|Bette Davis gets a light from Dick Cavett|
Secondly, the level of an actress’s feminist tendencies is not inherently indicative of her strength of character. Nor does it in any way quantify or qualify her abilities as a performer. For example, some may call Joan Crawford a feminist because she worked so hard to earn a fantabulous career, while others can only see her as a complete witch-with-a-capital-B. At the opposite end of the spectrum other stars, like Judy Garland, may seem like nothing more than vulnerable victims of the studio system, and yet their inner strength of character still bedazzles audiences decades later.
So, what is the point of trying to label actresses as either feminist or not?
|Katharine Hepburn and Bob Hope in
THE IRON PETTICOAT (1956)
Current feminists, those who support the “3rd wave” feminist movement, are always looking for female historical, literary, political, and social figures for this generation to look to as examples of women’s potential – role models, if you will. In order for gender equality to progress, we must first establish the abilities of each gender to take on the traditional roles of the other gender. For example, we have to prove that men can take care of young children, and take care of them well, before we can place that expectation on the whole of society. We need examples of healthy women prospering at university before we can argue that higher education is acceptable for all women. Etc, etc.
|Katharine Hepburn in STAGE DOOR (1937)|
One of the reasons I chose to study history and English literature in college was so that I could fill my days with fascinating people. Reading books and watching movies all the time, I have met some of the most wonderful people! Hollywood princesses run the gamut of personalities. Some of them are real “ball-breakers,” while others enjoyed the prissy sissy life. It is true that the women who inspire me might not inspire my best friend, or her friend. But as we examine those character traits that we find admirable in our heroines, we will be able to better promote a progressive world view of womanhood.
There are a number of ways I look at a Hollywood film actress’s career in order to determine whether she would be considered a feminist by today’s standards:
- Films: In her films, does she portray “progressive” women? These are women who push against the gender status quo. They are often ambitious women who choose traditionally male roles in society, like Jo March in LITTLE WOMEN.
- Career: How does she manage her career? Is she fiercely independent, like Bette Davis who went to court to battle studio-system injustices? Or does she let her husband/boyfriend make all her career choices for her? Or is she a victim of the Hollywood system, helplessly taken advantage of by her agents, producers, directors, and studio bosses?
- Personal life: is she constantly moving from one man to another? Does she maintain a healthy, long-term, monogamous relationship? Does she chose to remain a single career woman? The answers to this question do not necessarily define an actress’s feminism, but they can offer insight into
- Interviews: As I mentioned before, many of these stars publicly denied feminism in interviews. However, a lot of what they say about women and gender in these interviews reveals a more progressive side to their thought, especially in terms of their own career and life choices.
- Education: Has she earned her college degree or did she leave school to become a model or chorus girl? If she did go to college, what did she study? This is a bonus point – not a deal-breaker, but I find this criterion most interesting, considering how few film stars did continue their education after high school. Did you know that Mary Wickes (below) studied political science at Washington University in St. Louis?
|Mary Wickes visits her alma mater
I would be very interested to hear what aspects of womanhood you value in your role models. How do you define feminism? Which Hollywood starlets do you find best represent your feminist ideals? Which do not? I look forward to hearing from you!