Monday, July 14, 2008

Mild Retroactive Rage

A few weeks ago, Cyd Charisse died, and the TCM channel put on a retrospective of her films. Since I am a fan of movie dancing, and especially of the ballet-trained Charisse, I wanted to see these, but was busy that night. So I taped them, and last night I watched "Silk Stockings."

I'm still in a state of delayed feminist outrage.

The film, made and set in the 1950's, features Charisse as a Russian "commissar" who is in Paris to retrieve a Soviet composer, who is defecting. Instead of carrying out her mission, she falls in love with Fred Astaire and, after several improbable dance numbers, also defects. All right, it's a musical comedy; it was the Cold War; nobody expects a biting political analysis of American-Soviet relations. Nobody even expects a plot that makes sense. I'm fine with all that.

What I'm not fine with is the underlying message about the female commissar. Before Astaire, she is a capable woman with a career, beliefs (however politically severe), and shoes a person can walk in. After Astaire, she sings lines like "Without a man, a woman is a zero" and "To a man, a woman is a woman/ To a woman, a man is her life." She becomes unemployed. She wears four-inch heels. She faints from stress.

Now, I know this movie is a period piece and one should not judge period pieces by contemporary standards. (I once heard a panelist at an SF con say that no one should ever read Homer "because he was a slaver." Gene Wolfe, also on the panel, turned purple.) Nonetheless, "Silk Stockings," made not in the ancient world but within my own lifetime, angered me. Nothing could have made clearer why we needed a Women's Movement.

But the dancing was terrific.


Mr. JM said...

This happens relatively often while watching TCM (I'm a fan of movies, both classic and contemporary), and Silk Stockings is simply one example.

When I watch TCM -- and I often do -- I find that I often have to put my mind into a totally different "mode," especially with some of the older pieces from the 1930s and certainly with pieces from the 1920s.

I can still remember the first time I saw The Jazz Singer (1927), shaking my head as our main character sang and danced in "black-face." (Granted, there have been some interesting analyses of that particular aspect of the film.)

But, in any case, it's always good to enter a new "mental mode" when watching some of the older stuff.

none said...

I remember once coming across a stack of women's magazines from the 1970s and having a look at them just for fun. The letters pages were full of "I'm not a feminist, but...." type letters.

One woman had won a substantial amount of money and opened a joint bank account with her husband to deposit it. The bank wrote to her husband asking if he would give his permission for her to withdraw money from the account.

I think there's a tendency to forget how bad things used to be.

Wealthedge said...

There's also the Victorian view of women, that they should be put on pedestals and worshiped and locked away as fragile beings (ala The Yellow Wallpaper.)

Although I'm with you on most of the positive things that the feminist movement has accomplished, at times I feel like we might have over-corrected a little and ended off in the ditch on the other side of the road. There's a feminizing of men, especially in America, happening subtly around us.

Men and women have different needs and different temperaments and the push to try to make everything the same is a bad thing.

Sometimes we men need cage fighting and swords and football and to release our barbaric YAWP without fear that we are perpetuating a patriarchal stereotype.

Sometimes we need Superman and testosterone.

Although, that could be just me. If so, Thog sorry. I'll take my stone hammer and go back to my cave.


bluesman miike Lindner said...

Worse things happen at sea, Nancy.

I'm reminded of what me foster-grandpa told me when I was 7, maybe 8: "Women, they have many faults, us men, we have but two/Everything we say and everything we do."

The film was made during our lifetimes? Well, I'd bet heavy coin a few people are around who were breathing when BIRTH OF A NATION came out.

Why invest energy getting mad at that kinda stuff?

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Wealthedge--I am with you all the way with your well-expressed points. Isn't that was FIGHT CLUB was all about?

Nancy Kress said...

The question here is not whether men and women are exactly the same, but rather whether women can be treated as separate, capable people, not simply appendages to men (and as a "zero" if temporarily -- or permanently -- without one). For much of history,we were not treated as capable and worth-while individuals except in the roles of wife and mother. Great roles, yes -- but not all of a person's being.

TheOFloinn said...

I'm trying to imagine Eleanor of Aquitaine or Blanche of Castile putting up with any of that crap.

In the tax rolls of Paris in the late 1200’s, are women listed as schoolmistress, doctor, apothecary, plasterer, dyer, copyist, binder, miniaturist, etc. The ‘Inquiries’ of King Louis mention women as hairdresser, salt merchant, miller, farmer, chatelaine, even a woman Crusader. Medieval women could enter a trade without their husband's permission. And whatever money or goods a woman brought into a marriage was considered to be her own.

Victorians. Forsooth!

Steven Francis Murphy said...

Nancy, where do you think women stand at the present time with regard to the issue of gender equality?

Also, what do you think the greatest obstacles that women presently face?

S. F. Murphy

Nancy Kress said...

Women have made terrific strides in all areas, I think. Over half of college graduates are now women, including in law and medicine. In my city, Xerox is one of the big four employers, and its CEO is a woman. In publishing, many editors are women at all houses. All this in, essentially, two generations.

What I do see, however, is that among young couples, things are different only to a point, and that point is when they have children. Then the baby becomes much more her responsibility than his, even if both have careers. And by "baby" I mean all the attendant housework and detail arranging and doctor visits -- all of it. Many young women who thought they had a completely equal marriage are shocked after the birth of the first child to see traditional gender roles emerge in their liberated young husbands.

These, however, are just my personal observations, not any sort of scientific survey.

Steven Francis Murphy said...

I would agree on child care issues. I've seen that with my own mother, my significant other and I've seen that with my male friends who have children, which is unfortunate. Though I do not plan on having children, I can't fathom not trying to take on as much as humanly possible.

Then again, I don't get the whole drive by insemination issue either. Or the notion that it is attractive that a male has illegitimates strewn all over the countryside.

Perhaps it is my own experienc with my father, but I do not understand bringing a life into the world and then skipping off to where ever.

Thanks, Nancy. I learned something this morning.

S. F. Murphy

Nick A said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nick A said...

The Economist Magazine has a 'Millennial Generation' survey circulating in the business world. It highlights a high degree of irrelevance, for the upcoming generation, of gender, race and sexuality. I hope it holds true! It will translate the 'Silk Stockings' remembrance from (justifiably) painful, to outright silly.

What would we say to someone, today, who judged individuals according to their hair color? The Economist survey is heartening: it implies that, 20 years from now that racism, sexism, and homophobia will be extinct (in the western world...).