Feminisim in the 1950s

In 1953, 20th Century Fox produced How to Marry a Millionaire, a romantic comedy starring Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable, and Lauren Bacall. For some reason I have a section called “Critically Acclaimed Comedies” on my Netflix feed, mostly featuring Audrey Hepburn-esque films, and this movie popped up. I had nothing better to do, so I watched it, and within the first twenty minutes I couldn’t stop thinking about what a field day feminist critics would have with it.

The main characters are models with one goal: find a rich man and marry him. Why? Bacall, as the no-nonsense Schatze, puts it very simply: Marriage is a matter for the brain, not the heart, and the best option for a woman is to marry rich, because love don’t mean a thing. As soon as she said that I knew what would happen, according to the standard, cookie-cutter, narrative of the Hollywood Studio System Golden Age. They would all find promising rich men, think they were doing well, and then meet nice boys, fall in love, and make a complete 180 degree turn to follow their hearts instead of their brains.

I couldn’t tell if the creators of this film were trying to write about strong independent women, and just doing it wrong, or if they thought it was okay to make such a sexist film. I know the 50s were a time of mass commercialism, materialism, consumerism, poodle skirts, big fancy hair, and anti-feminism, but really? Let me give you some examples of dialogue and action in the movie that set me on edge.

 

Schatze talks to her girlfriends, Pola (Monroe) and Loco (Grable), when they first rent the fancy apartment in New York City. She reveals her plan to catch a rich man.

“Of course I want to get married; who doesn’t? It’s the biggest thing you could do in life!”

Which immediately segues into:

“Marriage is a matter for the brain, not the heart.”

These two statements seem to represent conflicting stereotypes. First, the subtext seems to be, a woman is nothing without a man. She could be referring to the collective ‘you’ of the world, not the specific ‘you’ of the people she’s speechifying to, but I doubt it. She’s talking to only women in the context of a conversation revolving around the necessity of a rich man, the likelihood that the writer meant for her character to be claiming that marriage is the end all be all for people of all genders is very slim.

 The second line seems to be trying to fight against the stereotype that says all females are inherently emotional and irrational. Of course, this happens at the start of the film when the characters haven’t yet realized what’s right and true. So this line could be ironic: a woman claiming to value intelligence and logic over emotions eventually decides to listen to her heart. Cue happy ending.

 

There’s a meet cute between Tom Brookman and Schatze—he’s interested in her, but his casual attire led her to believe that he was poor. He isn’t, of course, but that doesn’t stop Schatze from shunning him. He resorts to calling at her place of work in order to see her.

The resulting scene is ten minutes of Brookman lounging in a chair, watching girls model clothes for him like mannequins, and calling up the “pink and blue number” (the dress worn by Schatze) for an uncomfortably, judgmental look up and down her body before dismissing them all and walking out without buying anything.

 

Loco travels to a lodge in Maine with a wealthy married man and catches the measles. Her host tries to figure out if she has a temperature, as she claims. The only thermometer they have is a 12” one from outside the house, she tries to refuse to put it in her mouth but he practically forces it down her throat and yells, “Don’t say another word until I take that out of your mouth!”

Now…that’s just awkward. And uncomfortable. And not just for the not-so-subtle innuendo. He later says that his wife is a “true credit to her sex,” as if the average woman is something inferior or common or generally unimpressive.

 

Later, Pola, after having spent most of the film blind as a bat because she was too insecure to put on her glasses (Four-eyes!), meets a man on a plane who changes her entire worldview and accustomed habits with one compliment: here’s a video of the scene.

 

The film ends at a diner, all three girls happy with their husbands and content to live with love and without money. Surprise! Schatze’s new husband is secretly rich! The girls instantly faint, in tandem, and the men raise steins of beer with a rousing, “To our wives!”

 

What?!? Just…what?? All throughout the film, the women are portrayed as ditzy, materialistic, selfish, bratty, cold-hearted, judgmental, and/or irrational. They end up completely changing their worldview because of men who apparently have no flaws; the flaws they do have are made light of (one man is a criminal on the run from the IRS!).

While there are several male voices in the film (shady rich man, self-absorbed rich man, kindly rich man, cheeky rich man, wholesome forest ranger, and sweet lawbreaker), Bacall, Monroe, and Grable are the only women with a voice in the film. And they play ridiculous characters.

How to Marry a Millionaire won a bunch of awards, aired on TV, and is currently up for a remake by Nicole Kidman’s company, Blossom Films. Whyyyy?? This narrative isn’t a satire on gender/class stereotypes. It is gender and class stereotypes. That’s what the fifties were! It privileges wealthy, white males to such a degree that I can’t believe I sat through the entire film! (And yes, it privileged the upper class, because the big surprise, happy ending is that the main character married a rich man without even realizing it!)

I’m using so many exclamation marks right now! And I don’t even care! I almost want a remake so I can see what kind of response it gets from feminist groups. And the remake better keep in the part where the Kindly Rich Man buys the Main Female a whole houseful of furniture because she can’t afford to buy her own, since she’s a poor, single, model.

I Watched a Documentary.

Living on One Dollar

I don’t often watch documentaries. The only Artists’ Den episode I’ve ever seen was the one about American Ballet Theater’s Misty Copeland, and that’s only because she came from my dance studio. And I did see First Position, the feature documentary about the world of competitive ballet, again because I trained in ballet for ten years.

Normally, when scrolling through the front page choices on Hulu, I look for my usual comedy shows; I rarely click on something I’ve heard nothing about. But earlier today, I clicked on this: a documentary called Living on One Dollar. The picture wasn’t super incredible, just a shack in a jungle with some dudes, but something in the back of my mind told me I’d enjoy it.

And I did.

I don’t often watch documentaries for two reasons:

1) It’s such a clinical, “objective” (in quotes for reasons I’ll explain later) approach to storytelling and there are ways to get your message across in a dramatic narrative. There’s this expectation that documentaries tell The Truth, that they show life as it really is, and when I’m in the mood to watch a movie or television show, most of the time I want to escape from real life.

2) If you leave a camera in one place and show everything that it records in one sitting, then you have real life. Documentaries are made by people who have a specific message in mind; they choose topics to film, they choose which people will represent those topics and how to shoot these people, they choose what to show in the film and what to throw onto the figurative cutting room floor. Documentaries are truth filtered through the bias of the directors and editors.

So I normally expect documentarians to be weathered, experienced filmmakers with a predetermined vision that skews the film’s perspective. That’s probably the reason why I instantly liked One Dollar. The filmmakers were students, the voice overs were unprofessional, and the film had a refreshingly self-reflexive feel (it drew attention to the fact that you’re watching a film). At the beginning, many shots were shakily handheld, out-of-focus, and there was a moment when the students turned the camera on and sat around like, “Well, we should be saying something meaningful and worthy of being captured on film but…what do we say?”

It was cute. And then right after that it got real.

I’m hoping that by leaving out any of the plot of the story I’ll force you to watch it (link above) because it’s really worth the watch. These four students are doing something brave and meaningful, something I wish I had the guts to pull off. They had an idea and they made it happen, even though it took them way out of their comfort zone to a place full of potential health hazards. I’m sure they did their research beforehand and had back up cash in case something terrible happened; regardless, they had little idea what potential diseases and hardships they would have to face.

Why can’t we all take such bold risks? Because it’s clear that they pay off, at least in the way that life-changing experiences can. Yeah they lost an unhealthy amount of weight, exposed themselves to parasites, faced fear of starvation every day, but they gave their new friends in Pena Blanca something new, just as they received new ideas and a new understanding of a different kind of life.

I hope, someday, that I’ll have the courage to leave my comfort zone and immerse myself in a new, challenging culture–one without any of the creature comforts I’m used to. It’ll make me appreciate my life in the States that much more.

 

Body Obsession in Life, Film, Media

Most of my posts are assignments so I go into full-on Nerd with Words mode, but this topic has been on my mind on-and-off for a while, and I finally feel like the moment is right to share. See, I was reading an excerpt from Feminist Analysis by Donna M. Nudd and Kristina L. Whalen, which outlines the feminist approach to rhetorical criticism and shows an example of the approach used in an analysis of the romantic comedy Shallow Hal (2001). Unfortunately, I can’t find a link to the entire excerpt, since it’s a scholarly article, but some pages are available on GoogleBooks if you want to familiarize yourself with the basics, since I’m not going to go into it here.

I generally agreed with the assertions being made about the film. The message was supposed to be “Don’t judge a book by it’s cover; inner beauty trumps outer beauty; love someone for what’s in their heart, not how much they weigh.” However, comedic elements and storytelling choices contradict the supposedly altruistic intent of the directors, the Farrelly brothers.

The Premise:

A son takes his dying father’s words to heart: Tail’s what it’s all about. Go for the hottest chick in the room.

Years later, this boy is all grown up—a chubby, average-looking, shallow, immature, jerk who targets the “hotties” and ridicules anyone who’s not a size zero with “perfect” features. (I enclose these words in quotation marks because how do you classify someone as “hot” or “perfect,” I mean, really? It’s all a matter of perception, perspective, definitions that society programs everyone to buy into. But more on that later.) This man, played by the most wild, ridiculous, and entertaining man I can think of, Jack Black, gets hypnotized into seeing only people’s inner beauty. Naturally, he now courts, dates, hits on, what have you, women who have beautiful personalities/hearts/souls. In his point of view, they now look physically “beautiful,” as per Hollywood’s standards: thin, symmetrical faces, well-dressed, hair done, nails done, everything did. But to everyone else, especially his best friend and sidekick, these women are…let me put this delicately, not up to Hollywood’s standards.

Long story short: hijinks ensue, jokes are made at fat people’s expense, the hypnosis is reversed, and Jack shuns his love interest, Rosemary, horrified by her 300 lbs of natural woman, before realizing that she’s his true love, regardless of her size. Whew, what a sentence.

Now, Nudd and Whalen state their issues: the plot implies “Love all people, ignore their size,” yet we very rarely see Rosemary as she is; we almost always see her through Jack’s eyes as the inner beauty, played by Gwyneth Paltrow. Furthermore, the gags are primarily of the lowbrow “LOL fat people eat a lot and break chairs” variety, which is kind of offensive. Scratch that, it’s just plain cruel and unoriginal. Don’t get me wrong; I love being politically incorrect for the sake of inappropriate humor—it’s guaranteed to get a laugh because we’re all at least a little bit judgmental and insensitive. But don’t try to bill your movie as the sensitive, feel-good film of the year, perfect for the imperfect viewer, when all you’re really doing is making fun of the “imperfect” character.

What bothered me about the critique of Shallow Hal is mentioned later in the excerpt: the rhetor (fancy term for the writer/speaker/person who joins in on the critique) points out problems but doesn’t offer a solution. And I think most people’s idea of a solution would be to make films with overweight leading ladies; films that portray those with “imperfect” physical attributes as love interests and sexual candidates, with absolutely no comment about their weight. At least, that’s what the critics of Shallow Hal briefly imply in the excerpt.

That’s one solution, but not the one I’d choose and here’s why:

Movies, for the most part, do the best when they appeal to the broadest audience possible. The broadest movie-going audience in America is made up of heterosexual Caucasians. Although I have no statistics to back that statement up, I’m assuming that I’m correct based on the fact that most blockbuster romances feature Hollywood-perfect Caucasian characters. Obviously someone high up on the creative team made that choice for a reason.

Now we have our common characters; what’s the story going to be about? Well, audiences want to escape from their lives into a magical world where everyone’s hair is always perfect and their skin and make-up are flawless and they end up with a Prince (or Princess) Charming and a Happily Ever After, despite all the bad luck, shenanigans, and obstacles that happen in the preceding eighty minutes of the film.

Romantic comedies show us the version of the lives we wish we had, therefore they mostly star skinny, beautiful people because we all want to be skinny and beautiful. Unless we’re athletes, or men, in which case we want to be the strong, sexy type of beautiful or handsome. (I got tired of quoting all the subjective terms, sorry guys.)

Regardless, Hollywood movies show idealistic versions of ourselves: the warrior hero, the nerd who finally finds love, the screw-up who finally gets his act together, whatever the archetype may be. Films show us who we want to be and who we should be; of course I’m speaking of the most basic story structure and theme in Hollywood blockbusters.

Now, I’m all for loving your body, embracing who you are, not letting anyone change you or make you feel bad about yourself (I got your back, Eleanor Roosevelt!), but  there’s that tiny, inescapable, scientific fact that being overweight is unhealthy. Forget about weight issues in relation to society’s perception of beauty! The debate over whether or not someone can be beautiful if they’re fat should take a total backseat to the discussion of physical health in heated disputes on Facebook/Imgur/Twitter/news sites. Because pretty, beautiful, striking, strong, proud women and men do exist. Of course in this debate it’s usually women defending themselves and their appearance, because women are less likely to find love if they aren’t Hollywood perfect, right? And that means they need to fight harder and yell louder to gain approval. That’s what our patriarchal society insinuates, or so say advocates of feminism.

Aah! Getting back on topic. Films glamorize events, even at their most truthful, because it’s the easiest way to get butts in the seat. A story has to be interesting in order to get moviegoers’ attention and achieve financial success. And yes, my friends do call me Captain Obvious. We, by which I mean filmmakers, shouldn’t glamorize obese actresses and actors any more than they should glamorize unhealthily skinny ones. Yeah, Angelina Jolie is beautiful, but in Mr. & Mrs. Smith I kept wondering how she could possibly manage all those fight scenes and stunts. Her arms are so skinny! And then I start wondering how she gets that skinny. Does she just work out all the time? Are there eating disorders involved? Do exercise and dieting monopolize the majority of her time and cause her undue stress?

The target BMI range is 18.5-24.99kg/m2, anything below is unhealthy, and anything above is equally unhealthy. So my solution is, if we’re going to glamorize a body type, why not get some actresses on screen who are legitimate brick houses? And am referring to the wonderful Commodores hit that makes sweet, funky, song-love to strong, fit women (at least that’s the definition that I’m choosing to use).

I agree with the critique that inspired this post when they say that “Hollywood is an industry that clearly discriminates against plus-sized actresses,” I just don’t believe that doing a full 180 and discriminating against skinny people or making obesity acceptable and idealized in films is a good solution, or an effective one. We should encourage healthy, strong body types in our films; we should cast actors who are healthily muscled and fit. That’s part of the reason I like Scarlett Johansson; she’s never been super skinny. Granted, she has the face of a goddess, but I still appreciate her solidly average, healthy body (whether she’s trying to achieve this look or not). Jennifer Lawrence is another one who’s not afraid to have a healthy body and a healthy attitude about her appearance; the Internet gets flooded with JLaw-love every time she makes a public appearance at a Hollywood event, so audience members are clearly not put off by the fact that she doesn’t look like Twiggy.

Instead of furiously jumping to the opposite extreme body type in order to counteract and argue against the ridiculously idealistic concept of the “perfect” woman that Hollywood favors, why not aim for the healthy middle ground and redefine “beauty” and “sex appeal” and “perfection” to mean healthy and strong? That way you create a positive, healthy stereotype that can work to rehabilitate women with body image issues by instilling a new ideal in society.

And now let’s count how many times I used “perfect” and “healthy” in this post!!

Cesare Zavattini’s Idealistic Approach to Filmmaking: Then and Now

Some Ideas on the Cinema” was first published as an edited interview in La revista del cinema italiano 2, a film journal, in December of 1952. In thirteen parts and almost as many pages, Cesare Zavattini airs the neorealist theories for which he had become a major advocate after World War II. He, among a few other major directors and screenwriters, was a voice that pushed film in a new direction by emphasizing Christian humanism and realism over entertainment. This article was published at the end of the movement’s dominance in filmmaking culture, after improving post-war conditions led to a lessening interest in socially conscious films. Prior to this article, writer Luchino Visconti and director Roberto Rossellini brought the Italian neorealist style to the national and international stage, respectively, with their films, Ossessione (1943) and Rome, Open City (1945). Zavattini, therefore, may have been riding on the tail end of the neorealist wave, perhaps even fighting against the movement’s decline, with this passionate interview.

The film journal article begins with background of Zavattini, setting up his credibility and making an immediate appeal to ethos. We see that he is a “central theoretician” whose opinions are validated by the agreeing ideologies of renowned French film critic, André Bazin, and a lifelong collaborative friendship with famous Italian director Vittorio De Sica. Zavattini’s first words are as brilliant as can be expected from an experienced writer; he immediately jabs at the “moral and intellectual laziness” which he argues that most of society suffers from, and links it with an avenue for solution: cinema; more specifically, neorealism.

His second passage elevates the Italian neorealist style above America’s Hollywood approach of “unnaturally filtered, ‘purified’” narratives that stem from a lack of subjects. He elaborates on story choices and describes the contemplative nature of neorealist films; the way he, as a writer, would linger on a scene until all the minute components are considered. Just when you start to think that he unjustly disapproves of American filmmaking, he backpedals and clarifies that “we [Italians] are still a long way from a true analysis of human situations,” but that their approach is superior “in comparison with the dull synthesis of most current production.”

He goes on to analyze the relationship between invented stories and the truth of everyday life, using famous post-war films as examples–a logical appeal. His metaphor equating filmmakers with soldiers that “have to win the battle” for “’social attention’” in film no doubt struck a nerve within readers still recuperating from the aftershock of war.

The fifth and sixth sections deal with a hypothetical example of how to nurture a film from one simple daily event, one that every viewer is familiar with and can relate to. Through that familiarity, filmmakers can more effectively draw audiences into the story and impart their message. By advocating the reality of everyday life, Zavattini justifies the narrative that explores the relationship between wealth and poverty in society. The way he lays out the method for inductive story creation makes clear the depth of focus that filmmakers must have in order to draw a story from the well of daily life.

At this point in the interview, we feel Zavattini’s voice and passion even more. Just like neorealist films, he begins asking questions of the reader; asking them to “fathom the real correspondences between facts and their process of birth, to discover what lies beneath them.” Question after question ramps up the urgency of the argument and appeals to Christian values of civic duty and responsibility. He references his own process and work as a screenwriter and how he fits into the machine of the filmmaking method, again validating the authority he has to speak on the nature of filmmaking. Here enters the auteur theory that French New Wave filmmakers so enthusiastically propounded. Emphasis should lie on the individual creator—even actors should concede power to the story.  These creators should seek actors that are real, they should “go, in body and mind, out to meet other people, to see and understand them.” This method of hitting the streets to find stories brings in readers of the middle and lower classes, whose stories unfold on the streets of Italian cities.

He ends the interview by recognizing the “wonderful films” of other renowned directors (Charlie Chaplin) and nations, so as not to alienate or attack readers of non-Italian ethnicity. The last sentence, however, calls Italian filmmakers to continue in the neorealist direction in order the achieve longevity and momentum.

Although Zavattini’s words paint a skewed picture of the Italian Neorealism movement for current readers who haven’t just lived through the war and its aftermath, its strength has not lessened over the years. When I first read the piece, I was moved to think about how I can affect social change and force audiences to think about their responsibility to better society; Zavattini threw a new and appealing light on the industry I’m being groomed to enter.

The further I looked into his advocation of strict adherence to techniques, however, the more the ideology seemed less plausible in actuality than in theory. The idea of showing real life via the camera lens is tempting, but there is no real way to accomplish an absolutely truthful film. Just by choosing what to show, where to place the camera, who to cast, how to edit, and what soundtrack to attach to the film, the creator shapes truthful life into a ‘story,’ a contrivance of the variety that Zavattini argues against.

If he were to say that true neorealist films get closer to portraying real life than any other film style, I would have no problem, but when he implies that they are the only way to show reality in all its glory, I begin to question the theory’s practicality. Regardless, the argument works as a piece of rhetoric, at least for this reader today. As a theoretician, of course, his ideologies can’t be applied without dilution in an industry that necessitates a working relationship between art and profit.

Zavattini knew that his audience would be primarily filmmakers–those who subscribe to the Italian Film Journal in which the interview was published. His comparison between Hollywood and Italian filmmaking techniques, appeal to moral codes of social responsibility, and reference to poverty and war would have hit home with readers who just recuperated from World War II and German occupation.

Although his words may have inspired fellow filmmakers to continue examining films from a standpoint of social commentary, since the interview was distributed during the last year of Italian Neorealism’s dominance in the film industry it didn’t do enough to keep the movement alive. However, Zavattini could very well have encouraged film writers and directors to continue exploring truth in the human condition, they simple turned the eye inward to psychoanalysis rather than outward to physical conditions.

The Philosophy of Italian Neorealism

Different areas of my life have been coming together and aligning themselves with a strangely pointed symmetry lately. I feel like three of the eight courses I’m taking this semester could mix together for an interesting exploration of reality. In my film history course, 1946 to present, we were assigned to read an article written by the pivotal Italian Neorealist filmmaker, Cesare Zavattini, whose work jump-started the transition from glamorous melodramas to gritty realism in film narratives and techniques. Of course, I had my Rhetorical Criticisms class on the brain while I read this article, so my mind was tuned in to the moving rhetorical choices Zavattini made. To top it all off, he spoke about an approach to filmmaking that mirrored the materialist approach I had just studied in my Language and Ideology course. But I’ll try to wrap this all up in a neat box for you.

Bottom line, here’s the inspiration for my rhetorical criticism topic. Zavattini advocated a form of filmmaking that draws narratives out of the woodwork of every day life, using a materialist approach to creating powerful messages: look at what’s there, find a way to creatively piece together all the naturally occurring elements, and see what ideals and overarching messages can be concluded from the story that develops. Such a process differs from the post-WWI staple of glossy, escapist films about wealthy people and fabulous lives that were artificially constructed to fit the desired message. This inductive method of story telling, Zavattini argues, shows the beauty of common things and common people. Furthermore, Italian Neorealism rebels against the big names and big budgets of the “white telephone” dramas that Mussolini cranked out–Zavattini and director Vittorio de Sica shot on real locations, hired people that weren’t trained actors, used natural light, and favored static, simple camera movements so the emphasis remained on the people and events taking place in the world of the film. In the particular article that drew my interest to this film movement, Zavattini challenges filmmakers to put their work to good use and be conscious of the global impact film has on the ever-increasing audience of moviegoers. Social responsibility trumps entertainment value, he says, and all filmmakers should aim to show the flaws in the world around them and join the rhetorical conversation.

Now I come to the crux of the matter, or one potential crux to analyze. Zavattini believes that only Italian Neorealism films are capable of showing “real reality.” if you will, and that every other type of filmmaking is false. The statement brings to mind the fluid nature of language, as discussed in my L&E course, the idea that there is nothing intrinsic in the material nature of the world around us that ties objects to their given name. Example: we call rocks “rocks,” but that is simply the arrangement of sounds that people of one language have given to that physical object. Therefore, we’ve created a reality for ourselves that exists because we’ve come up with a series of verbal and written symbols to describe what our senses experience. Now just trying to explain this concept makes me feel like I’m in the matrix (Nothing is real! It’s all in our minds!), but stick with me!

Zavattini’s stance that Italian Neorealism shows the real world in all its gritty, truthful reality does not go in line with the idea that reality is created by the choices we make. De Sica chooses where to put the camera, what even to focus on, who to cast, how to direct extras, and in that he creates a reality that the film shows to audiences. It may not be as bright-white-picket-fence as Old Hollywood’s style, but it doesn’t show The Truth. Even documentaries, which lies even further down the Reality Spectrum than Neorealism, only show one construct of reality.

Zavattini had a bias, he was making films in the poor, persecuted reality of common life in post-WWII Italy and the Occupation; he and his contemporaries were trying to show the rest of the world how downtrodden the masses were in Italy. It would be interesting to explore the impact that Neorealist film had on the global stage, in politics, art, and entertainment, and what techniques the rhetors of the movement utilized.