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falderal : a moving images blog

Archive for January, 2013

Morality and the New Woman

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

Last semester was one that was both heaven and hell. I was taking classes that I enjoyed (for the most part) and the one that I was truly excited about was my independent study. My independent study was a research paper on Asta Nielsen and Mary Pickford and how both women portrayed the idea of the new woman overtly or subversively. Overall, I was pretty satisfied with my paper although I was worried about some of the holes I had in my argument, and the biggest hole is what I’m about to address.

I received my paper back from my professor and she brought up the same question that I had about my own paper: Is agency a good thing if one’s act is selfish and not moral?
I was using Nielsen’s film Hamlet as an example of how film portrayed a woman who embodied the idea of a new woman — the important part being what I considered to be a new woman. For me, the ideas of a new woman were ones tied to independence, intelligence, and worldliness, and the character of Gertrude was one that encapsulated all of them. Gertrude was just doing her thing throughout the whole film! She’d cheat on her husband, lie to her country, and kill her son/daughter and husband as a way to satisfy herself. In other words: she knew what she wanted and she’d do anything to get it.
To have such a character is refreshing because in cinema, many women are pushed around or are just “decorations” in a film (e.g. pretty girl being tied down onto a train track just to be saved, such as in Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life, 1913) but It reminded me of something that I think I read awhile back (things are getting a bit murky in my head, I admit!) about how strong female characters in cinema are shown in somewhat an antagonistic light, for example, femme fatales.
Femme fatales are intriguing in that I personally find those characters to be absolutely amazing (They’re completely the opposite of me in character that I guess I want to live vicariously through them. But enough with the pseudo-Freudian analysis…) but it is true that people can see these characters as symbols of corruption. Instead of women being picturesque Victorian “ladies”, the shift in gender norms led to the creation of the vamp/femme fatale. Just think about what “vamp” means. Like a vampire, these women are ones that suck the life out of men and make them putty in their hands.

Coming back to Gertrude and my paper, I am honestly struggling with the notion of independence and morality in female characters in film. I don’t believe that one has the choose one or the other, heck, I used Mary Pickford as an example of a woman who used the patriarchal system to her advantage. But when it comes to independent women in early-1960s cinema, where and how do we (I?) draw the line?
Am I severely obscuring the term “new woman” to fit my own arguments? Probably.
Are there strong female characters in early cinema? Sure.
But how are these strong female characters shown? Usually with a flaw or something that appeals to the male audience to placate them.
At the top of my head, I can’t think of a woman who is good and strong. Katharine Hepburn in Holiday (1938) is the closest I can come to.
But then I wonder why is it so good to be good? Or am I on the verge of becoming amoral? And I wonder if I would be stuck with this big headache if these characters were male. Would I brush off their actions or would I be ruminating over this?

When I come up with some form of conclusion, it will be time for another blog post.