Winston Churchill’s favorite film was That Hamilton Woman (1941). Directed by Alexander Korda the film exhibits all of the Romantic militarism and blind nationalism one would expect from a film made during WWII that was too prestigious a project to be burdened with blatant propaganda. All of that aside, the film represents a trend in period dramas that has its roots in the work of Jane Austen. This narrative trend focuses primarily on a female protagonist who is strong willed and hungry for independence but who finds herself restricted by the patriarchal societies of the day, and is forced to find her validation covertly. This is the principle narrative arc of That Hamilton Woman, whose protagonist, Lady Hamilton (Vivien Leigh), is a social climber who parley’s her acquired position (achieved through marriage) into a position of political influence, that she in turn abandons to begin an adulterous affair with Horatio Nelson (Lawrence Olivier), that results in her falling in rank right back to where she started.
Korda’s film does not take this narrative in the direction of “cautionary tale” as G.W. Pabst did with his film Pandora’s Box (1928), choosing instead to celebrate Lady Hamilton’s unabashed defile of convention in the name of true romance. In this, one can find a sensibility that would later be dubbed proto-feminist by film scholars in the seventies, whose concerns were with how male filmmakers conducted their telling of cinematic stories with a female protagonist. Though Korda’s motives certainly do not reflect the political motives of feminism, but rather a romantic approach to British history essential to the morale of his country during wartime. Nonetheless, Korda does prove that a film with a “proto-feminist” sensibility has a mass-market appeal, and is capable of drawing audiences from a wide range of demographics. A similar film, though not nearly as refined or nuanced as That Hamilton Woman, is Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns. What films like these represent is that women, while at home during the war or left to administrate domestic affairs after the war, were becoming a demographic unto themselves.
The social ramifications indicated by That Hamilton Woman’s success would come to full bloom in the sixties when the Hollywood studio system crumbled and feminism became a fully realized political movement. The films of this era by Agnes Varda, Barbara Loden, Chantal Ackerman, Vera Chytilova, Lina Wertmuller, and Elaine May created a cinematic codification that was easily recognizable to audiences as feminist. The most obvious difference between, let’s say, That Hamilton Woman and Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970) is the absence of the masculine gaze. This will become of tremendous importance, as the mainstream moves to adopt the feminist demographic as it’s own. In doing so, the major Hollywood conglomerates will create an aesthetic of pseudo-feminism that reverts to the visual dialect of Korda’s That Hamilton Woman, where the masculine gaze will be prevalent and the narrative structure will at the least be designed to shame women for their feminist ideologies.
An excellent case in-point of the pseudo-feminism I am writing about is The Good Mother (1988). Directed by Leonard Nimoy after his success directing two installments of the Star Trek film franchise at Paramount, the film focuses on Anna Dunlap (Diane Keaton), a single mother with progressive socio-political ideas who is attempting to incorporate sex education into her daughter’s up bringing from an early age. A conflict will arise when Dunlap’s ex-husband sues for custody of the child when he learns that Anna’s boyfriend Leo (Liam Neeson) let the child touch his penis.
In addition to the objectification of Keaton’s naked body in her many sex scenes with Neeson, The Good Mother instills in it’s audience a political message detrimental to the feminist ideology; that if a woman institutes a progressive education of sexuality with her child, she runs the risk of losing the child. This is social shaming, pure and simple. The film works only to inhibit feminist progress by shaming, and to a lesser extent, vilainizing those ideologies by implementing a style of narrative the pushes the social parameters of a patriarchal society on the feminist protagonist. In terms of narrative mechanization, The Good Mother is the inverse of That Hamilton Woman, but with a distinctly contrasting end result.
The de-feminization of the cinema would become even more aggressive as the nineties progressed. Women filmmakers such as Nora Ephron hide their feminist ideologies behind easily accessible genre conventions while Hollywood passes anti-feminist rhetoric for pro-feminist ideology. Hugh Wilson’s First Wives Club (1996) epitomizes this. When the three central figures (all first wives played by Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn, and Bette Midler) are finally able to assert themselves and function independently away from their former spouses, their first order of business is to exact revenge on their male counterparts. In this the vilainization of female independence, and in turn feminism, is explicit and morally corrupting. The films resolution is even more detrimental by establishing that once peace is made between the first wives and husbands, their mutual happiness is dependent upon the women becoming willingly subservient to new male counterparts.
Why are men so threatened by feminism? Why are these contemporary films for women made by men and designed to propagate anti-feminist rhetoric? The answer is that men find films made by women for women elusive and/or inaccessible. That more money is made from a wider demographic appeal. So to this day women, more than any other social group, remain the most marginalized in the cinema.