly limited heterosexual possibilities; it is conservative to the extent that it enacts male power fantasies and legitimates the positing of the patriarchal family as the one normative sociosexual ideal and institution. The decline of romance as an ideal, unproblematic, always successful model can therefore be seen as an effect of the critique of conservative institutions during the era.
Following the love high of 1971, when three of the top four films were romantic melodramas (Love Story, Ryan’s Daughter, The Summer of ‘42), many films of the early seventies portrayed a decline in the traditional model of romantic love. For one thing, men seemed to prefer men, as the buddy genre attested. The homophilic boisterousness in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid scarcely matches the torrid exchange of glinty, blue-eyed glances in The Sting, one of the most popular films of 1972. In addition, romantic melodramas like The Way We Were (1973) were ending in separation. Ethnic dramas like Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973) suggested that it was becoming more difficult to choose between the guys and the girl next door. The travails for men of the new singles scene were evident in Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex (1972). The ironic narrator in Malick’s Badlands (1973) captioned the young romance in deadpan terms that rendered it thoroughly comic. Nichols’s Carnal Knowledge concerned men on the make who come to hate the “ballbusters” on the other side of the sexual battlefield. The ante of male cynicism was raised by Shampoo (1975), a film that portrays the erosion of romance and the trading in of love for money. The trend had become so obvious by 1973 that David Denby remarked, “Romance is just about dead in our movies.”2
On the surface, this decline was due to changes in U.S. society. Divorce was on the rise, and marriage seemed less likely than ever to be a guarantee of romantic happiness. Easier birth control and a relaxing of traditional restraints separated sexuality from the marriage career track and made possible a singles life that entailed greater experimentation, frequently without romantic involvement. In addition, feminism meant that more women were striking out on their own and supporting themselves through work; they were less dependent on men for their well-being. The traditional model of romance (active male/passive female) suffered in consequence. It was put in doubt by the emerging difference between the prevailing representations of personal romantic bliss promoted by film and the media and the reality of interpersonal violence, marital failure, and alienation unearthed as part of the social critiques of the late sixties (evident particularly in films like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). The disparity between image and reality even became a theme of certain films like Allen’s Play It Again, Sam, in which a man tries to imitate Bogart, and Badlands, in which a couple play out a James Dean fantasy.
The liberal critical spirit that motivated the decline of romance is strikingly articulated in Shampoo. Written by Warren Beatty and Robert Towne and directed by Hal Ashby, it concerns a hairdresser named George (Beatty) who sleeps with all of his rich women customers while trying to maintain a steady relationship to which he isn’t committed. Set on the eve of the Nixon electoral triumph of 1968, it is also a satire of the Republican style of political sleaze as well as being a post-Watergate “I told you so” that presupposes the subsequent revelations of Republican corruption as an ironic context for Agnew’s moralistic pontifications. Though critical of conservative attacks on “permissive attitudes,” the film nonetheless is itself critical of sexual promiscuity. At least, George loses everything, including the woman he realizes too late he really wants. She goes off with a wealthy man.
The film’s deflationary rhetoric can be said to presuppose an audience that did not need to revere political leaders, businessmen, and the holy family. The shocks which would later make those institutions important psychological anchors had not yet occurred. Consequently, the film offers no metaphoric idealizations. Its rhetorical mode is more metonymic. Rather than pretend to reveal a moral truth, it constructs meanings through the juxtaposition of material worldly elements (an Agnew speech on TV about morality with a rankly downbeat and ironic discussion of sexuality between a Republican fund raising powerhouse, who speaks of getting his “gun” off with his mistress, and a philandering hairdresser, who remarks that women know that men are all trying to “nail ‘em”), or the satiric displacement within the narrative of the same event so that the various contexts transform its meaning (George’s various and numerous performances, for example, as he ambles amiably and compliantly from bed to bed). These debunking strategies prevent idealization, and they point toward the material basis which leads a woman to choose one man over another. In this film then, an ideal of a genuine romance serves as an implicit criterion for judging both female opportunism and male cynicism. The failure of romance is associated with the success of conservative capitalism and the undermining of human relationships by the cash nexus.
As Shampoo illustrates, the undermining of romance is linked to the shearing away of self-delusion and pretension regarding the materiality of social life. If conservative delusion and idealization are based on the suppression of materiality, liberal and radical critiques of those delusions promote a counterideological awareness of the power of materiality in determining social interaction, especially such fragile, delusion-fraught dimensions of social life as romance. Woody Allen’s mid-seventies films are notorious for displaying the rampant amorality of desire, its refusal to adhere to proportion or propriety. One of the most important critical films of the period, Annie Hall, appears in 1977, the last year of the preceding era of liberal and radical cultural ascendancy. The film is typical of that outlook. Allen’s character, Alvie, recounts his affair with Annie Hall, a neurotic midwesterner coached by him into self-confidence and independence who then leaves him to pursue her career. The film signals that part of the problem with romance was feminism. As women became increasingly conscious of their rights to independence, the social institutions reinforcing dependence became more and more suspect. Romance stood high on the list. But it is also interesting to note how the critique of such an institution is based in certain representational revisions. Allen’s narrative consists of discontinuous displacements that suggest life’s seriality and contingency. The sense of necessary development toward a resolution which characterizes conservative narratives is absent, and consequently the world posited by the film’s rhetoric is more open-ended and negotiable.
The delusions of romance continue to be a topic of Allen’s films from Manhattan (1979) and Stardust Memories (1980) to Zelig (1983), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). If human beings, in Allen’s vision, are eminently fallible, they are also preeminently malleable. Isaac in Manhattan is betrayed in love, but manages himself to redeem his betrayal. If romantic delusion ends painfully in Rose, in Hannah it is absorbed into the ongoing, open-ended process of life. If this social and cinematic rhetoric strikes us as being metonymic rather than metaphoric, it is because it presents the world as a material construct that can be remade. Life as represented neither rises to idealist values like home and country nor moves toward apocalyptic conclusions. Instead it develops, varies, changes course, and alters meaning, in a series of nonteleological displacements. Again, to use the category of realism to describe this is to miss the point that realism pertains to cognition, while rhetoric includes the material practices of constructing the phenomenal social world. Rhetoric implies a choice of values, not “truer” description. Allen’s “vision,” then, is ethical rather than moralizing in that its locus of value is not the individual subject depicted as a source of righteousness, but instead the relations that obtain between people. And part of that ethic entails reflecting on the rhetorical categories which shape social attitudes as well as on the cinematic rhetoric which shapes the phenomenal world of life experience. For example, in Zelig images are superimposed, the frame of fictional illusion is broken in Annie Hall, the boundary between film and life is shattered in Rose. An ability to reflect on the cinematic illusion in this way is usually associated with a concomitant ability to reflect on the illusionarily absolute values that constitute social life—romance, the patriarchal family, etc. It seems that the sort of sensibility shaped by metonymic as opposed to metaphoric representational capacities is one that is given to a materialist and reconstructive understanding both of the social world and of the representations which construct it.
In the films of Altman, Scorsese, and Alan Rudolph during this time, romance is also either satirized or held at a cool ironic distance. Altman’s Nashville (1975) concerns large numbers of people involved in varying degrees of romantic delusion (see chapter 10). Rudolph’s Remember My Name (1978) is a critical depiction of one woman’s romantic revenge on a man who betrayed her. She elaborately seduces him, then abandons him, leaving him in the very position in which he had left her. Romance is realistically depicted as a realm of patriarchal violence, but it is also shown being transformed into a weapon of revenge. In Altman’s films particularly, distancing devices preclude audience identification with characters.
A similar sort of disidentification is operative in Scorsese’s films of the period. They generally portray romance as an at least troubled terrain. And they are also usually critical examinations of male psychopathology. Who’s That Knocking at My Door? (1969) and Mean Streets (1973) are male coming-of-age films that depict the socialization of lower middle class Italian men into the rituals of misogyny, male-bonding, cock-fighting, and violence. Raging Bull (1980) constitutes a more critical examination of male rage. It is the story of a white boxer whose violence outside the ring leads to the breakup of his family. The film is shot in an austere black and white, which aids the distancing of the character as someone to be looked at critically rather than identified with. Moreover, the boxing sequences depart from the traditional sports film code by forestalling any arousal of emotions over the spectacle. The alienation effect is especially effective in the final scene of the boxer, aged and fat, practicing a comedy routine in front of a dressing room mirror. No other filmmaker during this time has gone so far in exploring the social determinants of male pathologies.
One could say that it is in the nature of ideology in general to exclude self-irony, and this is perhaps why romance, the least ironic of the genres, is revived at the same time that ideology (as patriotism, conservative economic values, and so on) is reasserted in American culture. Conservatives have always sought to exclude irony from the city-state or from the “great” cultural tradition because conservative social values of piety, reverence, and obedience cannot withstand the sort of critical reflection associated with it. It is in the nature of a self given over to ideology and weakened by reliance on external instances of authority in a conservative patriarchal society to seek secure grounds of truth and power as compensatory anchors. Reflection on the conventionality of values is thus difficult to sustain. Under an ironic gaze, male self-aggrandizement becomes impossible. Allen’s counterideological significance resides in this minimalist cultural gesture. All of this pertains to the critique of romance in that romance is that generic code which is most sustaining of male ideals of sexual power, the least tolerant of assaults on narcissism. This is so because romantic union, under conservative, patriarchal auspices, is essentially a reunion with a maternal ground of security. It is the ultimate way of overcoming the sort of shame a patriarchal family structure, with a male authority figure at the center, engenders in young men. Shame has sexual roots, and it is overcome through fantasies of female adulation. They firm up the male ego, purging the sense of embarrassment and shortcoming which patriarchal authority necessarily instills, and purging as well the ability to reflect critically or ironically on oneself or on the representational conventions that construct one’s world.
The search for psychological stability is also a search for representational stability and this is why the return to order after 1980 is accompanied by a revival of romance movies. Indeed, psychological stabilization consists of the ability to represent clearly, to internalize an image of what is absent, and thereby to accept loss, insecurity, and separation without anxiety. The conservative inability to accept change and reconstruction is linked to a failure to develop a power of representation which does not require the images of fusion made available by romance. An inability to reflect on representation inheres in a psychological disposition that longs for a return to the maternal unity of primary narcissism. To this extent, contemporary film theory is perfectly correct to notice a relation between reflection on representational conventions and an ability to escape from patriarchal sexual structures. Not surprisingly, then, when male-centered romance is revived as an ideology it assumes familiar, generic, and traditional representational forms. They recall the past, instead of reconstructing the future. And this is so because romance itself is the enactment of a return, a fusion that purges insecurity and restores what is lost—the stability and constancy of an object both in the world and on the level of representation.
Predictably, the resurgence of conservatism in U.S. social life coincides with a revival of highly patriarchal and narcisstic forms of romance. If conservative male social power necessarily entails and is dependent on the subordination of women, then this cultural alignment is indicative of a certain internal necessity. Neoromance films like An Officer and a Gentleman, Grease, and Flashdance seem in part a response to feminism since they self-consciously strain to position women in traditionalist roles. Yet conservatism had more to deal with than it might have thought, and in consequence, many romance films of the late seventies and early eighties—from Head over Heels to Eye of the Needle— depict new, stronger heroines. Marsha McCreadie points out that these new women are more rational and capable of controlling their emotions, while their male counterparts succumb to emotional weakness—a reversal of the traditional gender stereotypes.3 The new, stronger women seem, however, also to be eliciting appropriate responses from men. In several films of the era the woman is depicted as a source of power in order to facilitate a more empowering male quest. In both Zelig and The Man Who Loved Women (1983), for example, women psychoanalysts, who occupy uncustomarily powerful positions in relation to prone men, are overcome and domesticated by their male patients. In neoromance films like The Natural (1983) women are also positioned in traditional stereotypes of the witch and the angel. An “evil” woman wounds a promising baseball player, but with the love of a devoted woman he is once again able to raise his bat high and hit one for the zipper.
The abreactive character of the portrayals of many strong women is signaled particularly in the noir revival. In such noir remakes as The Postman Always Rings Twice and Body Heat (both 1981) strong women are the occasion of the fall of an innocent man. In Body Heat the woman is depicted as a greedy seducer and manipulator. In Against All Odds (1984), a remake of Out of the Past, the female figure from the original is recoded from witch vamp to weakling. Thus, while many of the neoromance films play to the new feminism by portraying strong women, they also are direct attempts to circumvent the feminist rewriting of the script of patriarchal power by reactivating traditional male models of femininity.
Male-centered romance was revived during a period of reaction against feminism, high unemployment, shrinking job possibilities, political instability, and potential war. Read diagnostically, the phenomenon seems to indicate felt needs for structures of reassurance in a time of increasing uncertainty and insecurity. By 1985, the cynical reality would emerge more clearly and unromantically in American culture. Madonna would sing of material girls seeking boys with cash in their pockets, and surveys would reveal that young upscale “yuppie” women were increasingly choosing mates on the basis of income. Nevertheless, the struggle to redefine intergender love relationships through cinematic representations would not be entirely pacified. Critiques of romance would appear in Allen’s and Rudolph’s films and in others like St. Elmo’s Fire. In these films romance appears less as a solution to all life’s ills than as one of their major causes. Certain Robert Altman films of the period (A Wedding, Health, etc.), portray romance as a terrain of exploitation, cynical manipulation, and easily broken dreams that are frequently depicted as naive illusions. Alan Rudolph’s Choose Me (1984) ends with a just-married woman displaying an array of facial expressions ranging from hope to despair in the final shot. It sums up the uncertainty that the critique of romance had introduced into the old, secure scenario of marital bliss.
Women’s struggle for liberation from male social power and for equality directly affected two arenas in which male power was particularly felt by women—the family and sexuality. Control over women in the family included control over their sexuality. Thus, feminism in its early stages in the modern era was often associated with liberated sexuality (the Erica Jong/“Happy Hooker” phenomenon). In conjunction with feminism, a movement developed to loosen strictures around youth sexuality (evident particularly in such excellent youth films as Foxes and Fast Times at Ridgmont High), and at the same time the various gay and lesbian movements began to redefine the boundaries of permissible sexual behavior. These movements also affected the family, since they offered alternatives to the traditional male-dominated reproductive couple.
As the seventies developed, women came increasingly under attack for destroying the family. In a number of films, images of loving, nurturing fathers are contrasted with prejudicial images of selfish mothers. Kramer vs. Kramer, The Champ, Ordinary People, Hide in Plain Sight, Author! Author!, Table for Five, The World According to Garp, and Mr. Mom present new images of loving, nurturing fathers, focus on the impact on children of divorce, and idealize relations between fathers and children. In Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) Ted (Dustin Hoffman) is an advertising executive whose wife, Joanna (Meryl Streep), leaves him unexpectedly. He must cope with parenting his child, Billy, alone, while working. Ted puts his child before his work and loses his job. Then Joanna returns to claim Billy, and the court awards her the child. Eventually, she decides not to take him, because she realizes Ted is now the “real” parent.
Kramer, an extremely popular film, is an astute rhetorical exercise. The scenes of interaction between father and son are endowed with charm, and their relationship is worked out narratively as a series of crises mixed with a growing sense of intimacy. It is a love story of sorts, and its tremendous sentimental appeal easily allows the other tale, that of the wayward mother, to be shunted from view altogether. Indeed, the positive portrayal of the father-son relation is a way of indicting the mother for a crime against the family. In the end the general audience is fully prepared to accept that she should give up the child.
Throughout the film, camera rhetoric, image composition, and framing all work to position Ted as a superior being and to situate Joanna as a silent, cold, and neurotic presence who ultimately seems inferior and undeserving of the child. Ted’s righteousness is established several times through dialog. More than once he silences a woman with a self-justifying and accusatory remark. The camera lingers on her face as she absorbs the great truth. Moreover, as Rebecca Balin notes,4 he is usually situated high up in buildings, and he appears in the frame as an active, moving figure. Joanna, on the other hand, is often positioned at the bottom of buildings, hiding behind windows. Her presence is usually cool and distant; she is a motionless observer rather than an active agent in the frame. In addition, the narrative is structured in such a way that she is silenced by it. She leaves at the outset, and by the time she returns such a harmonious rapport has been established between father and son, and so much audience energy has become invested in their struggles, that her reemergence occurs narratively as an intrusion, a violent act against something warm and good. When she finally is given a chance to explain why she left, it makes little difference that her desires were justified, that Ted did indeed give too much time to work and too little to her. Yet even this structure of justification assumes that less time given to work and more to the little wife is a plausible improvement. Part of the film’s seeming effortlessness at accomplishing ideological ends is due to its shifting of fairly basic questions about the patriarchal division of labor into axioms or taken-for-granted assumptions. The working out of the film’s equation is therefore in terms of values that are never interrogated. The positive resolution thus occurs within an essentially patriarchal frame, which the resolution reinforces. Another word for this strategy is reform. Patriarchy in this film is saying that it can reform, but it is doing so in a way that leaves intact the structuring assumptions of a patriarchal social system. It is saying that a man can both mother and work successfully. The question it poses implicitly is, “Why can’t a woman do the same?”
Camera rhetoric is particularly important for studying the way woman is indicted by the film. In the opening scene Joanna leans over her child, and the pastel colors and lighting tones suggest a madonna. The scene establishes the norm that she breaks. In contrast to this ideal image, her actions seem violent and irrational. She leaves without explaining why, behaving in an apparently neurotic manner. The intercutting of this scene with images of Ted working serves a dual function. It suggests the source of her unhappiness, but it also sets up a situation of betrayal. Ted is portrayed as hardworking, yet while he’s out in the world his wife is preparing to leave him. His return to abandonment thus establishes him as the wronged party. And the film pursues this assumption throughout. The indictment of the woman is literally enacted in the trial. When Joanna is being questioned by the attorney, as Balin points out, the camera moves in on her, suggesting her guilt by its intimidation.
Our survey confirms that these stragegies worked: 61% felt that the depiction of Joanna was fair, and 44% (the highest group) thought the most important meaning of the film was that it showed a father acting as a caretaker. Women had different reactions to the film, however. Of the 18% who chose the meaning “a woman finds herself’ as the most important for them, 74% were women, and of the 40% in our sample who felt the film was negative in regard to independent women, 64% were women.
Scapegoating of women as destroyers of the patriarchal family is especially pernicious in view of the fact that the abandonment of women by men is responsible for the majority of broken marriages.5 To be sure, some films do depict men abandoning their wives and families (Shoot the Moon or The Four Seasons, for example), but these films tend either to present the male’s dilemma sympathetically or to resolve the family’s problems comedically. The prototypical film of the era was probably Ordinary People (1980), a tale of an upper-class family in which the mother is a neurotic who was semi-incestuously attached to a dead son and who does not care for her living son, who in consequence suffers a breakdown. Eventually, she leaves the home, and the father and the son discover a new bond. To get a sense of the perniciousness of this sort of cinematic misogyny, one needs to ask how many films are made about neurotic fathers who act seductively toward one daughter while ignoring another and who need to be banished from the home so that the mother and the daughter can finally relate without the old bastard around. Moreover, not all families can afford joint psychotherapy sessions or, as in Shoot the Moon, to have a new tennis court built in the backyard to make up for heartbreak. If family films tend to scapegoat women, they also tend to ignore the tremendous hardship many divorced working women of the era were undergoing as they tried to raise a family alone.
As part of the reassertion of traditional family models, the late seventies and early eighties witnessed what has been termed a “return of melodrama” in Hollywood film.6 Films in this trend are The Other Side of Midnight and Bobby Deerfield (both 1977), Slow Dancing in the Big City (1978), Ice Castles and Voices (both 1979), Shoot the Moon (1982), and such women’s films as Rich and Famous (1981). Frequent themes in these melodramas are disenchantment with the false happiness of wealth; an affirmation of the goodness of the simple, down-home family values of trust, duty, loyalty, and devotion; the priority of feeling or sentiment over worldly rewards like money or career; the obligation to pay through punishment for transgressions against middle-class family morality; the role of sickness or death as a reminder of the need to accept one’s lot and to reconcile oneself to what one has, no matter how limited, etc. Although the new melodramatic tendency as a whole can be read as a symptom of the increasing self-concern of an ascendant white upper middle class that no longer wants to be bothered with questions of poverty or inequality, it can also be read against the grain as an indicator of a need in audiences for representations of the security of strong emotional and familial attachments in a time of economic and social insecurity. Where real social security is absent, emotional security will be sought out.
A major melodrama of the period is Terms of Endearment, one of the most popular, Oscar-bedecked films of 1983, which celebrates the traditional family and argues that family bonds are the most enduring form of support in a difficult world. A mother, Aurora (Shirley MacLaine), and her daughter, Emma (Debra Winger), remain close over a thirty-year period until Emma dies of cancer. Emma tries to be a devoted wife and mother, but her husband persists in having affairs, and she ultimately takes a lover herself. The strife between husband and wife is depicted as damaging to their children. In a parallel plot, the mother falls in love with a promiscuous and rambunctious neighbor, Garrett (Jack Nicholson), who tries to leave her but who comes through in the end as a surrogate father in a reconstituted family.
Terms promotes a modernized traditionalist model of sexuality and the family. Through the narrative process wayward males are transformed into potentially good fathers. Independent women, on the other hand, are depicted as herpes-ridden harpies. Yet extramarital relations for women are also presented positively; an older reclusive widow learns to come alive sexually and emotionally; and matriarchal relations are privileged. The film draws on the representational codes of television (the director, James Brooks, crossed over from TV)—painting characters with single strokes that are almost cari-catural but which make viewing and understanding easy, using a quippy comedic dialog that incorporates a sexual explicitness characteristic of the women’s talk shows of the era, and employing a concentrated bright lighting in almost every scene that makes even the exterior scenes seem like television stages. Thus, the film has a kind of modernized middle-class liberal glow to it.
Critically diagnosed, however, the film is revelatory of several ideological mainstays of the softcore brand of conservatism. One is the opposition between women, conceived as caring mothers, and men, conceived as uncaring philanderers who need to be tamed for domesticity. The purpose of this naturalization of socialization patterns is to legitimate the relegation of women to domestic labor and child breeding, since that is their “natural” function. At the end, however, the film inadvertently displays the socialization process that underlies this “nature.” The mother tells Emma’s daughter to sit closer to her on the steps of the home, while the male neighbor/surrogate father takes the male child off to show him his pool, turning him outward toward a male world of activity. In addition, the film demonstrates how the general conservative value system rests on a dichotomized way of conceiving the world defined by an internal/external model that is closely bound up with familialism.
The family is a haven of intimacy, a world folded back on itself, a place of face-to-face proximity that admits of no intrusion from “outside.” Out-sideness is defined as the breaking of familial proximity, and it is linked to a number of things conservatives project as threatening in society—divorce, singles life, sexual diseases, abortion, women working, etc. But more crucially, family “endearment” is a necessary bulwark against the sort of unendearing market jungle that conservatives fostered at this time. The two presuppose each other necessarily, although they seem to have a firm boundary between them. (We noted this earlier in our discussion of The Godfather, and Terms clearly is the internal correlate to the male survivalist external world evident in that film. It is in a certain way The Godfather Part Three, The Motherdaughter.) Yet the conservative family and the conservative market world are exchangeable. Their traits pass over into each other, and the market/family dichotomy deconstructs and becomes undecidable. That world opposite and outside the family is defined by nonintimate relations of contract and money exchange that enforce obligations, relations from which the family is supposedly free. The difference between the family and the market is demonstrated in the supermarket checkout segment when Emma has insufficient money to pay for her groceries. Emma’s lover-to-be, Sam, saves the day by offering help without any demand for equal compensation; he behaves, in other words, in a family manner and keeps the cold market world at bay (an opposition coded as rural/urban when he accuses the checkout girl of being from New York). Yet the purpose of a contract is to make the market world behave like a family, to create the obligation for face-to-face exchange, whereby people give equally. And the family is not immune from contract. Indeed, in some ways it is the model for contractual obligation. This is why the title of the film is so significant, for “terms of endearment” are also the “terms” of a contract.
This reading is suggested in the scene in which Garrett tries to break out of the relationship with Aurora—he says he’s beginning to feel an “obligation.” As he should, since beneath all the family endearment, certain “terms” of obligation are spelled out, terms Emma’s husband doesn’t meet, even though she does (without much protest, she follows her obligation and follows him to his new job), and this is why the film punishes him so unrelentingly. The gender social contract that emerges out of the inside/outside, female/male, family/market opposition stipulates that women will do domestic labor if men will support them. This film is to a large extent about the quandary of a woman whose husband is not fulfilling the terms of his contract. And the fact that women undertake his punishment is indicative of the extent to which a certain class of women are indeed active defenders of patriarchy; it is in their interest. (We have in mind primarily the Phyllis Schlafly/Eagle Forum phenomenon of the era.)
Thus, the conservative model of a strict inside/outside opposition between family and world harbors a differential structure of complicity between the two. Contract gives the market world the semblance of a heart, the honoring of obligation, yet the hearty family world can only be a successful haven against marketplace heartlessness if all adhere firmly to the terms of obligatory endearment. The family, too, has its contracts, its structures of construction and enforcement; only they are concealed ideologically as structures of feeling. The implications of this deconstructive analysis extend beyond hermeneutic highjinx. It shows why conservatism must defend both the disciplinarian model of the family (and Emma is a real disciplinarian) and the public marketplace model. They presuppose each other to the extent that each is the norm for the other. Yet the ideology of the film demands that the two be made to seem absolutely exclusive, and this justifies defending the family as the one haven of endearment in an otherwise cruel world. This accounts for the incredibly emotive aura of the film. The viewing of the film is itself a way of carrying out this justification, since it bathes family life in bright light, melancholic music, gentle sentiment, and pleasing humor. Moreover, the tremendous popularity of the film confirms the conservative agenda, but only to the extent that flight to the family is a result of the conservative marketplace world. In other words, the depiction of the family as the sole locus of care makes sense only in the context of a heartless market. A different world, a world in which the opposition between the emotive family and the hyperrationalized market world was broken down, so that “endearment” was distributed more differentially throughout the social system, including the economic system, might make such hyperemotive implosions of familial “endearment” less necessary. Such a world is not a Utopia, something altogether outside the current world. A deconstructive analysis of the ideology informing a film like Terms suggests that it already lurks within the reigning conceptual and institutional oppositions.
Our survey found that the movie’s modernized middle-class ethos endeared it to audiences. 82% felt it was not antifeminist. 71% felt Emma was not a victim, and 85% felt she grows through the course of the film. While the film came out with a distinct white middle and upper middle class representation in its viewers (a greater percentage of blacks were nonviewers than viewers, and a higher percentage of nonviewers earned less than $30,000 a year), the working and lower middle class viewers were markedly more critical of the film. For example, concerning the representation of Emma’s New York women friends, a higher percentage of these viewers felt it was directed against independent women (57% and 63% respectively) than did middle and upper middle class viewers (33% and 18% respectively). In addition, whereas 47% of working-class viewers perceived Emma as a victim, only 26% of the middle and upper middle class viewers did. Finally, 67% of the working and 88% of the lower middle class viewers felt the film made them question conservative roles for women, while 52% of the middle and 47% of the upper middle class viewers reported similar responses. The closer viewers came to the film’s class fix, the less likely they were to be critical of its sexual politics. What this seems to suggest is that upper-class people tend to be more accepting of the sort of personalized, melodramatic vision of the world which the film offers. And they are distinctly less critical of films that deal with their own social stratum. People lower on the class ladder tend to look at certain issues more in terms of the social position of the characters involved, whether or not they have a fair shake.
While most of the family films concern upper middle or upper class families, they were very popular, and their popularity (Kramer was second in gross in 1980; On Golden Pond was third in 1982; and Ordinary People won the Oscar in 1981) suggests that there is a strong need for communal, supportive social arrangements in a post-1980 world where marketplace brutality reigns supreme. That the only available support system in a capitalist culture of the sort restored to full viciousness in the early eighties is the family may account for the popularity of images of redemptive care and empathy during the period. Thus, while the family films demonstrate the extent to which the personalization of class in American culture succeeds in occluding structural inequalities between people of different positions, they also point to the necessity of images of community at times when the very anticommunitarian dimension of capitalism is particularly felt. The family films become noticeably more popular at the same time as do fantasy adventure and romance films, a time when Americans’ loss of confidence in the economy and in politics probably reached its nadir. The economic function of the family, as a stabilizer of social relations and as a means of survival, is explicit in Places in the Heart (1984), for example. But the film also makes clear the ideological service the personalization of class through family images accomplishes. The strong farm woman character survives; the local capitalist is shown to be a good soul after all; the film concludes with a fantasy of social unity; and Almendros’s cinematography bathes the whole undertaking in a subdued and pacifying blue. It would have been hard to tell that at that same time farmers out of frustration over bankruptcy were murdering bankers and taking their own lives. Yet it is precisely because that was the reality of the eighties that such sweet images of family happiness were in demand. In the face-to-face encounter of family life, fear of the knife in the back in the marketplace could momentarily be put aside.
As part of the conservative attempt to restore the dominance of the traditional patriarchal family, the sexual revolutions of the era—abortion, gay rights, birth control—were combatted on a number of fronts. The conservative drive to restore the family was in some respects merely a pretext for reimposing sexual discipline on youth and for curtailing independent feminine sexuality. Conservative male socialization to aggressivity and competitiveness—in the economic marketplace, in military matters, in politics—required a concomitant female socialization to subservience. Thus, the feminine move toward independence touched on something much deeper than sexuality; or, to put it another way, feminism revealed that conservative male sexual socialization underlay the principles of the market, the military, and most other patriarchal public institutions that are dependent on male socialization patterns. And conservative women spearheaded the drive for moral reasons, but also because the new feminine models upset their own self-idealizations as virtuous wives untainted by sexual desire. The conservative war on the new sexuality, therefore, relates to the fundamental power dynamics of a society that programs one half of the population to be aggressive and domineering and the other to be passive and weak. At stake in the issue of sexuality is the division of the world between a public and a private sphere.
Hollywood took both sides of the issue. Some films explored the origins of male violence against women in media fantasies (Lipstick), while others brutalized women for being sexually independent (Looking for Mr. Goodbar).A breakdown in the restraints on pornography was provoked initially by films like Deep Throat, and later in young male fantasy films like Private Lessons, Porky’s, and Risky Business, one of the most popular films of the summer of 1983, in which a young man enlists the help of prostitutes to help repay a debt. Male teen sex films like Animal House (1979) feature fairly regressive intergender relations and promote the restoration of prefeminist attitudes. If young males were being moved toward more exploitative and cynical attitudes toward women in the arena of sexuality, the new liberalism permitted young women to be represented as having greater agency and choice in the sexual arena. For example, unlike fifties family dramas like Rebel Without a Cause, in which Natalie Wood’s “wild” sexuality is tamed into family domesticity, in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, directed by Amy Heckerling, women high school students are depicted as independent subjects who exercise some control over their own sexuality. In the opening scene, two friends counsel a young woman on how to make a pass at a man. Jimmy Dean never would have stood for it.
Independent sexuality took its hardest drubbing during this time in the work of Paul Schrader, the Cotton Mather of contemporary Hollywood. In Hardcore (1979) a devout midwestern Protestant sets out to the big city to find his daughter, who has been kidnapped and turned into a porn queen. The search consists of a moralistic tour through the porn industry which polarizes the fallen city and the homey family world back home. The film does not study the exploitation of women through pornography, and it avoids analyzing the clear link between pornography and violence against women. Instead, it dramatizes the issue of child kidnapping for sexual exploitation, but it uses this more as a plot device than as a social issue to be examined for progressive ends. And although the religious world is not portrayed idyllically, in the end the restoration of the young girl to her repressed father is positively valorized. For Schrader, there seem to be only two sexual possibilities—total licentiousness or austere repression. In American Gigolo (1980) the representation of sexuality is divided between negative images of homosexuality and prostitution and positive images of transcendental romantic love which redeems a male prostitute. Family monogamy seems to be the implicit norm of these films, which are laced with racist stereotypes and which seem to articulate an anxiety that the clean, white world of fine, upstanding Americans is somehow being corrupted by moral decadence, minorities, and wealth. We will suggest later (8.3) why we think this mind-set tends more to the right than the left.
But despite resistance, post-repressive sexuality was here to stay, and its presence was probably nowhere more clearly felt than in the arena of gay and lesbian sexuality.7 Hollywood continued to make prejudicial films about gay life up until 1980, when both Windows and Cruising appeared (and generated countrywide protests). But in later films like Making Love, Personal Best (both 1982), Lianna (1983), Kiss of the Spider Woman (1985), and Desert Hearts (1986), gays and lesbians are portrayed positively and sympathetically, although in some of them (like Personal Best) gay life still appears as a stepping-stone to more “mature” heterosexual love. The new sexuality was also felt in films dealing with transsexuality, like Victor Victoria, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Tootsie (the second most popular film of 1983). Tootsie is a good example of the accommodation of mainstream culture to some of the new sexual issues. A man dresses up as a woman in order to land an acting job, and in his new female persona becomes a nationwide sensation. He also shows women a thing or two about how to stand up to sexism. In this curious argument, men prove to be better feminists than women. Nevertheless, the film is the bearer of a submerged desire. As fantasies of class transcendence testify to desires for a non-work world, so fantasies of gender transcendence (men mothering, women pursuing male careers, sexes changing) testify to desires for a post-gendered world of greater equality, in which the traits and privileges now assigned to men and women on a dichotomous and unequal basis would circulate more freely without attaching to fixed gender positions. Thus it is that within ideology, within the imaginary resolution of the fissures in old forms of thought and behavior, the emergence of the new can be glimpsed.
Not all of the new sexuality films were as restrained or ideological. The Kiss of the Spider Woman is probably the most significant departure from the Hollywood trend. An independent production, it concerns two prisoners, one gay, the other a heterosexual Marxist, who come eventually to exchange traits and to become lovers. As the boundaries between them disappear, so do the boundary markers between their “rear” lives and the films they discuss constantly. The power of representation has rarely been so foregrounded as a thematic issue in a film. And the term “a figure of a man,” as a sexual reference, takes on a tropological dimension, underscoring the representational construction of sexual identity, when in the end the Marxist comes to internalize the representations of cinematic femininity his now dead transvestite cellmate bequeathed him. Sexuality is figural, the film seems to suggest, a matter of representational conventions, both social and rhetorical, even cinematic.