Say you’re an intellectual, a writer. You love going to the movies and are a devoted student of cinematic culture. You also identify as a woman. Over the years, you have had to deal with the fact that the women you see onscreen often appear in the service of male desire; they are meant to be spanked, to be kissed, to oblige and to support men. The rehearsal of this asymmetrical gender dynamic disturbs you, but as a student of cinematic culture, you’ve learned to hold your nose and keep watching to learn the language of film, and in turn the world. You treasure the movies for their unique capacity to frame and reveal truths about the world that are elusive off-screen.
Even more complicated is that there’s even something in those forced kisses, like when John Wayne pulls Maureen O’Hara in for a kiss in The Quiet Man, that compels you, that turns you on cinematically. These moments reveal something about the world that is true. It is important for you to understand what it is that pulls you in. You understand, too, that the movies provide a venue for women to be more than just passive recipients of male heroism. Women, too, can be heroes – dangerous ones at that. They can also be complicit in sexist behavior. The movies, like the world, are complicated.
Does it make you less of an intellectual woman, any less of a feminist, to derive insight and even pleasure from films where women appear as instruments in the service of male desire? Such questions, which feminist film critics have mulled over for decades, were recently revisited by New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis in “What the Movies Taught Me About Being a Woman.” Dargis writes that movies reinforce gender stereotypes (“Lesson 1: Women Are There to Be Kissed;” “Lesson 2: Women Need a Spanking”), defy them (“Lesson 4: Women Can Transcend Stereotypes;” “Lesson 5: Women Can Be Heroes”), and exist in ambiguous relation to them (“Lesson 7: Women Can Be Complicit”). Above all, movies are “one way that people make messy meaning of life” — an unruly product of an unruly society. In the aftermath of Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo, Dargis chooses not to discard the messy truths of onscreen sexism, but rather mines these moments for nuance and complexity: “policing desire isn’t of interest to me, understanding film is.”
Dargis’ suggestion that the cinema was a messy pleasure with messy, often sexist meaning reminded me of another writer who applied herself to related questions: Simone de Beauvoir. A consummate cinephile, Beauvoir saw up to three films a day. She relished cinematic absorption and wrestled with the mess of gender norms portrayed onscreen. While she was bothered by clichéd portrayals of women onscreen, Beauvoir also made use of such clichés to reveal the oppressive, gender-based cultural stereotypes that would furnish the basis of her landmark feminist text, The Second Sex. Moving images helped define Beauvoir’s feminism, providing the philosopher with visible, concrete expressions of the performance of gender that enabled her to probe the myths underwriting their construction. Indeed, it was the visible manifestation of the clichés that enabled her to critique them.
Beauvoir disliked formulaic acting roles (“Claude Rains, Bette Davis, and Humphrey Bogart, who were great actors, are more stereotyped now than Pierrot or Harlequin”). Beauvoir admired cliché defying actresses, writing of Anna Magnani’s acting in Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945): “I can’t think of a finer portrait of a woman than the one […] Magnani gives in the film. She is all the more human, the more animalistic she is, the much freer, the more generously she gives herself […] An American could never understand such a character. She is the perfect antithesis of Hollywood heroines and of the heroines who populate detective stories – whom the American woman likes to see as her ideal.”
In Brigitte Bardot, who so often performed the role of the object of a male gaze, Beauvoir found a potent form of sexual agency. In Brigitte Bardot, for instance, Beauvoir exploits a childlike persona to become an authentic free agent who, although objectified, gains power. “In the game of love,” de Beauvoir writes, “she is as much a hunter as she is a prey. The male is an object to her, just as she is to him.”
For Beauvoir, the cinema was a crucial ingredient in her coming of age as an intellectual woman, a medium and a venue into which she delved into both for narrative escape and for philosophical sharpening. “Concert, painting, theater, cinema, literature,” de Beauvoir wrote in her diary in October 1927. “With all that, continue to write my book.” A voracious consumer of art, de Beauvoir documented in diaries from her years as a student at the Sorbonne her philosophical interest in the cinema. While Simone de Beauvoir never distilled her observations on the film into a single book or essay, she referenced the cinema throughout nearly six decades of public and private writings.
Beauvoir’s views on moving images evolved with the times. As a young woman, she had her finger on the pulse of avant-garde cinema as well as what peaked at the box office. She initially resisted, but remained open to the potential of emerging technologies such as television. By the end of her lifetime, Beauvoir promoted mass media as the best way to rescript patriarchy and intervene in the lives of ordinary female spectators – whether through television, which “can easily reach workers’ wives,” or through the potent sexual agency of Bardot. While Beauvoir was a sophisticated consumer of images, her tastes in moving images remained grounded in the everyday lives of women. Such an approach remained firmly in line with her philosophy, which centered on concrete, lived experience as an essential form of knowledge.
“I learned to find pleasure despite these paradoxes and sometimes in them, to see beyond the goddess-whore dualities, to sometimes love both the simpering patsies and the shrewish man-eaters,” wrote Dargis. I imagine Beauvoir might have agreed.
Featured Image Credit: Film photography by 15299. Public Domain via Pixabay.