Broads, dames, chicks: whatever you call them, women in film have historically gotten a bad deal.
Broads, dames, chicks: whatever you call them, women in film have historically gotten a bad deal. Most commonly, they were rendered objects -- to be looked at, admired, or feared, rarely having wills or trajectories of their own. But this was not always so, according to Complicated Women, the new documentary produced by Andi Hicks and directed by Hugh Munro Neely.
Hicks and Neely have worked together previously, on documentaries about early Hollywood women such as Clara Bow and Marion Davies. Complicated women, airing during May on TCM, celebrates a brief window in the Hollywood film industry when women on screen had agency. This is the consensus offered by the film's interview subjects, from Mick LaSalle (whose book is the basis for the documentary), to Molly Haskell (whose 1973 book, From Reverence to Rape, is a cornerstone of feminist film theory). As they see it, film roles for women from approximately 1929 through 1934 were truly something to celebrate.
During these five years, women could be desiring subjects, in addition to being lovely, scheming, or otherwise multidimensional objects. To ensure this celebration, the documentary does not discuss films made during this era for which this is not the case, instead focusing on the positive. For example, Complicated Women does not refer to Mae Clarke in the 1931 picture The Public Enemy, who has a grapefruit smashed in her face by charismatic gangster Jimmy Cagney.
The impetus for the negative was the Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code, after film industry representative Will Hays. Crafted in 1930 as an internal industry set of guidelines to which all films should conform, the Code was not enforced until July 1934. It included restrictions on nudity (including by silhouette), open-mouthed kissing, and references to adultery or illicit sex. It was intended to forestall threatened U.S. government censorship. Instead, it did nothing, at least at first. But when Joseph Breen and the Catholic Legion of Decency got hold of it in the mid-'30s, the Code became a powerful weapon in the suppression of female characters and actresses. The documentary focuses on the years between the Code's creation and enactment, years rich with female characters who broke through restrictions and became, as the documentary's title suggests, complicated.
The film begins with three words scrolling across the television screen: "Sex," "Power," and "Freedom." Characters played by Hollywood icons such as Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, and Norma Shearer, wanted sex and were not afraid to ask for it. One example the documentary highlights is Queen Christina (1933), in which Garbo plays a cross-dressing, bisexual queen who seeks out adventure and romance on her own, and enjoys it when she finds it. Another is Shearer as the title character in The Divorcee (1930), who, like her ex-husband, has embarked on extramarital affairs.
The women in these films enjoyed their sexuality, as well as their freedom from the restraints of standard patriarchal narratives. In Complicated Women, Hollywood allows and even encourages such freedom, following the more restricted roles (vamps, virgins) of silent films. The film adopts a simple structure, pitting "heroines" (the women of these liberatory pictures) against the "villains" (the largely Catholic contingency that insisted on specific standards of decency as put forth in the Production Code). While the villains ultimately win the battle, the heroines seem to have won the war, insinuating themselves into history as laudable instances of resistance and ingenuity.
They have also left a potent legacy. "Lipstick feminists" are not a new invention, but rather a continuation (after a long interruption in the late 1930s, the 1940s and 1950s of Hollywood) of the women of the early 1930s, such as Dietrich and Shearer, who broke out of the simplistic stereotypes of the female framework into which women up to this time had been forced.
This legacy might be extended to today's female protagonists. Lara Croft, The Matrix's Trinity and Naobi, Legally Blonde's Elle Woods, and Charlie's Angels are powerful girls, some bringing action and adventure as well as what might be termed strong personalities. New media, such as television, the internet, and video games, have opened up a new world of female representation, a renaissance of complicated women.
On one level, the film serves as a warning -- all it takes is a small but vocal group urging censorship to shut down avenues for expression, by women or anyone else. But more hopefully, Complicated Women demonstrates that, even in the most structured of organizations (like the Hollywood studio system), it's possible to go against the grain.