On July 30, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences appointed a new president; Cheryl Boone Isaacs will be the thirty-third head of the Academy, but only the third woman to hold the position. This is almost as bad as there being only one female winner in four Best Director nominees. The election of Boone Isaac into one of the top roles at one of Hollywood’s top organisations will hopefully lead to symbolic acknowledgement both in the film world and in wider social consciousness.
Unfortunately, the issue of gender inequality rears up regularly in the film world. On June 14, Linda Holmes wrote a bluntly depressing article about the absence of women in mainstream film releases on and behind the screen. On July 26, Spike Lee released a list of essential films, but of 87, only City of Gods has a female director, and Katia Lund’s credit is co-director. Given Spike Lee’s high profile, this list is yet another blow for the recognition of women in cinema. The absence of any directing or screenwriting credits in Lee’s list, and the exclusion of Dorothy Arnzer, Ida Lupino, Ann Hui, Nancy Savoca, Agnes Varda, Chantal Akerman, and so many others, adds further insult.
Twenty years ago, things were significantly worse. It might not seem the most obvious thing, but we have to look further back in time to successful films produced by the Hollywood studio machine (and outside of it) to see a broad scope of strong women on screen. Despite sometimes having to tell myself that ‘things were different back then’ when, for example, men throw out a dismissive comment about the opposite sex, I find a lot of examples of independent female characters and women who end up outsmarting not only their male counterparts, but the social constructs around them.
Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, prior to the large-scale censorship of Hollywood films by the Hay’s Code in 1934, women were given much more exposure in films, with narratives that granted them individual voices and agency. The censorship code came from a place of deep prudishness and fear of autonomy, but its strictures were often avoided with much fun. The harmfully rigid Catholicism behind the Code—which we might equate with misogyny today—tried to force the film industry into line, but still they were able to speak out. In The Lady Eve, for example, Barbara Stanwyck falls in love with Henry Fonda and, clearly smarter and in charge, manipulates him until he falls for her. In Adam’s Rib (written by the fantastic screenwriter and actor Ruth Gordon), Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy enact a legal and domestic battle of the sexes, and the calling out of societal double standards and a legislative system written by men is foregrounded. In Dark Passage, Lauren Bacall takes it upon herself to rescue Humphrey Bogart from the police and, by defying society’s expectations, makes a better life for both of them. In addition, there are a slew of strong female characters, promoted as and deserving of centre stage in film, including Claire Trevor in 15 Maiden Lane, Barbara Hayward in I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Gloria Graham in In a Lonely Place, Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar, to name a few.
If romance took over these films in the end, it was the many subtleties that remain important. What all these films highlight is the inaccuracy of sexual stereotyping and assigned gender roles. So while endings can be problematic, I often can’t remember them. At the time, the body of each film still made waves, breaking down those strictures and outlining their folly, and their danger, a little at a time. That’s what matters to me, and it mattered to a large segment of the female film-going audience of the time who saw positivity in the big screen presence of their counterparts. Even when a woman on screen ended worse off, the narratives made women feel strong, and brought to them a public community of support. By introducing the idea that men weren’t always right or in control, these films offered a new way of thinking for audiences.
That didn’t seem to work, though. The present state of things remains unequal and offensive. Progression threatens the status quo and not everyone likes that. Perhaps the strength and vitality of women on screen wasn’t fully appreciated back then but it’s worth recognising now.
Eloise Ross is a Killings columnist and PhD candidate at La Trobe University. Her research interests include cinematic affect, phenomenologies of sound, and the senses. She infrequently writes at cinemelo.wordpress.com, and tweets more often at @EloiseLoRoss.