In my latest reading of Susan Faludi’s 1991 book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, Faludi talks about the backlash against the advancement of women that is occurring in the movies.
In the 1970s, Faludi points out, films tended to glorify the independence of women and depicted strong heroines who stood up for human rights, workers’ rights, equal pay, nuclear safety, and other humanitarian or political causes, even as films presented women who were “driven batty by subordination, repression, drudgery, and neglect” within the domestic sphere. In the 1980s, however, there was a backlash, as professional women (but not professional men) were portrayed as tired and burnt-out, and female characters longed to have a husband and kids.
Faludi talks at length about the movie Fatal Attraction, which is about a man (played by Michael Douglas) who slept with a woman at work, even though he was married. In this movie, the villain was the single professional woman with whom the man had the affair, and she was set in contrast with his meek wife. Faludi documents the changes in the story over the course of the revisions—-as the man became more and more sympathetic, and the single professional woman became more and more villainous. Whereas earlier versions were resolved with the professional woman’s suicide, that did not resonate with test audiences, and so the ending was changed so that she’d be killed off at the end. Faludi says that men at movie theaters cheered on the death of the professional woman, and Faludi also quotes anti-feminist remarks made by director Adrian Lyne and actor Michael Douglas.
According to Faludi, the backlash in the movies has occurred before. At one point, strong women such as Mae West were on the movie screen, but, in the 1950s, the women who were prominent were “good girls” such as Debbie Reynolds and Sandra Dee.
When I was more of a right-winger, I often felt that the entertainment industry was leftist, and the New Right figures whom I read asserted that what we saw on movie screens did not line up with real life. I remember Phyllis Schlafly referring to a study that indicated that 70 per cent of American married couples had never been divorced, which contrasted with what was on TV and in films, where divorce was rampant. But what’s interesting is that I also recall Phyllis Schlafly praising certain films and treating them as accurate representations of real life. She liked Kramer vs. Kramer because it was about the ill effects of divorce on husbands and children, and it depicted a woman who left her family to pursue her own self-fulfillment as selfish. Schlafly also praised the movie Working Girl because it contradicted the myth that working women’s main problem was male bosses, in that it portrayed a female employer as the one who was hindering her female employee’s success. And, sure enough, these are movies that Faludi criticizes!
One thing that reading Faludi has called to my attention is how I am influenced by the media—-both news and entertainment—-as I arrive at a conception of what reality is like. Do women long to remain in the domestic sphere, or do they want a career? What is the truth, and how can I know? I suppose that, on a personal level, I know all sorts of women—-those who are satisfied with careers, those who choose to stay home, those who have done different things at different stages of their lives, etc. Faludi’s main source for discerning reality, as far as I can see, is studies, surveys, and statistics.