SM2274 SEM B 08 MID-TERM PAPER Femme Fatales and Women in Post-war American Cinema INTRODUCTION In the Untitled Film Still series, Cindy Sherman drew upon popular culture of Hollywood. Although many artists had done this before, Sherman’s strategy was original. For her the pop-culture image was not a subject (as it had been for Walker Evans) or raw material (as it had been for Andy Warhol) but a whole artistic vocabulary, ready-made. 1 Adding the then new feminist perspective, her images of female victims and femme fatales in film noir had a new meaning in the late seventies.
Sherman’s female protagonist is hence both old and new. After In the Mood for Love, ladies wearing cheongsam (qipao) can be spotted in innumerable commercials and video works. Wong Kar-wai reinvented the mediaimage of Chinese women / film actresses of the fifties and the sixties. The film was almost an instant classic thus the rest of the “creative” world followed and copied the newly refreshed media-images. What the artist did was creating and what the rest did was facsimileing. Wong brought the nostalgia back by adding something novel and original to the image of female.
His mandarin gown transcends fashion. Both Sherman and Wong Kar-wai have exploited the public media-image of women of an era before their times. Comparing with their opposite sex, women fall victim to the media stereotype according to the mass media such as novels, films, television and songs much more easily. The institutionalised media image of female in cinema is rooted in both the creator and the audience’s mind deeply and firmly. Judith Williamson said, “Sherman’s work is more than either a witty parody of media images of women or a series of self-portraits in a search for identity…the perception SM2274 SEM B 08 MID-TERM PAPER of self, and the perception of self by others, are typically bound up in a complex, even inextricable way. “2 Consequently, all character-studies of film noir become femmist studies. The potential for subversion of dominant American values and gender-myths, provided a group of films through which to make feminist uses of classics-text argument. 3 In this paper, the evolution of women’s places in American cinema since the emergence of film noir in the 1940s to the early 60s will be studied.
The femme fatale characters will be employed as the initial yardstick in this comparative study of female characters and the end of career of the post-War Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe will be our journey’s end through the history of post-war Hollywood. FEMALE ROLES IN CLASSICAL HOLLYWOOD CINEMA American cinema is largely defined by the films come out from Hollywood. It would be convenient to use any roles played by leading actresses in the classical period (i. e. from the 1910s to the 1960s) such as Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford to compare and contrast the female’s places in American cinema before and after the Second World War.
Yet, the results of the analysis would be misleadingly inappropriate. It takes more than conformity with the taste of mass audience to “raise” and “nourish” a mega movie star under Hollywood’s star system. Rather, each star is preferred to have a unique personality or persona on screen. For example, roles played by Vivien Leigh are very different to those of Bette Davis. The notorious sex symbol persona that made Mae West famous was unprecedented and ahead of her times. Therefore, it is neither ideal nor fair to judge the role of a typical American woman in pre-war cinema based on these superstar-portrayed characters.
In addition, the nationality of the characters is another problem. Easy to conclude that female characters from an 2 SM2274 SEM B 08 MID-TERM PAPER adopted screenplay, albeit English-language plays like Shakespearean dramas, should be discounted. Not until the bloom of film noir in the 1940s, the birth of a firmly established female character – femme fatale could be seen in American cinema. It means whoever the actress was or however the stardom she has, the character still has to be more or less be portrayed in a similar fashion.
It is not unfair to call this restriction of performances (that is part of the reasons why the mode of femme fatale became passe alongside with film noir in the mid-fifties). Many elements in femme fatale of the 40s and the 50s are uniquely American. Hollywood had a tradition of expressing its view of American society through the image of the family and woman’s place in the family in particular. 4 The role of femme fatale reflected the changes women in society was encountering and resisting at the interval of the War.
Therefore, femme fatale is a logical choice to be the starting point of comparing the different places of women in cinema before, during and after WWII. FEMME FATALE IN HISTORY A femme fatale could be seen in American, British, French or Japanese cinema. A cinematic femme fatale could be a clerk, a prostitute, a spy or a jobseeker. There are no restrictions whatsoever of a femme fatale’s nationality, occupation, age or social status. There is also no fixed period of history wherein a femme fatale should exist. In fact, this iconic figure can be seen in a lot of different cultures throughout our history.
Eve, the first female created according to Christian tales, is often identified as the earliest archetype of femme fatales in the Western world. In ancient China, concubines like Wu Zetian ( ) of Tang Dynasty and Cixi ( ) of the Qing court (both later became Empress or Empress de-facto of the Chinese Empire) exemplify the characteristics of a deadly woman. A femme fatale is not defined by 3 SM2274 SEM B 08 MID-TERM PAPER what she is or what she does, but how she does it and what might come out of it. “It” is all about men seducing. Femme fatale, in brief is a seductress.
Using her sexual allure and seductiveness to manipulate and ensnare her man in compromising and dangerous situations. The woman might not always be aware of her fatal charm yet there must a hidden purpose or desire inside her. For instance, the women in a romantic relationship, wants to break free from the family (her or his) and her undermined social status. The consequence is always deadly and violet. Both the woman and the man can be victimised, but usually the worst punishments will be cast on the female whereas the male will rejoice with his family and life before the poisonous woman.
This is especially true In European and American literature. Throughout the history of early modern and modern Western literature, the image of femme fatale is a common and famed icon. One of the most renowned examples is the character in the Rudyard Kipling’s poem The Vampire (excerpt): The fool we stripped to his foolish hide (Even as you and I! ) Which she might have seen when she threw him aside (But it isn’t on record the lady tried) So some of him lived but the most of him died (Even as you and I! )
And it isn’t the shame and it isn’t the blame That stings like a white hot brand It’s coming to know that she never knew why (Seeing at last she could never know why) And never could understand It is clear the male fool here is the victim of femme fatale who has thrown him aside after drying up his liveliness and joy. It is a poeticised quintessence of femme fatale. 4 SM2274 SEM B 08 MID-TERM PAPER In the 1940s and 50s, film noir flourishes in American cinema. Classics like Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep and The Lady from Shanghai were coming out during this era.
The period of classic American film noir is thought to begin with John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon (1941) and end with Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958). 5 The French term film noir literally means dark film. It suggests not only the visual style, such as lighting and cinematography but also the thematic content the genre always touches upon. Out of social (more on this will be discussed in the following) and dramatic needs, involvement of female elements, and of female-touch in such dark topics resurrected the deadly women femme fatales who were long born before the birth of modern cinema.
Femme fatale and film noir became inseparable ever after. WAR AND WOMEN Similar to the case of Great Britain, the question of women was seen as a potential source of difficulty in the post-war construction of America. 6 Women experienced profound changes in terms of the social and occupational demands made of them during the Second World War (women were doing paid job in factories and in other services on home front i. e. the civilian activities during the state of total war) and that had unquestionably affected their traditional roles in the family and hence the family values.
The United States officially declared war on the Axis powers in December 1941 the year, which was recognised as the beginning of the classical noir period with John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon. Femme fatale did not initiate the trend of film noir, but together with the dark thematic content and other plot devices, it has become an essential part of the genre. Cinema is a mass medium and it is entangled with the social reality. It cannot escape its liability of representing and reflecting the social SM2274 SEM B 08 MID-TERM PAPER issues and changes. Given the worries of the changes of the female roles in family and their subsequent potential impacts on core values of America. During the War, Hollywood studios and filmmakers started using the infamous femme fatales to reemphasize the traditional family values and feminine ideals, by giving dreadful finish to the wayward women. In noir films, femme fatales are often depicted as bad and dangerous in a somewhat exaggerating fashion.
Despite its function of achieving dramatic tensions, the positive depiction of other women and emphasis of “positive” family values, which stand on the opposite of femme fatales, contribute to their “deadliness” and “hopelessness”. At the end, film noir cannot fully resist the urge to restore the traditional family value. Film scholar Nina Leibman argues that film noir has a underlying function of questioning traditional Hollywood cinema which was urging American women to assume their proper roles after the war i. e. the woman at home and prime consumer of products.
Meanwhile, the mainstream mentality of the time was men should convert back to their former breadwinner role from their war-time heroic adventures in Europe and Asia, in order to help their family restore and reinforce the family value and togetherness and hence the domestic economy of America. MARILYN MONROE AS THE WOMAN IN POST-WAR CINEMA She is the single most powerful cultural icon (male or female) to represent the postwar classical cinema in Hollywood (from 1946 to 1962). She was not a typical product of the Hollywood star system. Born Norma Jeane Mortenson, Monroe came from an unstable family in California.
She had not received the kind of protection and nourishment many young leading actresses did from the big studios. Rather, she struggled to the top through her own hard work by playing small roles supporting the 6 SM2274 SEM B 08 MID-TERM PAPER A-list stars and occasional leading roles in B-movies. She brought back the warmth and sexiness a woman should had to the hungry American filmgoers who were tired of the either good-spirited or noir films, in which the women are either the marrying type (i. e. emotionally weak and dependent) or the dangerous type (i. e. femme fatale).
Monroe is carefree. Monroe is careless, blonde and dumb (on screen). And above all, she made people happy. She was the ultimate American blonde who all men in America adore. Like her predecessor as Hollywood sex symbol Mae West (though both are two very different characters), her persona is strong both on and off screen. Female roles in the post-War cinema evolved from the weak married woman who stood for the traditional family values and the place of women in family, and the unbalanced dangerous woman – femme fatale who symbolised the possible destruction of the American family.
Women in post-War Hollywood were often degraded or stereotyped more bluntly through the characterisation and the narrative. In other words, women were, during this period, undergoing more severe objectification than previous times. The stupidity and happy-go-lucky attitude sadly became a standard of Hollywood sex symbol which using Norman Mailer’s words, American men craved for like ice-cream. The masculinity of American males were believed to be in a turbulent state of crisis since the end of the War. The rise of sex symbols in Hollywood like Monroe and later Jayne Mansfield in the fifties illustrates the yearning for women’s return to a more feminine role in both films and family, in stark contrast to femme fatale whose lust for power and control threatened the sense of safety and superiority of the males. 7 SM2274 SEM B 08 MID-TERM PAPER CONCLUDING REMARKS Seduction is an artificial order consisting of signs and rituals. 8 It occurs at the level of signs. Through signification of characters on screen, women in reality became part of the gender myth and thereby the victims of such signification.
Since the beginning of cinema, especially the Hollywood cinema, women have fallen victim to the stereotyping of females and degradation of their sex and sexuality. Although I do not agree to the idea that the so-called male gaze in cinema is designed exclusively for the male audience since I could not imagine if so what would drive the female to watch a film in which most of the women characters should only be subjected to the gaze of males, I still sympathize with the feminist perspective that Hollywood cinema, amongst other mass media, shapes the psychology and ideals of women outside the theatres.
Such humanist and feminist studies started in the mid-seventies of last century by the scholars who had turned their academic interest from literature and linguistics to films. It has already been more than three decades, the relationship between mass media and women’s self-image and ego that concerned the feminists have not been changed. It seems women have a much more difficult road to walk down than their opposite sex. It also suggests the feminists, especially those in America have been using a wrong or distracting strategy to turn things around.
Quoting the comedian Chris Rock’s slightly sexist saying “White women in America have the right to vote for almost a hundred years, and still they never elected a white woman President. ” If the feminist theories were not intended to be mere pure philosophical discourses, then the reality is the “problems” have been located but the problem discoverers (feminists) and victims (women in general) are both powerless to refashion and transform them. Either the problems are mistakenly located or the women do not share the worries and concerns of the feminists since the media images 8 SM2274 SEM B 08 MID-TERM PAPER f women are not problematic whatsoever. Media in most people’s eyes, are just a tool for ideals promotion. The consumerist can use the media and so can the anticonsumerists. 9 SM2274 SEM B 08 MID-TERM PAPER NOTES 1. Peter Galassi, “Cindy Sherman: The Complete Untitled Film Stills,” The Museum of Modern Art, New York, http://www. moma. org/exhibitions/1997/sherman/index. html. 2. Jackie Stacey, Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship (London; New York: Routledge, 1994), 8. 3. E. Ann Kaplan, introduction to Women in Film Noir, ed. E. Ann Kaplan (London: British Film Institute, 1998), 3. 4. John J. Blaser and Stephanie L. M.
Blaser, “No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir,” Film Noir Studies, http://www. filmnoirstudies. com/essays/no_place. asp. 5. Blaser and Blaser. 6. Ulrike Sieglohr, ed. , Heroines Without Heroes: Reconstructing Female and National Identities in European Cinema 1945 – 51 (London: Cassell, 2000), 16. 7. Martin Fradley, “Bringing Up Daddy: Fatherhood and Masculinity in PostWar Hollywood,” The Oxford Journals: Screen 47 (2006), http://screen. oxfordjournals. org/cgi/content/full/47/33/79. 8. Catherine Constable, Thinking In Images: Film Theory, Feminist Philosophy and Marlene Dietrich (London: British Film Institute, 2005), 139. 10