not in our stars, but in ourselves
Over on my Twitter (where you can follow me, if you want), I’ve been running some very scientific polls. First, I asked the universe (or just whoever happened to see the poll): who’s your favorite ’50s lady (Elizabeth Taylor, apparently); your favorite ’40s lady (Ingrid Bergman); your favorite ’30s lady (a tie between Myrna Loy – back to her in a minute – and Jean Harlow); and your favorite ’20s lady (Louise Brooks, natch). It’s interesting to see which “icon” resonates with the most people, but it got me thinking about something else entirely.
In Love Me Tonight, Loy plays the Countess Valentine. She’s a slinky, sassy, nymphomaniac noble – and I love her. Look at this queen.
Not every movie is as delightful as Love Me Tonight; not every actress is as charismatic as Loy; but wherever you go in the world of pre-Code cinema, you’re likely to find unapologetic, sexually ravenous women. Whether she just wants to have a good time (like the Countess), or wants to use men to get what she wants (like Barbara Stanwyck’s Lily in Baby Face); whether she’s a girl on the make who falls in lust and in love (like Joan Blondell’s Carol in Gold Diggers of 1933, like Miriam Hopkins’s Gilda Farrell in Design for Living), or a good-natured sex addict (like Ginger Rogers’s Anytime Annie in 42nd Street: “She only said ‘no’ once, and then she didn’t hear the question!”); pre-Code movies are swarming with ladies who know what they like, and who know that they like a lot of it.
And then, well, that goddamn Production Code went into effect, and the party was over. There were plenty of nice little romances during Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age, but they all ended in either tragedy or in marriage: if anyone (any woman) had even a hint of fun, she had better intend to let that guy marry her, or else – God help her. The Code was written by devout Catholics, and any fooling around that didn’t result in wedlock and childbirth would result instead in damnation. Perhaps that doesn’t sound so bad to you; perhaps you, too, think the point of it all is monogamy and children and the like. Perhaps you think fun is a waste of time. I don’t know.
Here’s the problem: not that American cinema didn’t always relish a pretty lady, but the male gaze grew in strength and power after the Code was enforced. Until mid-1934, women in film often had their own agency. After 1934, they were objects: of their male leads’ affection, of their male audience members’ desire. They existed to be consumed, visually. There were variations on the theme, of course: Katharine Hepburn was no one’s idea of a passive love object, and Ingrid Bergman wasn’t about to shimmy into a tight skirt and wiggle across the screen, but they always end up married, tamed, content with their man; or, if the movie didn’t revolve around a marriage plot, they’d end up miserable instead.
The Breen era of Hollywood cinema lasted decades. Generations of filmgoers, therefore, took in this “ideal” of womanhood: available, attractive, pliant, eager for nothing so much as marriage and mediocrity. Think about Marilyn Monroe. She’s either a literal male fantasy come to life (The Girl in The Seven Year Itch) or a sweet, clueless idiot who exists solely to attract a rich husband (Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Sugar Kane in Some Like It Hot). What does she want? What kind of man does she find attractive? What turns her on and gets her excited? None of her characters ever reveal any of that information, because they’re not meant to be fully realized humans. They’re symbols, ciphers, fetishes, toys – and I say this as a lifelong fan of Monroe and her movies.
What about women in movies after the demise of the Code? Were they freed of their status as imaginary love objects? Au contraire, mon frère. Back in the 1970s, Shirley Maclaine lamented, “Actresses also suffer from the rebellion against the old movie censorship days. When the Hays office went out, everybody rushed into the bedroom. We’ve got to get off this stuff about sex, which is demeaning to women, and onto love.” Isn’t that just what I’ve been arguing for, you ask? No. Maclaine’s point – not terribly well made, but true all the same – was that women in film went from being love objects to being sex objects. They were still devoid of real characterization, for the most part; they still existed for the male gaze; they could just show more skin and cuss a bit more while they did it. There have been some exceptions, but not enough. And of course, it’s well documented that depictions of women enjoying sex are far more harshly rated than depictions of women as sex objects. It’s the same problem now that it’s been since the second half of 1934: mainstream cinema, the most populist of all art forms, the most powerful way to influence the masses, has been peddling a regressive, sexist view of womanhood for most of its existence, and the world is poorer for it.
And so: back to the pre-Code era. I would like to encourage all my female readers to ignore the ridiculous messages beamed at them, their mothers, their grandmothers, about their proper place in the world as animated sex dolls and then as baby machines. Look back even further. Look at the women whose powerful thirst, whose independence, whose lust for life, helped rather than damned them. Maybe even look at some of the few outliers between now and 1934: Jane Russell’s delightful Dorothy Shaw in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, ecstatic that she’s sailing across the Atlantic with a boat full of Olympic athletes; Rue McClanahan’s voracious southern belle of a certain age, Blanche Devereaux, on The Golden Girls; even Tina Belcher on Bob’s Burgers, who loves few things in life as much as she loves looking at boys’ butts. Don’t let the screwy morals of a couple of repressed Catholics make you feel bad about wanting to have a good time, and maybe not wanting to pump out 2.5 dopey kids. I think we’re very gradually breaking free of the constraints that the twentieth century placed on femininity – but let’s give it a little nudge, shall we, and ogle some men while pouring hot coffee on their hand if they try to touch without being asked.