Image by Alexandra Haynak from Pixabay
Image by Alexandra Haynak from Pixabay

Ideological Incoherence in Films ‘3 Women’ ‘Girlfriends’ and Late ‘70s Feminism

The inconclusive nature of modern womanhood espoused by 3 Women and Girlfriends reflects and reifies the inconclusive nature of second-wave feminism.

3 Women
Robert Altman
13 September 2011
Claudia Weill
10 November 2020

Of the major social justice crusades that emerged in the United States during the 1970s, the feminist movement remains perhaps the most immortalized and widely discussed. In 2020 alone, the life of second-wave feminist icon Gloria Steinem was chronicled in not one, but two major projects: the critically-acclaimed FX miniseries Mrs. America (nominated for ten Primetime Emmys, winning one), and the feature-length festival hit The Glorias, written and directed by Oscar-nominee Julie Taymor.

Feminism, unquestionably, has existed as long as heteropatriarchy has. But in many respects, the ’70s iteration of women’s liberation remains the most documented and dramatized in contemporary news and media largely due to the artistic and technological advancements of the decade. In 2011, feminist historian and media scholar Amy Peloff wrote: “Feminist ideas [in the 1970s] were communicated through media that was readily available to anyone in the United States who had access to television, radio, magazines, or newspapers.”

Unlike the work of women suffragettes in the 1910s and 1920s, and the work of all women activists that came before them, American second-wave feminism garnered widespread public dissemination via film and television. Such unprecedented exposure can be attributed to both the commercial ubiquity of those entertainment mediums, and more significantly, the trends and ideologies those mediums adopted throughout the decade.

As noted in a 2011 Directors Guild of America Quarterly editorial: “a restless generation of directors took Hollywood by storm in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, reflecting the climate of the country.” Second-wave feminism existed, arguably, at the forefront of that climate; the CUNY New Labor Forum reported in 2013: “Second wave feminism was the largest social movement in U.S. history… polls reported that a majority of U.S. women identified with it… from the mid-1960s through its decline in momentum [by] the 1980s.”

As studio system paradigms of production, storytelling, and censorship unraveled with the rise of late ‘60s American counterculture, major Hollywood productions and independent films alike turned their attention to the (increasingly dominant) counterculture’s eminent movements. The rise of second-wave feminism within that insurrectionary zeitgeist meant the politics of filmmaking and the politics of gender were questioned, challenged, and transformed concurrently in ’70s America, catalyzing an inevitable convergence of both phenomena.

No two works capture that intersection of cinema and contemporary politics more astutely than Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977) and Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends (1978). Both films feature women protagonists and grapple with topics and dilemmas pertinent to many women’s experiences in late ‘70s America — including (but not limited to) marriage, pregnancy, motherhood, work, friendships, personal autonomy, and the complications of existing both within and outside of domestic spaces. In other words, both works remain irrevocably contextualized by the final years of second-wave feminism, which also means they capture an enigmatic and transitional moment in American history.

In a broad analysis of the decade, staff at HISTORY note that, by the end of the Carter administration and throughout much of the ’80s, “the idealistic dreams of the 1960s [had been] worn down by inflation… turmoil and rising crime. In response, many Americans embraced a new conservatism in social, economic and political life.” The feminist movement in the United States metamorphosed into increasingly intersectional third and fourth waves, but the rise of ‘80s neo-conservatism nonetheless undermined the second wave and, in essence, all contemporaneous progressive movements.

This ideological shift in American society — from a forward-thinking worldview to a more traditional (and ultimately regressive) one — pushed women’s liberation out of the sizable pop-cultural sphere it entered in the ’70s and kept it outside of that sphere for decades. The late ‘70s thusly denote a period of feminist confusion and reckoning.

A critical dialogue can be forged, then, between 3 Women and Girlfriends, each made at the denouement of both second-wave feminism and what is now referred to as the “American New Wave” of filmmaking. Compellingly, the juxtaposition of Altman’s and Weill’s films reveals a rare instance of ideological overlap, where Hollywood cinema grappling with dilemmas and experiences relevant to women (3 Women) and independent American cinema grappling with the same subject matters (Girlfriends) achieve similar thematic ends through disparate aesthetic means. Specifically, both films concomitantly accept and reject traditional gender roles and ideals of motherhood, marriage, and domesticity, but achieve that identical incoherence via diametrically opposed modes of production, financing, performance, writing, and direction.

3 Women, preceding the release of Girlfriends by 16 months, remains a Hollywood anomaly. In his seminal essay “Dream Project“, critic David Sterritt notes: “[Robert Altman] received a green light from 20th Century Fox not only without a finished screenplay but with an expressed desire to make the entire movie without one.” The director charged into production with full backing from a major studio, despite an incomplete creative game-plan extracted from a dream he had while his wife was in the hospital.

That vision would be responsible for the film’s framework; as in Altman’s dream, 3 Women follows rehabilitative spa nurse Millie Lammoreaux (Shelley Duvall), who is assigned to train a meek, almost childlike teenager named Pinky Rose (Sissy Spacek) on the job. The two women later become roommates at Millie’s apartment in the California desert and frequent the local saloon run by the alcoholic and womanizing Edgar Hart (Robert Fortier) and his seemingly mute, long-suffering wife Willie (Janice Rule). Willie paints murals of human-animal hybrids and is pregnant with Edgar’s child.

Millie becomes increasingly frustrated with Pinky’s naïveté, believing her immature behavior is destroying her social life (though Millie herself exhibits signs of delusional thinking and behavior). When Millie invites Edgar to the apartment to have sex, a distraught Pinky attempts to drown herself in the communal pool. Slipping into a coma, she awakens weeks later with a completely different, outgoing demeanor — while Millie herself turns increasingly meek and childlike.

The two women, in effect, “switch personalities”, setting off a nightmarish odyssey that culminates in Willie’s delivery of a stillborn baby. The film ends with Edgar mysteriously dying in a “shooting accident” (it is intimated that one or all of the women have killed him), while Millie, Pinky, and Willie dissolve into the roles of “mother”, “daughter”, and “grandmother”, and have dinner together in a farmhouse just outside the saloon property. 

3 Women proves a dizzying work of surrealist art, which is surprising considering its studio budget, Oscar-nominated director, A-list cast, and critical reception. Upon its release, Ruth Batchelor of the Los Angeles Free Press wrote: “[Shelley Duvall’s] Millie Lammoreaux is every bit as haunting as Vivien Leigh’s Blanche Dubois,” while Roger Ebert commented, “To act in a story like this must be a great deal more difficult than performing straightforward narrative, but Spacek and Duvall go through their changes so well that it’s… unforgettable. So is the film.”

Mainstream critics showered plaudits on Altman’s “dream project”, which to this day remains little more than a series of avant-garde abstractions. As noted by writer Molly Langill: “The results of Altman’s open-ended filmmaking are said to be his ‘subliminal realities’’.. both his narratives and characters are most often times fragmented and incoherent, making it difficult for the audience to take away a clear message.” Ultimately, what began as the content of Altman’s dreams ended up a dreamlike work of epic — and inscrutable — proportions.

Noting these nebulous qualities does not diminish 3 Women’s, nor Altman’s, feminist tendencies. As writer Miranda Barnewall notes: “By examining (and leaning his sympathy to) the women in his films, Altman proves to be a sort of feminist outlet in the male-dominated New Hollywood era.” Compared to the more typically “masculine” works of Hollywood Renaissance auteurs like Francis Ford Coppola (see 1972’s The Godfather), Martin Scorsese (see 1976’s Taxi Driver), and Brian De Palma (see 1976’s Obsession), Altman’s meditative vision of the ever-evolving relationship between two young women in contemporary American society proves a refreshing outlier. By the same token, Altman’s status as a feminist maverick of American cinema does not absolve his “1977 phantasmagoria” of ideological incoherence, considering the film’s ending poses more questions than answers in regards to women’s issues of the day.

For instance, Willie’s delivery of a stillborn baby symbolizes, arguably, the rejection of women as inherently maternal figures. Yet, Willie is relegated to the role of “grandmother” when she moves into the saloon-adjacent farmhouse with Millie and Pinky in the film’s final frames, once again unable to escape the role of a caregiver. Millie and Pinky are also trapped in “traditionally feminine” roles, fulfilling the duties of “mother” and “daughter” respectively. As writer Krin Gabbard argues: “Altman’s film is about three women who regress from adulthood’s pressures into a strange trio of roles that parody normal familial relationships.”

In turn, 3 Women’s final moments prove indecisive: in the wake of Edgar’s death and Willie’s stillbirth, are these women characters liberated and independent agents? Or are they still expected to fulfill oppressive roles involving the “home” and “family” that second-wave feminism railed so passionately against?