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

Women’s Lib in the ’70s

Author Rachel F. Moran argues that women’s liberation in the ‘70s attempted to merge aims of personal autonomy with the domestic sphere, but expectations of marriage and a conventional home life ultimately superseded goals of genuine liberation for women. The endgame was “to enable married women to ‘have it all'”, but for many women, “having it all” meant evading the confinements of a matrimonial arrangement to pursue their own needs and interests. Yet, as

Moran notes: “Because of the dominance of marriage in this country, permanently single people… have been not just statistical oddities but social conundrums. Their place in society typically has fluctuated between two extremes: invisible non-entity or stigmatized outsider.” Through their seemingly unresolved and contradictory conclusions, 3 Women and Girlfriends crystallize this “lose-lose” dilemma: unhappiness and repression in traditional, domestic roles, versus the uncertainty and invisibility of neoteric, independent ones.

Situating their women protagonists in the grey area between “married/domestic” and “single/liberated” lives, both films (knowingly or unknowingly) comment on the confusing and agonizing position in which many women found themselves by the end of the decade. Molly Haskell delineates that incoherent milieu in her Girlfriends-focused essay “Second Births“, which notes, of second-wave feminists: “We demanded our rights, rooms of our own, self-definition, yet some part of many of us still harbored secret and antithetical yearnings for a man who would fill the space we were claiming, close the gap, smother us.”

In 3 Women, Millie Lammoreaux is the embodiment of this tension; as noted in a retrospective New Yorker review: “Throughout, Duvall… coins a brand-new caricature of the confident yet clueless single female, then suggests a real person underneath.” Duvall’s “more-than-meets-the-eye” portrayal depicts single womanhood as a compelling though ultimately futile diversion: Millie has her life “together” on paper, but spends most of the film regaling coworkers and potential male suitors (who ignore her mercilessly) with stories of a solitaire personal life that prove ultimately vapid.

But what is Millie to find in a male partner? Edgar Hart is the only man in the film that pays her any attention, and aside from his crucial (carnal) appearance at her apartment — catalyzing Pinky’s suicide attempt — what purpose does he really serve the story, or Millie, or anyone? His womanizing proclivities provide Millie the kind of attention she initially craves but eventually reviles, especially during the film’s climax.

As Willie suffers in labor, alone, miles away, Edgar’s attempt to sleep with both Millie and Pinky moves from dishonest and distasteful to downright nightmarish. Moreover, the only other man to pay Millie any mind is Pinky’s doctor at the hospital — and his advances come at a time when Millie, emotionally distraught over Pinky’s near-death experience, is in no condition to be cavorting with suitors.

Girlfriends captures the same quandary, as delineated in “Second Births”. Haskell notes: “[Weill’s film] is, then, in the conditions of its making as well as in its story, a time capsule from an era of unbridled hope hedged by large doses of struggle, and it represents a pivotal moment in the culture.” That hope-struggle melange remains the looming leitmotif of Weill’s film, which posits the catalyst of Susan’s quarter-life crisis as Martin’s proposal of marriage to Anne, which in effect separates the women, displacing their sisterhood.

Susan later finds excitement in Eric, but soon feels smothered by his attention, especially when a disagreement over their living situation distracts her from arranging her photographs at Beatrice’s gallery — a move that nearly jeopardizes her career-minting exhibition. Meanwhile, Anne’s once storybook marriage begins to crack under the weight of matrimonial conflict, domestic confinement, and the exhausting responsibility of childbearing and rearing — all of which pull her away from her first love: writing. In effect, men, motherhood, and the expectations of a traditional, domestic lifestyle jeopardize Susan’s and Anne’s identities and interests irrevocably.

What are they to find as independent people, without these constructs? In the absence of men, motherhood, and the domestic space, Susan and Anne as single women threaten to become the “invisible non-entities” and “stigmatized outsiders” outlined in Moran’s study. Susan is unable to fashion a life for herself as an independent person: within her first few nights alone in the apartment, she loses power, runs out of food, struggles to get her photography portfolio out into the world, and only starts to get back on her feet when she briefly welcomes a new roommate into her life.

As for Anne: prior to meeting and falling for Martin, she cannot quite locate a sense of happiness in her day-to-day routine. In the film’s opening scenes, she spends nights struggling over the typewriter while constantly sparring with Susan as part of a love-hate friendship repartee.

The lingering dissatisfaction in these women’s lives — both as single people, and while in relationships with men — speaks to the blind spots of second-wave feminism, and the challenges of building a new vision of true liberation, true independence, and true social, financial, and bodily autonomy. Consequently, where and how do women like Millie and Pinky and Susan and Anne exist? This was the lingering ideological “question mark” many folks grappled with by the end of the ’70s, and a contradiction many still grapple with today. A Globe and Mail article as recent as 2019 confronts this conflict:

Deep fissures remain between the married and single camps, this despite the myriad choices now available to couples, be it casual, open, monogamous, cohabitating, living apart together, or long-distance relationships. In particular, experts said, the controversy laid bare anxieties that persist around how women choose to structure their lives, this as men get spared the married-single queries.

Forty years on, we still see this feminist challenge — one too often dismissed, or presented too neatly, too simply, in film and popular culture. For this reason, 3 Women and Girlfriends remain not only important as incoherent texts for their time, but all time. Their indeterminacy as feminist films reflects and reifies the indeterminate fate of second-wave feminism by the dawn of ’80s neo-conservatism. That unresolved dissonance — between progressivism and traditionalism, marriage and single living, domestic confinement and liberated independence — continues to reverberate in the intimate, individual lives of not just women, but all whose identities and experiences in some way exist outside of the dominant heteropatriarchy today.