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Movies and motherhood.

While I hardly qualify as a crone - at least in my own mind and mirror - watching the young female stars in the movies lately has had an increasingly negative effect on my normally upbeat frame of mind.

If you happen to have seen the recent Vanity Fair foldout cover featuring fifteen or twenty of Hollywood's hottest female leads, you know what I'm talking about. There wasn't a single one who looked as though she had logged even a quarter-century of life experience. But there they all were, dressed in spike heels and little else, looking for all the world like a lineup of recruits for an uptown brothel, and being hailed as this decade's successors to such truly impressive and mature former stars as Stanwyck, Crawford, Hepburn, Bacall, and Davis.

It was definitely an Oil of Olay moment.

And not, I might add, the first such moment. Indeed, I have only recently come to terms with the first wave of childlike female superstars, in roles better played by their mothers, alongside male co-stars old enough to be their fathers.

Did anyone really believe that Julia Roberts was a crack news reporter squaring off - a la Rosalind Russell - against the likes of Nick Nolte, imitating Cary Grant?

And what about the ubiquitous, terminally perky Meg Ryan playing a seriously troubled alcoholic recently as though she had auditioned by jumping out of a cake at a stag party? Bette Davis, who knew how to do seriously troubled women, must have turned in her grave.

These light-weight leading ladies were annoying enough. But to see them so quickly phased out in favor of Lolita-esque versions of what American males are supposed to desire in a partner is really too much.

There is a threatening political message in Hollywood's current obsession with child-women as sex objects, and in the related trend of pushing older, more seasoned actresses into marginal roles - mostly as asexual, martyr-like mothers. The stronger and more successful women seem to become in the real world, the more the movies portray female role models as child-women - sweet, cute, and unformed - and to relegate older, more powerful women to the asexual, unthreatening, sidelines.

As a much-publicized recent government study pointed out all too clearly, the idea that "women's lib" has taken over the world and hurled women into positions of power and authority everywhere is - Murphy Brown and Diane Sawyer notwithstanding - extreme wishful thinking: 95 percent of corporate leadership jobs are still - relax guys - held by white males.

What Edith Bunker once said about the great advances being made by African Americans could as easily be said of women: "They've come a long way - on TV."

The last time Hollywood let a real, grown woman loose on screen - in Thelma and Louise - look what happened? Susan Sarandon playing a woman with a past, some serious grudges, and a gun, was Hollywood's biggest gender nightmare come true.

The sequel to this blockbuster has not, you will note, so far appeared. Indeed, it is a safe guess that Die Hard 12 and Lethal Weapon 9 will have come and gone before the gun-toting female twosome ever gets another shot at a would - be rapist on the silver screen.

Susan Sarandon's subsequent career, in fact, bears dramatic testimony to Hollywood's ambivalence about the surprise success of this female buddy movie. She has, in the last two years, played no fewer than three martyr-like mothers (in Lorenzo's Oil, Little Women, and Safe Passage) and one over-the-hill, recovering alcoholic mother-substitute (in The Client). In not one of these movies did she have a single sexual moment.

And she's not the only over-forty female star to have been relegated to the sentimental sidelines. Virtually every actress of substance - Sally Field, Kathy Bates, Kathleen Turner, even Meryl Streep - has lately been forced into motherhood roles. In most of these roles their every thought, action, and motive is determined in terms of their commitment to nurturing their children and absolutely nothing more.

This Mother's Day Hallmark-card phase does a great disservice to motherhood itself, to its complexities, its struggles, and its moments of true tragedy and transcendence. It is a sad commentary on the history of Hollywood film and its relationship to real women's history that mothers, and mature women generally, did so much better in the pre-feminist 1930s, 1940s, and even 1950s than they do today.

In those days, women's films - rightly called weepies - actually dealt seriously with the conflicts and contradictions of women's roles in American society. Being a wife and mother was portrayed, in the melodramas of the day, as a serious, often tragically conflicted business.

In Stella Dallas, Barbara Stanwyck, a working-class woman striving to "better herself" by the only means available in the 1930s, marries a wealthy industrialist who bores and stifles her. They separate and she resumes her fun-filled, "low-class" lifestyle, taking a male companion of her own class. But when her daughter reaches her teens and is herself ready for marriage, she selflessly sends her to the upper-class world of her father, where she can find a suitable partner and have a "better life than I had," which the American Dream promises us all, but which has proven so hollow to Dallas herself.

Women in those days - and even today, in my Film and Gender classes - sobbed at the final scene of this melodrama, in which Stanwyck stands in the rain looking in at her daughter's posh wedding, forever a social misfit, but a "good mother" nonetheless. The tragic contradictions of class, gender, maternity, and sexuality in such films were powerful indeed.

Take Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce, the bored housewife who becomes a successful, sexually "liberated" businesswoman who loses everything when her spoiled, overindulged daughter sleeps with and then kills Pierce's parasitic husband. Again, we have a movie in which the conflicting demands and desires of motherhood, material security, and sexual fulfillment are portrayed as serious, powerful stuff. Again we have an actress who is mature, sexual, and powerful in ways that Roberts and Ryan can only dream of matching.

So what happened? Sad to say, it was the dread Women's Movement that indirectly produced the current wave of one-dimensional, diminished movie moms. Where television and most other media have at least opened some space for newer, more progressive women's roles and narratives, Hollywood has dug in its heels since the 1970s, when women first mobilized against media stereotypes. And the firmer we have become in our resolve to push on with the struggle for equity, the meaner and more underhanded have Hollywood's reactionary tactics become. Thelma and Louise is the dramatic exception that proves the rule.

For the most part, Hollywood's answer to women's demands has been to further demonize and degrade us, emphasizing in the most unchivalrous fashion that women's problems, if indeed we had an were of our own demonic making.

The current crop of untroubled, unconflicted, untragic moms is no victory for women but rather the saddest evidence of our defeat. At least in the 1930s and 1940s, we put up a good fight against sexism and its bonds. Today, when powerful, sexual roles are going to near-children, women approaching the fatal age of forty are accepting the most pale and pathetic of mother roles and apparently considering them worthwhile, perhaps because they are "positive." But as every fan of soap opera, or of Roseanne and Murphy Brown, for that matter, well knows, there's nothing so obviously "positive" about being a one-dimensional wimp, and a lot to be said for being a bit cantankerous, even obnoxious perhaps, in a world in which women's rights and desires are still so far from being addressed.

In the Reagan/Bush era, Hollywood put itself in the service of the phony either/or, motherhood-vs.-career debates that have so mired us in political confusion lately, about everything from welfare reform to child custody. One was either a Bad, Miserable Single Working Woman or a Good Blissful Mother and Wife. Good Mommies - as presented in the two blockbusters of this school of film, Fatal Attraction and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle - stayed home in idyllic suburban cottages where they smiled, smothered their kids with full-time love, and suffered a lot of abuse from the Bad Single Women who coveted their blissfully retrograde lives.

As the 1990s unfold on the big screen, it seems that the virtuous-but-dull half of this either/or equation has won out. Angelic Hollywood moms, a bit older and even less sexual than in the awful eighties, are everywhere these days. Indeed, they are the only roles Hollywood seems to be offering its finest actresses.

First there was Sally Field playing Forrest Gump's martyr-like mother. Then there was Jessica Lange playing a harried, vaguely neurotic, sexually unfulfilled and betrayed woman obsessed with her adoptive child in Losing Isaiah. And who could blame her? Her adulterous husband and mildly unpleasant daughter hardly made for a lot to come home to. And of course there were the many mother]y roles of Susan Sarandon, each paler, more one-dimensional, and more maternally sacrificing nd virtuous than the last. Marmee in Little Women was the last straw for me. The smug, humorless political correctness of every smarmy line she uttered made me cringe on behalf of progressive women everywhere. Score one for the Camille Paglia team.

The only movie I have seen recently in which I really rooted for and liked the older mother character was Dolores Claiborne, a movie that was trashed by critics and found boring and predictable by most of my friends. I don't really disagree. It was a heavy-handed Stephen King meditation on murder and revenge.

Nonetheless, it was such a refreshing surprise to see a fortyish woman - a domestic worker, heavy, single, and tragically estranged from her daughter - portrayed as a heroine. nd not only a heroine but a powerful, complex, and tough heroine who says, at least three times, as I recall, what has to be the best female movie line since Thelma and Louise: "Sometimes being a bitch is the only thing a woman has to hang onto in this world."

What a relief to hear someone say such a thing, after so many hours spent watching mature, intelligent actresses fade into the maternal woodwork, while their shallow young successors steal all the juicy roles and all the sexy men on all the adjoining cineplex movie screens.

There is a lesson here, one that Hillary Clinton, for one, has taken to heart. Feisty and independent as a candidate's wife, she eschewed cookie-baking and Tammy Wynette. But look what the media did to her. Not only was she labeled a bitch, implicitly and explicitly, in the press, she had to hear herself so labeled by Newt Gingrich's own real mother.

The B-word seems to have gotten to her - and to her husband's handlers. Not only did she turn the other cheek and invite Mrs. Gingrich to tea, of all degrading things, she pretty much adjusted her image, and her sights generally, to fit the Newtonian times. Now it seems she has become the perfectly docile, perfectly non-descript, perfectly boring, traditional First Lady, riding elephants with Chelsea, making safe, maternal statements about traditional topics everywhere she goes, and eschewing any hint of controversy or even spunk, in her speech, her dress, and her actions.

But what has her acquiescence to rightwing, sexist pressure bought her?

Perhaps the Mother of the Year Award should indeed o to Dolores Claiborne. Being a bitch may not get you far in the world of power politics, but it sure helps maintain your dignity and self-respect in these strange times, when women can't seem to win no matter what we do.

Elayne Rapping, most recently the author of "Media-tions," published by South End Press, appears in this space every other month.
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Title Annotation:actresses
Author:Rapping, Elayne
Publication:The Progressive
Date:Jul 1, 1995
Words:1967
Previous Article:Hypocrites and sepulchers.
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