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The Second Coming of the “Woman’s Film” | Cinema 101

It is a sad indicator of how mainstream studios fail to cater for female audiences that led to the creation of the term “woman’s film”, a brand of domestic melodrama that reached its cultural and commercial peak during the Second World War. Instead of being widely accepted as additions to the canon of quality American drama being produced during the era, they were ghettoised based on the desired gender of their target audience. This isn’t due to sexism, but studio logic; during the 1930’s and early 1940’s, women represented the majority of the cinema audience. With the majority of American men signed up to fight in World War II, it would be illogical to keep funding male-oriented dramas en masse. Inexplicably, instead of the films produced (which incorporated genre themes ranging from social realism to gothic horror) being recognised as part of their relevant genres, they were all grouped together to create the poorly defined “woman’s film” genre.

What with this being the era of society expecting women to raise families, undertaking only the most menial of jobs, history alone can pinpoint the genre’s original expiry date in popularity coinciding with the second-wave of feminism gaining social traction in the early sixties. The ideals presented by female-oriented films were addressed publicly in Betty Friedan’s 1963 non-fiction tome The Feminist Mystique, which criticised the fact that American pop-culture aimed at women seemed to suggest that marriage and raising a family were a woman’s moral duty in life. More interestingly, she put the final nail in the sub-genre’s coffin somewhat indirectly in her critiques of female magazines, which were almost unanimously edited by men and therefore championed women continuing to strive towards a life as a housewife. The most successful (and still the most critically endeared) women’s films were from directors like Douglas Sirk and Max Ophüls– even the best examples of the genre were from a distinctively male perspective, despite being perceived to be otherwise, making their depictions of melodramatic female life looking distinctively out of step with female American culture of the period.

In actuality, the film genre all but ceased to exist with the burgeoning popularity of TV soap operas in the 1950’s, which could tell widely melodramatic stories in a serialised fashion directly to the stay-at-home housewives Hollywood’s stories of romantic entanglements were trying to capture. In the intervening years, American cinema has unambiguously had a problem when it comes to making films about women, with films drawing influence from the heyday of woman’s film seldom crossing over to mainstream acceptance, even if they have been consistently critically praised. The most commercially successful and culturally enduring portrayals of women in film, however, seem to have been informed by the second-wave feminist movement.

In a post-Ripley world, the strongest female representation in cinema comes from characters whose narratives don’t correlate to any traditional domestic struggle and aren’t ghettoised into a film intended for audiences in any specific gender. Characters like Ripley, or Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road, to name a more recent example, endure and help underline that when sided against men women can come out the strongest, as they have faced more hardships in getting to that position and won’t give up fighting. Even in a post-apocalyptic society, women have more to lose than men, making their dramatic arcs far more gripping than those of their male counterparts when they are faced in similar situations.

With the emergence of the Young Adult genre of novels and their subsequent film adaptations growing in popularity in the last decade, a quasi-reemergence of classic woman’s film values has gained popularity. Stephanie MyersTwilight series of novels may be a supernatural love triangle from a distinctively female perspective, a watered-down version of classic gothic romance, but with the exception of the inaugural Catherine Hardwicke-directed adaptation, each has been adapted to the screen by male directors in a way not dissimilar from the perceived ethics of classic women’s cinema. In a contemporary feminist society, the series naturally attracted criticism, especially considering lead character Bella Swan (portrayed in a less than memorable manner by Kristen Stewart) is an “anti-feminist” character, whose arc solely revolves around choosing which man to settle down and start a family with.

Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1
Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1

With YA movies being stereotypically aimed at female audiences, adaptations of different series have been hesitant to pitch themselves as “the new Twilight” due to the harmful connotations of female representation in that lucrative series. The Hunger Games is a winning hybrid of post-Ripley genre fiction focusing on a strong female character, twinned with an undercurrent of domestic strife gleamed directly from classic woman’s films that never overwhelms the central narrative or downplays the more feminist attitudes that a character like Katniss Everdeen stands for. The Divergent series equally focuses on a strong female character, whose status as a “chosen one” ensures she remains strong throughout, even if stereotypical female problems aren’t discarded altogether. These films help show that in modern mainstream cinema women’s stories can be told by male filmmakers in a way that isn’t condescending, whilst still paying tribute to the narrative tropes that have nevertheless endured.

Their success on both the big screen and in print has ensured a new generation of audiences are in demand of female oriented stories; in 2013, female-oriented films outgrossed those of their male counterparts at the US domestic box office, with Frozen and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire taking the top two spots, whilst Gravity was the year’s biggest Sci-fi hit. It is mainly the Hunger Games franchise that is inspiring producers to create films aimed at literate female audiences; the three most high profile examples in this new wave of woman’s cinema all conform to the classic attitudes of women’s film, but haven’t achieved a status higher than cult acceptance. Most beloved by critics is Todd HaynesCarol, his latest foray into the woman’s film genre after his 2002 Douglas Sirk pastiche Far From Heaven.

The film quietly bridges the gap between attitudes of women’s films old and new; Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt (on which the film is based) had to be published under a pseudonym upon its original release due to the ambiguous suggestion the two female leads would have a romantic happy ending causing controversy. Now, Haynes can play-down prior feminist connotations (as well as those of the characters’ sexuality) due to liberal values in modern society and instead produce a contemporary take on a woman’s film. At its heart, Carol is about the domestic lives of two women and how their romantic entanglement effects those around them; these themes, twinned with the male director behind the camera, make it nothing less than a genre throwback, albeit drained of melodrama in favour of a more realistic way of telling the story that is palatable to contemporary audiences.

The period setting of the 1950’s, so richly recreated, is also significant due to the time it portrays; in-between women in cinema being depicted as in need of domesticity and the second-wave of feminism to kick-start at the turn of the next decade. The character of Carol is trapped in this struggle, between being a housewife and achieving happiness in both professional and personal lives, that seems alien to modern viewers. It makes clear a resurgence of woman’s film values can only occur in period pieces; the awkward romantic entanglements and social readjustments represented in director John Crowley’s Brooklyn equally tell a story in a way it wouldn’t have been able to during the period in which the action takes place. Women’s films may have shown the female struggle with aspects of domestic life in their heyday, but it is only in modern cinema that the true women’s hardships of yesteryear can be portrayed in a way that isn’t diminishing the full extent of their prior societal struggles.

Brooklyn (Source: Lionsgate)
Brooklyn (Source: Lionsgate)

Most impressively, Brooklyn does this in a way that many audiences can easily misconstrue as romantic fantasy, due to the restrained lack of melodrama in the portrayal of any narrative strife, that would otherwise easily categorise this as a woman’s film. Even when rejuvenated for modern audiences, films like Brooklyn still stick to the heightened narrative elements that made the genre so initially endearing, but are downplayed in order to fulfil contemporary dramatic expectations. If the term “woman’s film” is pejorative, by ghettoising a film based on the perceived gender of its audience, then period pieces like the two listed above aim to correct audience assumptions by draining the melodrama out of a genre that has stereotypically married social realism with over the top theatricality. They may be in awe of directors like Douglas Sirk, but Todd Haynes and John Crowley have both created films that don’t feel like they have been made solely to appease the presumed demands of female audiences. These are stories born of love, not commerce, like the mass-produced women’s films of the 30’s and 40’s.

But neither Carol nor Brooklyn represent the most significant attempt at creating a “woman’s film” throwback this year, even if they are the most artistically successful. Director Guillermo Del Toro claimed his latest film Crimson Peak had a desired target audience of “bookish 14 year old girls”; more so than Brooklyn or Carol, it bridges the gap between classic genre demands and those of new audiences. It portrays domestic strife with a gothic horror element that was in vogue during the woman’s film heyday, whilst focusing on a budding author (played by Mia Wasikowska) whose love of literature would surely be mirrored in the countless readers of young adult novels now eager to see strong women in central narrative roles, albeit with any romantic elements left intact. Its period setting only intensifies the theme of female oppression, in both professional and personal life, whilst it still remains the most openly melodramatic film of the year, largely thanks to Jessica Chastain’s supporting performance.

Crimson Peak is problematic due to being both the clearest example of a contemporary woman’s film and a film that becomes confused by suddenly taking a sharp-left turn into a psychosexual potboiler two thirds through. If Carol and Brooklyn are character pieces with “woman’s film” elements, then Crimson Peak is a “woman’s film” in the most melodramatic sense, with the lapse into erotic thriller territory seeming to be Del Toro’s misguided attempt to appease modern audiences demands for overblown dramatic conflict. More significantly, Crimson Peak’s Freudian imagery is entirely at odds with Friedan’s argument in The Feminist Mystique that Sigmund Freud’s theories often concerned the infantilisation of women- this is an attempt at a women’s film that doesn’t hold up to feminist scrutiny. Del Toro could never be accused of undermining his desired audience, his love for each film he makes is clear in every frame, but by focusing more on the gothic horror aspects, he has made a film that deep analysis proves to not be as feminist as the narrative would otherwise dictate.

Crimson Peak highlights that “women’s films” are not a substantial genre in the age of extensive feminist critique, with strong female characters and narratives demanding of their own films free of a confined, gender-specific category. Characters like Furiosa and Katniss Everdeen will endure, but even the best made women’s film throwbacks may prove to be little more than a novelty, as the strongest portrayals of women in cinema are rarely to be found in films whose genre is defined based on the gender of the characters.


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