How a classic B-movie poster speaks to the contemporary "War on Women".
Nancy Archer stands astride the curve of a highway overpass, brooding. Behind her the tangerine sky burns, suggesting the nuclear Armageddon the nation had learned to fear by the late '50s. The tempo of the image languishes despite the frantic scene. Her lips part in a growl and her eyes look like they might be closed, though more likely she's gazing down at the destruction she's wrought -- like that smoking blue sedan clutched in her left hand.
When my girlfriend and I moved in together, she brought with her this image: the movie poster for the original, 1958 version of Attack of the 50-Foot Woman. I've never seen the film; my knowledge of its plot comes from online summaries. But the image alone has always seemed like the purest pop art. Played in the film by Allison Hayes, whose likeness the artist captures perfectly, Nancy Archer burns with tragic antagonism. She is anarchy; her power seems limitless. How terrifying this must have looked to some men in 1958. Whom among them could match her?
Lately, during the ongoing scrum called "the war on women" by liberals and 'a wonderful return to the 1910s' by the Far Right, and being not quite used to seeing the movie poster on the wall, I've been looking at the poster for Attack of the 50-Foot Woman in new ways, or for new reasons, and thinking about Nancy Archer towering over the highway, strong, surrounded, and alone, utterly alone.
From ultrasound and sonogram laws to attacks on contraception, voting rights, and the basic legality of abortion, conservative men all over the country are having a grand time trying to overturn at least the past 40 years of progressive women's rights legislation. (And yes, it's mainly male, conservative politicians doing the talking and sponsoring the bills.) One of their key tactics is to silence the voices of opposing women, and while this is mainly applied to silencing arguments, equally suppressed are narrative, causality, and history.
What does Attack of the 50-Foot Woman have to do with any of this? I'm wondering the same thing, honestly. But I do know that…
You Can't Say 'Vagina' in the Michigan House
13 June 2012: In a session of the Michigan House of Representatives, Rep. Lisa Brown argues against proposed restrictions of women's abortion rights, a bill that would ban all abortions after 20 weeks with a bare minimum consideration of the mother's well-being. Brown ends her comments with, "Finally, Mr. Speaker, I'm flattered that you're all so interested in my vagina, but 'no' means 'no'."
The bill passes anyway.
14 June 2012: Rep. Lisa Brown is censured by Michigan House Republicans for saying the word "vagina". The majority party is apparently shocked at her language—presumably they have not slept all night—and keep her from speaking her mind on a different bill. Pressed for explanation, one man, Rep. Mike Callton, explains that the medical term for a crucial component of the female reproductive system is, in fact, "offensive". "It was so offensive," he tells The Detroit News, "I don't even want to say it in front of women. I would not say that in mixed company."
Which means he would only say it around other men, no doubt with the utmost respect.
15 June 2012: Press secretary for Michigan's House Republicans Ari Adler clarifies that Brown was barred not because she used the word "vagina", but because "when she finished her statement by referencing her vagina, and then saying 'no means no,' that was drawing in a rape reference". Brown refers to her censure as a "gag order". Three days later, she performs The Vagina Monologues on the steps of Michigan's capitol building along with the play's author, Eve Ensler, and other women lawmakers. No one seems to buy Adler's claim that it was the overall context rather than the word "vagina" that was objectionable. Callton's explanation has stuck.
Step back from this and look: here is a piece of legislation introduced into a public forum to regulate the private actions of multiple individual women. The private is being made public: we're going to talk about things that are private, we're going to make laws about them—but we don't want anyone to think too much about the privacy that's being violated, so let's lean on some tripe about "public decorum". Brown and her fellow Michigan state representative, Barb Bynum—who suggested a bill regulating men's vasectomies—exposed the dissonance of putting such a private matter into public hands. Mainly the hands of men, that is, who would prefer you not think about it being in mainly their hands.
What they have done by censuring Rep. Brown is not only attempt to shut her up, but also ostracize her. Silence someone from a public discussion, from any discussion, and you also separate that person from everyone else.
It reminds me of a poignant detail in Betty Friedan's classic study The Feminine Mystique. The women Friedan spoke to in the late '50s and early '60s felt unfulfilled by a life devoted to husband-children-and-home, had become depressed and suicidal, and were wasting their substantial educations from expensive and rigorous colleges—and on top of all of that, they felt enormously, hopelessly, "all-lost-in-the-supermarket" kinds of alone. This resulted in a typical housewife who felt "it was her personal guilt", Friedan wrote in a new forward in 1997, "if she didn't have an orgasm waxing the family-room floor." Again: her own "personal guilt". As if something was wrong with her and her alone. Isolated, dependent, guilty, of course you would try to change yourself, your behavior, your choices.
Nancy Archer towers over the highway, alone. Did I mention that already? Maybe it needs to be mentioned twice.
That's what men want, what other women want: to isolate these women who say "no".
Right about the time Friedan began researching The Feminine Mystique, Attack of the 50-Foot Woman was filmed and this image of Nancy Archer was created by the American illustrator Reynold Brown. Look around; based on what I've been able to find, Attack of the 50-Foot Woman is clearly his best poster work. Most of his images for films ranging from other B-movies like She-Gods of Shark Reef (1956) to epics like Ben-Hur (1959) and Spartacus (1961) are crowded, haphazard, and stiff. (Ben-Hur is a notable exception.) For these qualities, his posters are maybe better considered the epitome of a type rather than a singular influence.
Brown also composed the poster for The Incredible Shrinking Man two years before the elegant Attack of the 50-Foot Woman. It, too, is one of the cleanest images he produced, but its enormous cat can't compare with Nancy Archer.
Look at her standing somewhat awkwardly, posed sexually with her cleavage exposed, but also with a hint of natural violence, and you realize this cannot end well. Unlike the drummed-up adventure of The Incredible Shrinking Man—note that he gets to be "Incredible", and in the poster, is simply defending himself—nothing in the poster for Attack of the 50-Foot Woman is a lark. No one can rescue Nancy Archer; no one can even understand what in the hell is going on. Near the bottom-right corner, a man in a white shirt and black slacks—business attire—is about to climb over the edge of the overpass and jump to his death. Madness!
Most of the figures running away from Nancy Archer are men. In the lower left corner of the poster, her right foot has smashed a tractor trailer. Smoke drifts from it and the blue sedan in her hand. The driver of the semi is presumably dead. Next to its cab, a policeman stands alongside his patrol car, helpless. The wide sedans scattered about like toys under Nancy Archer are white-collar men's vehicles. She stands above the interstate highway, symbol of America's newfound swiftness and scope and connectedness—a symbol of having conquered the land, of masculine leisure, commerce and the new American dominance of the '50s. With that burning sky, it's not hard to see that this is the end of that world.
You sense Archer's body was already powerful before she was made ten times taller by an alien. She is robust but not wasp-waisted. Her long legs are thin but athletic. Her bust is sizable, clad in a white bikini top above a white miniskirt, both of which are converted bed sheets. It must be a large bed, because in the poster, the sheet could cover the blue sedan she's about to crush.
What's most interesting to me is how the texture of what might be mixed media—paint and perhaps graphite and art pencil combined for stippling and shadow work—creates a physical power, how it contrasts a feminine softness with a masculine roughness. Parts of her skin seem bronzed, but look at the lushness of her remorse. Archer is at once a vision of severe beauty and potent sexuality, overblown and vulnerable. Her anarchy isn't just her reversal of power and social norms, it's the contrasts she literally embodies.
But, imagined by a male producer, director and screenwriter, Nancy Archer is limited to only physical power. Anything else would be a real threat, and this is supposed to be harmless fantasy, a woman playing tragically at a man's 'standard role'. The film cannot imagine her own imagination. What she could do with that size, you might think. With that strength! Archer does not walk to Sacramento to speak to the California House of Representatives. (Or to Lansing, Michigan.) She does not use her size to accrue wealth and independence; the film abolishes that option by making her a wealthy heiress.
No, Nancy Archer can only be vindictive, and tragic. What does she do with her power? Seeks revenge on her lecherous, two-timing husband and his floozy girlfriend, that's what. The latter ends up under a crossbeam, while the husband is eventually crushed or electrocuted by the same transformer which kills Nancy. That brooding vindictiveness, that cattiness, that scorn—these are what you see in those shadowed, thick eyelashes and felinely-arched eyebrows.
Why does she look so alone? Because she looks so different from everyone else? Because there are no other women in the image? Or because she appears to have ruptured history itself?
Less History in My History, Please
When Representative Lisa Brown said, "Finally, Mr. Speaker, I'm flattered that you're all so interested in my vagina, but 'no' means 'no'", a CBS News article noted that "Rep. Lisa Lyons, R-Alto [of Michigan], said Brown's…'no means no' remark seemed to inappropriately compare the anti-abortion bill to rape." Well, yes, Brown was doing just that. (Note that terrifying high-school guidance-counselor word: inappropriate. Is there anything worse than being inappropriate?) At least as I understand her comment, Brown was saying that women possess a fundamental freedom to choose what they do with their vaginas. That freedom is not altered based on the particularities of the action.
Brown was also alluding to a story, a literal and non-fictional history far more compelling and tragic and urgent than Attack of the 50-Foot Woman: the history of men forcing their ideologies and actions upon women. By making the comparison between anti-abortion legislation and rape, Brown was talking history. She was implicitly charting out a territory of shared experiences, connected stories, a common ground shared by millions of American women. By recognizing history, she said, in effect, 'Here is this place that women understand, a place they can gather and talk and take action. Unlike those women afflicted by their "personal guilt" because they believed no other women felt like they did, women today don't have to be alone.'
Being detached from the narrative of time and culture—that is how you begin to feel alone. If there is no history, no understandable cause and effect, no precedent, then nothing you do seems to matter. Nothing you say will ever be good enough. They'll stone you, Bob Dylan says, "when you're trying to be so good", and they'll stone you when you're not, and any other chance they get.
Rep. Lisa Brown
There is more empathy for women in the poster for Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, a B-movie made in 1958, than there is today in the Michigan House of Representatives.
Nancy Archer didn't know what to do with her power. Today, many more women know exactly what to do with it.