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 failure. 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 housework. 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 women. 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.