Hollywood and the Backlash

Against the Current, No. 43, March/April 1993

Betsy Esch

IN THE SECTION Fatal and Fetal Visions: the Backlash in the Movies Faludi sets out to prove that (late) eighties film was the larger than life reflection of what the ’80s media had already said about women: that our very “success” was what now was making us miserable; that the women’s movement promised us lives that it didn’t deliver, that the real route to happiness and fulfillment was through motherhood. This is, in short the essence of the backlash.

It seems to me that before we can think about the backlash theory as it applies to popular film we have to have some idea or method for looking at pop culture in general I think the most productive and interesting way to do that is to look at the dialectical relationship between those who consume pop culture and those who market it.

Why do people want what they want, and what role does “the industry” play in creating, sustaining and marketing those desires? To do this requires an analysis of the various social forces at work in determining the “cultural climate” of a given period, and, in particular, the social movements.

The Independent Woman

When looking at ’70s film, Faludi seems to begin this process. She cites a number of films which suggest that during the’70s a space for women’s independence was opening up. In films like An Unmarried Woman, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Up the Sandbox, and Diary of a Mad Housewife, women experiment, leave home, look for independence and alternatives and live for themselves.

Women in ’70s film, according to Faludi, were defined by their ability to communicate with one another, (Private Benjamin), make nontraditional choices (Julia), scrutinize the institution of marriage (Up the Sandbox), and become activists (Norma Rae, The China Syndrome.) She rightly points to the fact that it was women’s organizing and active disgust with films that stereotyped, typecast and patronized them that brought about this shift in Hollywood. (She also rightly points out that Hollywood had a profit motive in its decision to respond to changing demands and expectations amongst women movie goers.)

These films, apparently, represent the “frontlash” against which the tide turns in the ’80s. While she does provide us with excellent examples of how women’s roles did change and expand in 70s films, she doesn’t deal with the fact that three of the decade’s other blockbusters were Jaws, The Exorcist, and Star Wars, none exactly known for their liberatory treatment of women characters. So though this doesn’t change the fact that I mostly agree with her conclusions about the seventies, she doesn’t really take on the films that don’t make her case.

Does The Thesis Fit?

Faludi then moves to late ’80s where she focuses almost exclusively on white middle-class career women. She says that in ’80s film “independent women,” (read professional women), those whose lives were made possible by the women’s movement, are portrayed as miserable, unfulfilled, exhausting, lonely and childless. From Working Girl to Fatal Attraction (to which six of the section’s twenty-eight pages are devoted) women compete with one another, (for men and for jobs) find their work unfulfllling, are driven crazy by their ticking biological clocks and finally give it all up to go back home.

About ’80s film Faludi says, “these movies aren’t really reflecting women’s return to total motherhood; they are marketing it” This might be the most clear point she makes, and she does a good job proving it And as with the section on’70s film, the points she makes are legitimate. But there are some big gaps that need examining.

In’80s films, “The few strong minded, admirable women are rural farm mothers defending their broods from natural adversity.” She then cites Places in the Heart, The River and Country.

In the case of Country, there is nothing natural about the adversary that Jessica Lange’s character takes on. It is a bank Lange plays a young woman (who is also a wife and mother) who organizes her farming community to fight the multitude of farm foreclosures. She organizes her community and successfully boy-coils the auction of farm implements repossessed by the bank through foreclosures . They drive the prices down and buy the equipment back for pennies.

Places in the Heart, viewed by many as charming and poignant, is also horribly racist Sally Fields plays a recently widowed young woman who has to bring in her cotton crop and make the payment on her farm, work she never had anything to do with when her husband was alive. Because of falling cotton prices (again not a natural adversary) even if she brings the crop in, Fields’ character (now a single mom) will not be able to make her payment on the farm. So she must win the cash bonus that is given to the farmer who brings in the first bail of cotton.

To do this, the Black field worker who becomes Fields’ confidant (played by Danny Clover), organizes dozens of starving Black migrant workers who work by torch light literally day and night for two days so that Fields can be the first to get her crop in and thus save her farm. Moving close-ups focus on Fields’ cracked and bleeding hands, swollen face and stiff back as she works alongside the Black workers picking her cotton. Their faces are content and focused, their hands don’t bleed, they aren’t exhausted or hungry. Apparently, this is the work they were =and and they are accustomed to it.

That Faludi is able to say that both of these films, each meaningful and complex in their messages, are only about rural women fighting Mother Nature suggests that she doesn’t want to deal with women outside the parameters of both the frontlash and the backlash: the frontlash being that women were able to have careers and be happy and independent, the backlash being that this made them miserable and they should go home and have babies.

She condemns the media for inventing the super-career-professionalhave-it-all woman as the “type” of what the women’s movement both wanted and achieved, but then falls into their trap by focusing her examination only on those kinds of women.

Granted, Hollywood doesn’t make a lot of films about working, poor or women of color, (except for Julia Roberts’ C Pretty Woman!), but Faludi misses some important chances to talk about those characters when they do appear. She seems unwilling to admit that ’80s films provided us with any strong women characters. Further evidence for this is that Silkwood, a meaningful film for many reasons, does not appear in the discussion.
Certainly, the ’80s was not a decade of feminist film. But was the seventies? The crux of the problem with the backlash theory is precisely that it doesn’t allow room to see the changing roles of women as a process, not something static or constant.

As a broad generalization her point is right. There was a vibrant women’s movement in the 70s, and the ’80s have brought increased attacks on women’s rights. But the relationship between the two is much more dynamic than the picture Faludi presents. To prove the frontlash, Faludi looked at film that provided evidence for this and ignored the films that didn’t To prove the backlash, she found evidence for it and ignored or wrote off the those films that contradicted her That doesn’t invalidate her conclusions, it just makes the whole process neater and more clear (and less interesting) than it really is.

The recent success of Thelma and Louise and the discussion it generated suggests to me that women are hungry for films that allow them to take action and defend themselves. Though like their working class male counterparts in dozens of road films before them, Thelma and Louise weren’t allowed to live, they still represent something important: they challenged the rules that told them they had to go along. The metaphoric power of that tanker truck exploding was more moving to me than all the Fatal Attractions, Pretty Womans, and Baby Booms were depressing.

March-April 1993, ATC 43