Old Hollywood: The Woman’s Picture

by Linsey Satterthwaite on 23/03/2015


In the 1940s a term to describe a type of (sub) genre of film came to prominence in cinema- The ‘woman’s picture’. Though films of this nature had been in existence since the silent era, the term reached its zenith during World War II, coinciding with the absence of men in the home and in the cinema, films populated with female-centric narratives and protagonists came to fruition. The woman’s picture was a film that encompassed women’s concerns such as problems in the home and within the family, of motherhood and the notion of self sacrifice. Now we have the depressingly narrow term and prospect of the ‘chick flick’; films aimed at women which a lot of the time cannot even boast two women talking about something that isn’t a man. There’s something wrong with that picture, but then again whoever said that progress and the passage of time move in the same direction. So what is the reason for the backwards movement? One could say it was the growing fear of the unlikeable or ‘unreliable’ woman in cinema.

The films were made by male screenwriters and directors (as they, like today, dominated the industry) however they featured strong female characters and the screen was commanded by powerful actresses such as Bette Davis, who fought the studios for creative rights and produced a chameleon body of work. These films offered women a glimpse of a world outside the home, with depictions of characters who achieved successful careers and though there were still elements of romance and marriage, often this was portrayed without the surrender of independence.

One of the era’s definitive woman’s pics was Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945) a sensationally vicious melodrama that also evoked the aesthetics of the film noir, with its opening scene of the mystery of a dead body, shrouded in low key lighting. Joan Crawford plays Mildred Pierce, a smart, ambitious and driven woman whose devotion to her eldest daughter Veda (a venomous Ann Blyth) becomes her undoing, the ideals of maternal instinct become pathological, turning Momma’s apple pie deliciously nasty. It is a film where the female protagonist is not motivated by the love of a man but, misguidedly, by her love for her daughter, she turns herself from housewife to waitress to a successful restaurateur to fulfil Veda’s demanding appetite for the finest things in life. The film is a dark study of the family home, one that turns the American suburban dream into chaos its depiction of women is one of neurotic and possessive but shows that they can come out of the kitchen and be multi-dimensional and inhibit the characteristics that are often reserved for the onscreen male. This tale and this hero are an enduring one, as Kate Winslet successfully reprised the role of Mildred Pierce for a mini-series in 2011.

Alongside Mildred Pierce there were many other women’s pictures that became classics of the genre such as Now Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942) where Bette Davis overcomes the repression of matriarchal dominance and All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955) a sumptuous melodrama where self-sacrifice and repressed insecurities bubble under the surface of the suburban home. Although Hollywood continued to makes films characterised with some of these elements, the term ‘woman’s picture’ disappeared in the 1960s.

Now the idea of a woman’s film is firmly placed in a rom-com box, an ABBA infused sing-along akin to something that might happen at a hen party or most recently, a half-hearted film featuring BDSM. Even the advertising changes in these screenings, particularly in the case of Fifty Shades of Grey as it was a guaranteed mostly female audience, the adverts were changed to cosmetic products, suggesting that women are only interested in shampoo and perfume.

For every 15 plus male directors, there is just one female director, so the chick flicks are mostly made by men who are crediting us women with a certain (limited) degree of intelligence and unfortunately many of us are buying into it. While the chick flick is not the route of all cinematic evil, it is astonishing how many of these female centric films still revolve around the idea of men and reject the idea of female independence. Perhaps then, the problem is that this male-dominated industry exhausted all its imagination and gumption by the 1960s, instead plumping for the stereotypes as some sort of passive-aggressive backlash against the growth of feminism.

Contemporary cinema is jostling with its representations of women, we have a strong heroine in The Hunger Games but at the same time there is a plethora of fairytales being rebooted and a film about the Suffragettes is on the horizon at the same time a live action version of Barbie has been green-lit. As for the ‘unreliable’ female, well she may once more have her rightful place in the spotlight thanks to all the writers falling over themselves to create the next Gone Girl. There are many male directors who give the Davis’s and Crawford’s of our time great roles, such as Julianne Moore and Cate Blanchett but we also have many whose only choice of role over a certain age is that of the downtrodden mother while the men of Hollywood are allowed to become aged action stars or still be the romantic lead to women half their age.

For a gender to be represented onscreen, there must be more gender equality in the industry itself, and hopefully one day we won’t need Patricia Arquette to have to make a rally cry upon receiving her Oscar. And perhaps one day we won’t need a term for a woman’s film at all, it will simply be called a film.

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