I am intrigued with the whole issue of the Women’s Movement during the Seventies. In the films we watched we see the move away from the ‘traditional’ woman, as portrayed in Pillow Talk, to the sex-starved women in Dirty Harry. I find myself pondering the reasons behind this radical shift in the portrayal of women and wondering when – if ever – women will be represented as intelligent, sexual, and talented characters.
As the society of the Fifties and Sixties moved away from the traditional values that defined women it seems only natural that the concept of a woman with sexual needs would swing like a pendulum clear to the other side. In Dirty Harry, every single woman is portrayed as sex crazy. Even the married woman who is separated from her husband – the mother figure – is practically begging Harry for sex. The women in the pool who are killed are naked, getting naked, or about to get naked. This is a far cry from Doris Day’s portrayal of a ‘good girl’, all dressed in pastels and proper.
As women in the Seventies began to discover their right to openly be sexual (as the men have done for centuries), the silver screen offered up plenty of images of their desires. Unfortunately (or should I say, as usual?), the men who wrote the stories screwed up the message. Part of this message being that women are sexual, women are intelligent, and women can be sexual and intelligent at the same time. The movies of the Seventies forgot the intelligent part.
As early as 1970, in Catch-22, the over-feminization of women begins to emerge onto the screen. In that movie the men of the compound literally drool over the scantily dressed girlfriend of their commander. I don’t believe the woman speaks more than a couple of words in the film. We do, however, see plenty shots of her legs in silk stockings and her bosom that doesn’t seem to be able to be contained in her uniform dress. The other women in the film are all prostitutes – of course. The pendulum plunges to the opposite pole.
It just went downhill from there. By 1978 when Deer Hunter came out, there should have been some hope that the pendulum would begin to settle in the middle somewhere. But that is not the case. Amid the macho (and not so macho) male characters we find an abundance of women getting hit, getting put upon, falling apart at the seams, falling down drunk. Not one intelligent being among them.
The battle for equality, for valid representation on the silver screen is still being fought today. (Brittany Spears is not helping.) Through the Eighties, Nineties, and the infant years of this millenium we see some movies that have pushed the pendulum closer to the midline - we’ve “come a long way, baby” but it isn’t far enough yet. I will end by stealing a quote from Rolling Stone reporter, Susan Brownmiller, “Hey there, my sisters…the next century’s battle is yours.” Let’s hope there is a woman director out there who can get it right.
K. Y. Hamilton, BA, MA - Copyright 2003, 2006