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

Girlfriends‘ Contradictions

Similar questions can be asked of Girlfriends, a film characterized by a vastly different production journey — and in general, aesthetic approach — than Altman’s film. Writers Claudia Weill and Vicki Polon looked to the 1973 Eleanor Bergstein novel, Advancing Paul Newman, and drew from their own experiences as young women to create a nuanced, homespun character study jointly funded by the American Film Institute, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the New York State Council on the Arts. A grassroots affair made without any backing from a major studio, Weill’s film was shot on a production schedule that proved fragmented and unpredictable as a result.

The end product is a quiet, almost vignette-style film following the relationship between Susan Weinblatt (Melanie Mayron) and Anne Munroe (Anita Skinner), two 20-something roommates living in the Big Apple and pursuing careers as a photographer and a writer, respectively. When Anne marries her boyfriend Martin (Bob Balaban) and moves to the countryside with him, Susan is left to fend for herself.

Alone in the big city, she struggles to find her footing as an independent person, first entering into a label-less relationship with amicable bachelor Eric (Christopher Guest), while nearly plunging into an extramarital affair with a rabbi (Eli Wallach) for whom she takes wedding and bar mitzvah photographs. She struggles to sell her work elsewhere, but by the final act is able to land a small gallery opening under the direction of a somewhat prickly though seasoned photog Beatrice (Viveca Lindfors).

Meanwhile, Anne and Martin start a family in their rural home, but she struggles to fulfill the duties of wife, mother, and homemaker while also pursuing a writing career. The only constant remains the two women’s complicated friendship: though separated geographically, their contact with each other — over the phone, through visits — creates a kind of long-distance sisterly solidarity that proves especially necessary when Anne misses Susan’s first gallery opening.

Susan commits to being exclusive with Eric the very same night, before racing to Anne’s countryside home to find her in bed, distraught. Anne admits to having an abortion without Martin’s knowledge, unable to raise another child while maintaining her own happiness. Girlfriends ends with both women bonding by the fireplace as Martin returns home to be with his wife.

The final moments of Weill’s film engender myriad contradictions from a feminist vantage point. Both Anne and Susan have managed to weather countless storms thanks to their own inner strengths as human beings, and notably, their dependence on one another. At the center of Girlfriends is their undying friendship, a supportive (if sometimes fraught) bond that proves everlasting amid their own day-to-day setbacks, revelations, and growing pains.

Furthermore, the cruxes of their respective character arcs involve some sort of rejection of traditional standards of “womanhood”. Between Eric, the Rabbi, and her own desire (at certain points) to be single, Susan outright avoids monogamy and commitment. Similarly, Anne’s choice to have an abortion can be read as a rejection of mothering duties and the idea that all women are or should be inherently “maternal” (not unlike Willie’s stillbirth in 3 Women).

For these reasons, Girlfriends’ status as a feminist work, then and now, remains unsurprising. Shortly following its US premiere, a review in Film Quarterly called Weill’s work “marvelous”, while characterizing Susan Weinblatt as “intelligent, talented, warm, generous, humorous, courageous, [and] vulnerable” with a character arc that can be “seen tangibl[y]”. A contemporaneous review in Variety also noted: “Each performance is a little gem and so are the characters developed by Vicki Polon from a story by her and Weill. They look and act like people, which is a relief. There are no false touches of glamour.” Weill’s approach, as lauded by critics of the day, dives undeniably deep into the lives, emotions, and complexities of human beings — and in the words of Jane Fonda: “if you can go deep, into any human being, that is feminism.”

However, as with 3 Women, this reality does not absolve Weill’s film of incoherence. After all, Anne and Susan find themselves in similar positions at the end of Girlfriends as Millie and Pinky do at the end of Altman’s film. Both women straddle the gulf between single-hood and the traditions of home, motherhood, and marriage: despite her abortion, Anne stays with her husband and children in their countryside home, while Susan, despite her blossoming career and initial resistance to romantic commitment, decides to enter into a conventional and exclusive partnership with Eric. In turn, questions similar to those asked of 3 Women are posed: is Weill wishing a liberated and independent future for these women? Or has she nailed them into a coffin of “domesticity” where they’ll be forced to fulfill traditional gender roles in the shadows of their dominant male counterparts?

In the years since their respective releases, the perception of both films in the culture has proved just as fascinating and confounding as those inquiries. Despite its piecemeal governmental funding, proto-mumblecore plotting, “no-name” cast, and relatively low production values, Girlfriends is nonetheless credited with emulating a big-budget Woody Allen comedy. As noted by Kristen Yoonsoo Kim in a recent article for VICE: “[Weill’s film] has often been called the female version of a[n]… Allen picture  — an awful, cringe-worthy comparison, but understandable in its centering of a neurotic Jewish protagonist in a talky New York drama.”

Conversely, 3 Women’s major studio backing, big-name cast, and consistently high production values haven’t superseded its reputation as a meandering, experimental meditation, lovingly nicknamed “Altman’s Persona“. Roger Ebert, one of the director’s biggest champions, was also one of the earliest critics to highlight the film’s likeness to Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 arthouse classic, “another film in which women seem to share personalities, and maybe Persona, also so mysterious when we first see it, helps point the way.”

Both films emerge ultimately anomalous in their respective cinematic worlds (studio filmmaking versus independent filmmaking), which also renders them two sides of the same coin. After all, they’re almost completely synonymous in their themes and indecisive take-home messages, neither able to completely commit to a “progressive” or a “traditional” resolution for their main characters. The ideological sameness of 3 Women and Girlfriends thereby denotes a key moment in 1970s American feminist filmmaking in which two seemingly disparate creative worlds — the Hollywood mainstream and the indie underground — have collapsed into each other.

Still, each film’s concomitant acceptance and rejection of marriage, motherhood, and the domestic space looks different depending on the context. For example, Hollywood’s “women-centric” films of the ’70s almost always embraced traditional ideals, even when claiming to be progressive. A famous example is Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), in which resilient single mother Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn) — after going through hell and back rebuilding her life with her pre-teen son (Alfred Lutter III) in the wake of her abusive husband’s death — decides to put her singing aspirations on hold and settle into married life with her latest male lover (Kris Kristofferson).

Much in the style of a ’50s studio system melodrama, Scorsese frames Alice’s return to domesticity as indelibly cathartic and romantic, flattening any feminist chutzpah the film accumulates the remainder of its runtime. Unsurprisingly, contemporary viewers tend to read Scorsese’s film with greater reprove than reverence: critic Kim Newman characterizes the film as only “mildly feminist”, while more recent commentary in Time Out likens it to a “women’s weepie” and derides Scorsese’s ending as “a cop out from a feminist point of view.”

Therefore, that 3 Women (as a Hollywood film) eschews marriage, motherhood, and domesticity in even the slightest regard means — compared to other big studio “women’s pictures” of the decade, like Alice — that Altman’s film is arguably the “most feminist” of that crop. For alongside his characters’ admittedly traditional and domestic futures are also undoubtedly liberated and independent ones (e.g., Edgar’s murder, Willie’s evasion of motherhood following her stillbirth). An imagined spectrum of ’70s Hollywood films chronicling women’s experiences would accordingly find a film like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore somewhere near the “ultimately-not-all-that-feminist” mark, and a film like 3 Women somewhere closer to the “arguably-very-feminist” mark.

On the other hand, without pressure from a major Hollywood studio to wax uncontroversial, independent “women-centric” films of the ’70s almost always, unapologetically, eschewed ideals of marriage, motherhood, and the domestic space. A notable example is Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970), which follows the titular wife and mother (Loden) who abandons her oppressive home life, gets coerced into a bank robbery scheme by an abusive criminal (Michael Higgins), is sexually assaulted, and ends her journey at a roadside bar, where she is surrounded by a group of strangers who lend her food and cigarettes.

In nihilistic and vérité fashion, Loden presents Wanda’s journey as an incontrovertible tragedy, flatly indicting heteropatriarchal abuse while deliberately reflecting the unromantic reality of many women’s lives at that time. An essay for the 2019 Criterion Collection release of Wanda characterizes Loden’s motivations as “complex… among them her need to represent… the story of kindred women, more truthfully than it ever could be represented in star-driven Hollywood.” From this approach, Loden elicits a searing and unglamorous vision that remains unabashedly radical in its feminism.

Therefore, that Girlfriends (as an independent film) embraces marriage, motherhood, and the domestic space in even the slightest regard means — compared to other independent “women’s pictures” of the decade, like Wanda — Weill’s film is arguably the “least feminist” of that crop. For alongside her characters’ admittedly liberated and independent futures are also undoubtedly traditional and domestic ones (e.g., Susan submitting to monogamy with Eric, Anne staying married despite her unhappiness). An imagined spectrum of ’70s American independent films chronicling women’s experiences would accordingly find a film like Wanda somewhere near the “arguably-very-feminist” mark, and a film like Girlfriends closer to the “ultimately-not-all-that-feminist” mark.

If one combines these two spectrums into a single continuum, 3 Women and Girlfriends meet at the center — equally inconclusive and even contradictory in their take-home statements. But that shared oxymoronic ideology is not without value. In fact, the inconclusive nature of modern womanhood espoused by both films reflects and reifies the inconclusive nature, at large, of second-wave feminism by the end of the decade. As noted in the 2004 essay “How Second-Wave Feminism Forgot the Single Woman“:

Leading feminists emphasized economic and reproductive autonomy for women, change that could benefit both single and married women. Even so, the second-wave feminist reform agenda often emphasized the importance of enabling women to balance marriage motherhood, and work, an approach that implied that single-hood was a mere way station on the way to a committed relationship… the missed opportunity to mobilize unmarried females has seriously impeded progressive reform efforts.