Women in American Cinema and the Prison of Social Constructs

American films reflect the contemporary serfdom chaining women to fixed roles in society, but also reinforce patriarchal conventions by proliferating images of women plagued by the expectation to both sexually gratify and mother the male ruling class. Analysis of three films highlight female protagonists trapped into becoming either sexualized children or maternal figures to emotionally weak men.

In Barbara Loden’s 1970 landmark film, Wanda (Loden, 1970) we first encounter the title character asleep on a couch in her sister’s living room.[i] A palpable sense of tension fills the room as the brother in law storms out in protest of the unwanted guest. The defining image of the film occurs as Wanda crosses the coal yard to catch a bus into town. [ii]Towering spoil tips dwarf her figure symbolizing her insignificance in society.

Like a child begging for an advance on an allowance, Wanda pesters an old man for a few dollars. Later at her divorce and custody hearing, she is unable to process the scope of the legal proceedings.[iii] For Wanda, motherhood, matrimony, and the financial responsibilities of adult life are all too much.

She defers to other characters like a scolded child and repeatedly finds herself in the company of older men. Throughout the film, she addresses the male lead only as, Mr. Dennis, and their relationship takes on the dynamic of a father and his codependent daughter.[1] Like an adolescent, Wanda possess no identity of her own and seeks to become who others want her to be.  In the final scene, lost and confused, she wanders into a road house and is comforted by the patrons who ply her with food and alcohol as a surrogate family.[iv]

From the onset, we understand the world has little to offer a woman like Wanda. Men refer to her only as “lover” or “blondie”.[v] A lifetime of sexual condescension has rendered her critically indecisive; without direction or ambition. She is either roaming aimlessly or seeking a father figure to cling too.[vi] Wanda’s recurring emotional conflict steams from a fear of men, no matter how abusive, abandoning her. Freedom of choice is out of the question and in the end Wanda ultimately accepts her role as the eternal child.[vii]

Director, Barbara Loden creates a protagonist lost amongst the world of grown-ups. Although an adult, Wanda fully embodies the weakness and naiveté associated with children. Throughout her journey, no one steps forward to guide or enlighten her. Each person accepts Wanda as the woman\girl.

Loden, herself an award winning actress intimately familiar with the Hollywood game, uses characters as a metaphor for the patriarchal film industry. Young actresses seeking paternal acceptance stumble into Hollywood and are used and abused by older men. Those unable or unwilling to accept the role as borderline juvenile sex objects are cast aside much like the piles of coal refuse Wanda navigates in the beginning of the film.

The Stepford Wives (Forbes, 1975) cleverly parodies men’s backlash against feminism, but beneath the surface lurks a darker tale of oedipal desire. The citizens of Stepford, Connecticut are successful professionals, but what these men truly desire is a return both to their mother’s house and the comfort of her bed.[viii]

At the insistence of her husband, Joanna Eberhart and her children flee Manhattan for the promise of blissful country life. Like New York City, Joanna is creative, vital, and fiercely independent, yet acquiesces to her husband’s wishes like an exhausted parent caving into a child’s pleading for candy.

She encounters local wives dressed in traditional clothing more suited to an old fashioned mother than a fashion conscious spouse.[ix] These women represent the antithesis of liberated individuals engaged in feminist ideals. For them, the needs of their children and husbands take priority.

A mutual transformation takes place for each Stepford wife and her husband. The night prior to replacement each man regresses into to a child-like state complete with tears and consolation from a paternal figure, Dale Coba.[x] As though the symbiotic nature of the relationship between the “new” wife and husband only achieves harmony once the man accepts the role as a boy ready to be mothered.

In the final scene, when Joanna encounters her replacement she is revolted[xi] by the droid’s enhanced bust.[xii] Even more than the matronly uniforms worn by the replacements, the voluptuous chest represents the core tie between mother and nursing child.[xiii] Although, regarded by adult males as sexual organs, the breast is first and foremost a milk storage and delivery system. This final revelation exposes a truth about the childish needs of patriarchal society; that every man, regardless of stature, never relinquishes a need for his mother.

Woody Allen’s Interiors (Allen, 1978) deals with the ultimate societal perversion as children exchange roles with parents. As the film opens, a father reflects on the domestic life created by his wife, “It was all so perfect. The truth is that she created a world around us that we existed in where everything had its place, there was always a kind of harmony.”[xiv] Yet, over breakfast he suggests a trial separation with the intention of never returning. Like a child unaware that everyone can see through his lies, the father suspects that he has pulled the wool over his family’s eyes.[xv]

Over time, each daughter struggles to cope with their mother’s increasing emotional needs. The eldest, Renata, chooses to placate her mother with lies. In contrast, her younger sister Joey rejects the mother’s fantasies of marital reconciliation.[xvi] Burdened by filial responsibilities, the children’s own romantic relationships deteriorate.[xvii]

In the end, like a child returning to the womb, the mother walks into the sea.[xviii] Standing over her casket, each daughter has been transformed into a weary and bitter spouse brooding over a tumultuous relationship. [xix]

Interiors demonstrates the destructive power of a belief in the social and moral responsibilities established by a patriarchy that anchors women to fixed roles in society. Throughout the film, we see images of the father reclining on a bed like a boy in a crib while his daughters hover over him.[xx] Allen’s message is clear, when a wife fails her duties as surrogate mother it becomes the daughter’s job to take her place. Far beyond a cliché family drama, Interiors explores the complex, unconscious compulsions that drive a mother and father to exploit their children.

For women, American cinema represents a prison of social constructs. Films encourage an almost pedophiliac desire to regress women into a childlike state, yet at the same time offer the illusion of choice to act as maternal figures to male characters. It’s impossible to quantify the damage inflicted on the psyche of young girls absorbing negative images projected through the narrow scope Hollywood, but as more women helm film productions the walls of what’s possible expand and alter society for the better.

[i] Loden, Barbara. “Wanda Asleep on Sofa.” Tercerojo.co. 1970. Accessed November 22, 2015. http://tercerojo.co/Thesis/Images/Wanda/Wanda%20on%20Sofa.jpg

 

[ii] Loden, Barbara. “Wanda Crossing the Coal Yard.” Tercerojo.co. 1970. Accessed November 22, 2015. http://tercerojo.co/Thesis/Images/Wanda/Wanda%20and%20Soil%20tips.jpg

 

[iii] Loden, Barbara. “Wanda in Court.” Tercerojo.co. 1970. Accessed November 22, 2015. http://tercerojo.co/Thesis/Images/Wanda/Wanda in Court.jpg

 

[iv] Loden, Barbara. “Wanda in Court.” Tercerojo.co. 1970. Accessed November 22, 2015. http://tercerojo.co/Thesis/Images/Wanda/surrogate family.jpg

 

[v] Loden, Barbara. “Wanda in Court.” Tercerojo.co. 1970. Accessed November 22, 2015. http://tercerojo.co/Thesis/Images/Wanda/Wanda as blondie.jpg

 

[vi] Loden, Barbara. “Wanda in Court.” Tercerojo.co. 1970. Accessed November 22, 2015. http://tercerojo.co/Thesis/Images/Wanda/Wanda wandering.jpg

 

[vii] Loden, Barbara. “Wanda in Court.” Tercerojo.co. 1970. Accessed November 22, 2015. http://tercerojo.co/Thesis/Images/Wanda/Wanda as Little girl asleep.jpg

 

[viii] Forbes, Bryan. “Stepford Husbands.” Tercerojo.co. 1975. Accessed November 22, 2015. http://tercerojo.co/Thesis/Images/Stepford/Husbands.jpg

 

[ix] Forbes, Bryan. “Stepford Husbands.” Tercerojo.co. 1975. Accessed November 22, 2015. http://tercerojo.co/Thesis/Images/Stepford/matron 2.jpg

 

[x] Forbes, Bryan. “Stepford Husbands.” Tercerojo.co. 1975. Accessed November 22, 2015. http://tercerojo.co/Thesis/Images/Stepford/Man tears.jpg

 

[xi] Forbes, Bryan. “Stepford Husbands.” Tercerojo.co. 1975. Accessed November 22, 2015. http://tercerojo.co/Thesis/Images/Stepford/Digusted.jpg

 

[xii] Forbes, Bryan. “Stepford Husbands.” Tercerojo.co. 1975. Accessed November 22, 2015. http://tercerojo.co/Thesis/Images/Stepford/Enhanced Breast.jpg

 

[xiii] Forbes, Bryan. “Stepford Husbands.” Tercerojo.co. 1975. Accessed November 22, 2015. http://tercerojo.co/Thesis/Images/Stepford/Nursing.jpg

 

[xiv] Allen, Woody. “Interiors.” Tercerojo.co. 1978. http://tercerojo.co/Thesis/Images/Interiors/father reflecting.jpg

 

[xv] Allen, Woody. “Interiors.” Tercerojo.co. 1978.

http://tercerojo.co/Thesis/Images/Interiors/ asking for seperation.jpg

 

[xvi] Allen, Woody. “Interiors.” Tercerojo.co. 1978.

http://tercerojo.co/Thesis/Images/Interiors/ joey tells the truth.jpg

 

[xvii] Allen, Woody. “Interiors.” Tercerojo.co. 1978.

http://tercerojo.co/Thesis/Images/Interiors/ failed romance.jpg

 

[xviii] Allen, Woody. “Interiors.” Tercerojo.co. 1978.

http://tercerojo.co/Thesis/Images/Interiors/walk into the sea.jpg

 

[xix] Allen, Woody. “Interiors.” Tercerojo.co. 1978.

http://tercerojo.co/Thesis/Images/Interiors/3 daughters.jpg

 

[xx] Allen, Woody. “Interiors.” Tercerojo.co. 1978.

http://tercerojo.co/Thesis/Images/Interiors/father in bed wide.jpg

 

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