From Taxi Driver to Waterworld: 20 years of waiting for women to arrive in Hollywood

By Kathi Maio

Sherry Lansing, who heads the Paramount studio, was recently profiled
in a cover story in Working Woman. The former Max Factor model turned
starlet turned producer/exec was shown in the glam shots she prefers:
barefoot and elegantly casual, wearing satin pajamas and an impressive
makeup job -- the high-powered executive as Sensual Woman.
	In the article, Lansing had a lot to say about movie-making
and her own life as a Hollywood power-broker -- all of it, not
surprisingly, positive. But if she was uncritical of the American film
industry, there was at least one aspect of American culture she was
willing to take to task. "The most painful thing about the women's
movement," she told Working Woman, "is that they tell you you
can have it all. "It was, she indicated, the feminists' edict
that women should become CEOs, get married, and have a brood of little
ones, which has spurred modern gals toward "nervous breakdown!"
	Much as I hate to disagree with the woman who, as a producer,
brought us (among other classics) Fatal Attraction (1987) and Indecent
Proposal (1993), I think the most powerful woman in Hollywood was
having a nervous breakdown, herself, when she made that statement. We
(that is, feminists) never told women that they could have it all. And
we certainly never said or implied that any woman who didn't become a
corporate executive (as well as a devoted wife and mom) was somehow a
	Sorry, Sherry. What we said is that, like men, women should be
afforded the kind of social supports and equal opportunity that
permits us to strive toward our goals. Those goals may or may not
include a life-partnership, children, or corporate ambitions (That
should be a woman's own choice.) And the supports needed are basic
ones such as quality, affordable child care and equitable sharing of
	The issues haven't changed all that much in the twenty years
Sojourner has been published. And that, my dear Ms. Lansing, is "the
most painful thing about the women's movement."
	Back when the second wave of feminism was young, we naively
believed that once we stood with other women, fought a particular
battle, and won it, the fight was over. The tragedy of the women's
movement, along with every other civil rights struggle is that same
battle -- with new buzzwords and combatants -- must be fought over and
over again.
	This is as true of the status of women in the Hollywood motion
picture as it is about anything else.
	Although the film industry, along with every other cultural
institution in patriarchy, has been far from fair to women, there have
been strides and setbacks for women throughout the history of
film. And our story has never been one of steady progress. For
example, more women were directing movies in the 1920s (when the
industry was new and more open) than in the 1950s. And there were more
positive, empowered roles for women in the early '30s than in the
early '70s.
	The early '70s were, in fact, one of the worst times to be a
woman in front of or behind the camera in Hollywood. The big hits were
movies like Billy Jack, The French Connection, The Godfather,
Deliverance, and The Sting. Women barely existed in films during this
period. And those who were around weren't having a very pleasant time
of it.
	With the breakdown of the Production Code (censorship system)
in the late '60s, American movies became more sexual and much more
violent. In a male-dominant medium, that meant women's bodies were
being exploited, demeaned, and violated with increasing frequency.
	In the last couple of years, I have read several articles (by
male critics) celebrating the films of the '70s and calling that
decade the second Golden Age of Hollywood. Although I'd agree that
the films of the '70s were often more socially conscious (or at
least more flamboyantly alienated) than films before or since, as a
woman who defines herself as a feminist, the bold movies of the wonder
boys of the New Hollywood left me cold.
	I was trying to come to terms with modern womanity. As a
feminist activist, I felt as though I was helping to redefine and
expand the role of woman in a million different ways and I needed to
see the complexity of my sisters' lives, of my life, up on the movie
screen. And "great" films like Five Easy Pieces (1970), A Clockwork
Orange (1971), Taxi Driver (1976) and Apocalypse Now (1979) weren't
exactly meeting my needs.
	Consequently, during the 70s, I went to see very few Hollywood
films. Instead, I went to thriving art house theaters and watched
documentaries and foreign films. I cannot describe to you the
sensation of recognition and delight I felt when I saw Nelly Kaplan's
film A Very Curious Girl (1969) in 1974. It was the first time I ever
saw a film that I knew had been directed by a woman. And that tale of
a poor young woman's revenge upon a community that reviled and
exploited her spoke volumes to me, even though I couldn't understand
the French dialogue.
	The year 1975, when Sojourner was launched, was another bad
one for women at the major studios. (Hollywood's idea of a good
women's picture was The Stepford Wives.)  But that same year, Joan
Micklin Silver independently released her Hester Street, the story of
a turn-of-the-century woman immigrant in New York. And that was the
year I saw Jill Goodmillow and Judy Collins's documentary about
classical conductor Antonia Brico, Antonia: Portrait of a Woman.
	As the '70s progressed, Hollywood grudgingly began to follow
the lead of foreign and independent filmmakers and started to tell
women's stories again. But they still weren't getting it right. Cheesy
films like You Light Up My Life (1977) were not without a certain
charm, of course. We were grateful for anything.
	But at the same time that we were finally beginning to see
positive stories about women following their own dreams and refusing
to be defined by their relationships with men, we were beginning to
see other films. These films didn't just ignore women, they attacked
us. They were the images we would later term "backlash." But before we
had a name for it, antifeminist backlash was already on screen.
	Consider the heartless, harpy, corporate-climber played by
Faye Dunaway in Network (1976). In an attempt to claw her way to the
top of her TV network, Dunaway's character abandons her humanity and
(even more damning, according to Hollywood) her femininity. She is,
according to the filmmakers, multinational corporate evil
incarnate. It's absurd, but Network was only the start of Hollywood's
smear campaign painting the career woman as the ultimate villain.
	Likewise, in 1977, women's freer sexuality was transformed
into a horror tale in Looking for Mr. Goodbar. It was the kind of
blame-the-victim story that made you want to see The Bad News
Bears. Or, better yet, The Turning Point.
	To be fair, by the late '70s, things really were starting to
improve for women in Hollywood film. In 1978, Claudia Weill's
Girlfriends was made independently but distributed by Warner
Brothers. And we really seemed to be approaching a balanced, varied
view of women. It seemed that for every misogynist Kramer vs. Kramer
(1979), there was an Alien (1979) to give us hope.
	The two-year period between 1979 and 1980 is too short a time
to qualify as a golden age. For women, we only got a golden moment in
Hollywood. In 1979, the same year My Brilliant Career came to us from
Australia, Norma Rae was released right here in the U.S. of A. In this
truly great film, a poor woman comes into her own power as she works
as a union organizer at a textile mill. She is mentored by a man she
does not sleep with. But it is Norma Rae who must confront and defy
male authority in the form of factory bosses, local sheriffs, and an
aggrieved but loving husband.
	And, after much travail, she wins. And, equally important, she
wins not just for herself but for all of her coworkers.
	If you question that it has been a bit of a downward slide
since the late '70s, consider that the same filmmakers (director
Martin Ritt and screenwriters Harriet Frank, Jr., and Irving Ravetch)
made the film Stanley & Iris in 1990. In that film, the title woman is
incapable of improving her life or helping her family or
community. All she can do is teach an illiterate man to read. With
reading skills, he is able to get a high-paying job, buy a big house
and a big car, and save the woman from her dead-end existence.
	Likewise, I would invite you to compare the careerwoman farce
9 to 5 (1980) to, say, Working Girl (1988). In the first, a trio of
clerical workers strive to expose the villainy of their sexist (male)
boss, and, while they're about it, institute important changes in the
workplace like day care, flextime, and job sharing.
	In Working Girl, a sexpot ("I've got a head for business and a
bod for sin") secretary strives to beat out the villainy of her
exploitative (female) boss. By aligning herself with men, she is able
to humiliate and crush her female opponent and live happily ever
after. She wants to get ahead in the system that exists. She shows
little interest in changing the system so that it works better for
other women.
	It's not that Hollywood stopped making woman-positive films in
1981. It's just that they were harder and harder to come by. And, as
male resistance to the ideas of the women's movement became better
defined, what Hollywood passed off as "positive" images of women had
to be scrutinized more carefully for subtle antifeminism. (See, for
example, Baby Boom, from 1987.)
	But backlash wasn't always subtle. In the early '80s, the
forceful "liberated" woman started to develop as a favorite movieland
monster. An early example of this is Mommie Dearest (1981) -- "No wire
hangers!" -- in which a cartoonish woman consumed with her career
shows herself incapable of nurturing children or otherwise having a
meaningful relationship. This genre didn't reach its height, however,
until Fatal Attraction (1987), which has, in the '9Os, been succeeded
by a long string of women-from-hell movies.
	Also in the early '80s, two other counter-feminist movie
formulas developed. Tearing down the new woman was all well and good,
but then Hollywood needed to build up the old-fashioned mucho macho
man. Hence, the development of the hypermasculine adventure movie. The
first Rambo movie, First Blood, appeared in 1982, the same year as
Arnold Schwarzenegger's Conan the Barbarian. Muscle-bound neanderthals
ruled the box office during most of the '80s and operated as
posterboys for the neoconservatism of the Reagan years.
	But why just flash your muscles at uppity women or sweet young
things, when you can use your masculine power to eviscerate them? The
other disturbing trend of the '80s was, of course, the slasher horror
film. Although John Carpenter's Halloween started it all in 1978, the
slasher formula didn't really take hold until the early '80s, and we
haven't completely gotten rid of Jason and Freddy and friends
yet. Only occasionally has the bloody horror been subverted into
something that actually empowered its women characters (see The
Stepfather, 1987). For the most part, modern horror has been a
celebration of female victimhood.
	At times, I think that we've finally turned a corner from the
backlash cinema of the '80s. But Hollywood stubbornly refuses to
recognize that women want to see movies. (They want to believe that
everyone who goes to the cineplex is a white male between the ages of
13 and 29.) The film industry likewise refuses, in the land of sequels
and ripoffs, to capitalize on those few womanpositive projects that
have met with success in the last five years.
	A film like Thelma & Louise (1991) would appear, and I'd
think, this will spark more movies about female rebellion and
friendship. But when another, at long last, does appear -- like this
year's Boys on the Side -- it turns out to be a cowardly mess
unwilling to allow its characters to relate to one another in
meaningful ways and petrified to portray either its lesbian or
HIV-positive lead characters as sexual women.
	Hollywood maintains that it has nothing against women. It
would make more movies about women if it only could. (But numbers are
staggering: the last screen actors' gender study showed that 71
percent of all movie roles, and 86 percent of all lead roles, go to
men. And only 9 percent of film roles go to women above the age of
40.) They claim it's the international market that holds women
back. Male ultraviolent action films with little dialogue can do well
everywhere in the world. (How's that for a depressing thought!)
	And yet, smaller, character-driven films, with no need of a
gigantic special effects budget, have repeatedly shown that they can
make money. These are the stories women can and want to make -- and
see. Think of Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) or last winter's Little
Women. Or consider the most profitable film of 1993. No, it wasn't
Jurassic Park -- which made big bucks, but cost an (artificial human)
arm and a (hydraulic Trex) leg to produce. It was that delightful
family comedy-drama with Asian/gay themes, The Wedding Banquet.
	When Hollywood blows $200 million on a Waterworld or slightly
less on a True Lies, there is something besides the profit-margin on
their minds. They want Hollywood to be a place where men make movies
about men for men. It's that simple.
	As in the mid-'70s, the most satisfying movies for women are
coming from independent filmmakers (like Maria Maggenti with her
Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love) who, if they're
lucky, get a major distributor after the fact.
	I feel so conflicted when I hear that a woman director has
signed a deal with a major studio. On the one hand, it means she'll
make a decent salary, be able to pay her crew a fair wage, and have
the resources to make her movie. But what movie will we end up with?
Joan Micklin Silver, who independently made her brilliant Hester
Street, ended up making movies like Loverboy (1989), in which all the
women were sex-starved and stupid. This is not what we hoped for from
her. And it is not, I dare say, what Ms. Silver hoped for in a
Hollywood career.
	More recently, Darnell Martin's wonderful film I Like It Like
That (1994) was made at Columbia. While getting maximum publicity out
of the fact that they were producing the first studio film by an
African-American woman director, Columbia (more or less) left Martin
alone to make the movie she wanted. But then, when it wasn't a film
they deemed hit material, they dumped it quietly on the market with no
promotional help. They killed their own movie.
	And that is why we can no longer kid ourselves as we did in
the early '70s when second-wave feminism was young, that once women
broke into Hollywood, our stories would finally be told. I'm glad that
women like Beeban Kidron, Antonia Bird, and Jane Campion are still
trying to negotiate the system. And I'm glad that women are writing
more screenplays, too. But perhaps the best we can hope for is an
occasional Thelma & Louise, a film that slips through the system
because the execs mistakenly perceive it as just a harmless distaff
buddy/road picture.
	When it comes to Hollywood, the real power still lies with the
boys upstairs, with the men who can "green-light" a studio
project. And let's also abandon the delusion that when women make it
to the CEO's desk, things will be better. The glamorous Sherry Lansing
is proof. Any woman who makes it big in Hollywood is no friend to
	She may, like Lansing, state in print: "I think of myself as a
feminist." And she may further profess: "I've never tried consciously
to do anything that wasn't good for women."  And then she'll produce a
Fatal Attraction or an Indecent Proposal.
	The struggle continues. Only now, our patriarchal opponent
just might be wearing a feminine lipsticked smile and a lovely pale
satin ensemble.

This article is reprinted with permission from Sojourner: The Women's
Forum, volume 21, #1.

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