by Jennie Rose
I'll start at the beginning, with this simple fact: women have been in the motion picture business as long as men have.
Thelma & Louise
As the film industry grew from the ground up, the ratio of women to men in positions of power shifted disproportionately. But in spite of a heavy dose of paternalism in the film industry, every generation grows in skill and talent as more women inside - and outside - Hollywood make movies. With the arrival of each new decade comes the arrival of new challenges for women to find their places again, as the changing nature of the business makes new rules and, hopefully, breaks the old ones.
A tougher pill to swallow is the notion of how female characters are written in the movies. That we are expected to believe these roles is distressing. The truth is, with a few exceptions, American male directors and writers have a skewed angle on what women are like and not like. And thus we have a fair share of stereotypes based on some oversimplified ideas about womanhood, like the domestic goddess, the success, and the screw-up.
In over a hundred years of film history, variations on the female image have been winnowed down to a few archetypes: the pillar of virtue (Doris Day in The Pajama Game ), the domestic goddess (Hannah and her Sisters ), hard-headed dames (High Sierra ) or gangster gal (Boxcar Bertha ), the femme fatale (The Lady From Shanghai ), liberated woman (Klute , featuring Jane Fonda's Academy Award-winning performance), women in jeopardy (anything with Ashley Judd), and scrappy, single moms (Goodbye Girl , Erin Brockovich ).
Women's films have often tried to deal with other themes, broadening the scope and the concept of narrative, but not as much in Hollywood as outside. Claudia Weill's milestone, Girlfriends (1978), deals with differences in friendship. Thelma and Louise (1994) is a parable of freedom as is Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career (1979) with the amazing Judy Davis. Things Behind the Sun, Not a Pretty Picture and Gas Food Lodging are all efforts to tackle the subject of rape. Female community, as a theme, is addressed by Daughters of the Dust.
But everyone knows that Hollywood can suck the juice out of themes that stray outside a formula. For instance, the Hollywood spin on women and community can be seen in the 1995 movie How to Make An American Quilt, a coming of age romantic drama offering a superficial treatment of a premise that could go much deeper. It ends with a classic scenario in which a boy and a girl fall in love after a great deal of whining. Themes of empowerment and identity were still being denuded by Hollywood's fluff treatment.
Suffragette City: The Silent Era
In the silent era, the movie industry was a very different place, with more collaboration, innovation and openness than can be found in the industry of today. In the "start-up" era, women worked at every level of the filmmaking process. In fact, women worked on equal levels in Hollywood long before they even had the right to vote. A major body of work from as early as 1912 bears the female imprint on it. But until recently, you might never have known it; the women working in early film have been buried in the dustbin of history.
In 1995, the collective project "Women Film Pioneers" was spearheaded by Duke University's Professor Jane Gaines. A major subject of research is Lois Weber, the first woman to direct a feature film (Merchant of Venice ). She later became one of the top-salaried filmmakers in Hollywood. Because of her financial success, Weber pursued independent productions of her own; her first indie, To Please One Woman (1920), amounted to a sermon about the sin of selfishness. Her droll satires How Men Propose (1913) and Too Wise Wives (1921) appear on this disc of the Origins of Film set.
With the suffragette movement in full swing, women in Hollywood produced films like Mothers of Men (1917), which was remade as Every Woman's Problem in 1921. In 1917, "Women got the vote and the barbers got our hair," wrote Frances Marion, the hardest working scriptwriter in Hollywood, prodigiously cranking out hundreds of memorable screenplays. Marion, just one of many successful women in the business at that time, was freakishly gifted. She became a leader of the early union movement that resulted in the creation of the Screenwriter's Guild and was a creative influence on both silent films and the talkies. At the advent of sound, Marion easily made the leap. In November 1930, she received an Oscar for writing the prison expose The Big House, a technically groundbreaking film because of its use of sound. By that time, Marion had 100 films to her credit.
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