Like DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965), ANNA KARENINA gives a cinematic snapshot of the opulent life of Imperial Russia. Although the earlier film is unable to employ the scenery of Russia’s vast landscape in the way David Lean achieved in his 1965 masterpiece, the use of trains again serves to indicate the huge distances. The snow-covered trains also give the audience the environmental experience of a harsh Russian winter (as if we need more snow!). Adrian’s rich costumes reflect both the golden age of Russia, as well as the golden age of Hollywood in their detail and luxury. About halfway through, we see part of a jolly opera, detailing the happy life of pre-revolutionary peasants.
The most shocking thing about ANNA KARENINA (1935) is that its screenplay was written by Clemence Dane, one of the notable female members of the London Detection Club of the 1930s. I have no doubt that Dane, who’s real name is Winifred Ashton, will have been all too aware of the hypocrisy and double standards of the movie industry, so perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that she is able to capture them so completely in this film.
The shame is that ANNA KARENINA seems to be unaware of the double standards it has laid bare for its female protagonist. The blindness in regard to the gendered expectations applied to the characters of this film is representative of the 1930s – an age when the battle for women’s right was believed to have been won and it was still generally accepted that in the field of romance there was little expectation for equality among the sexes.
The first scenes of ANNA KARENINA inform us that we are entering a man’s world, where military opulence is the order of the day and a man is measured by his ability to hold his liquor. With the introduction of the character Stiva, we are told what to expect of men’s behavior toward women and how women should react/conform to it. Although Stiva is married with children, he clearly enjoys spending considerable time in the arms of other women. The audience and other characters within the film are clearly expected to respond with a “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” attitude.
Throughout the ordeal, Stiva’s wife is shown as foolish for believing their marriage is over because he continues to publicly fraternize with the opposite sex. The first irony is that it is Stiva’s sister Anna who mediates, consoling Stiva’s wife with “He’s worse off than you are.” The second irony is that despite Anna’s intervention, Stiva still claims the victory as his own: “I managed it, but it required considerable tact.”
Anna’s entrance to the film which bears her name comes after the reveling scenes in which the male characters are unpacked for the audience. The result is that her appearing through the mist to Count Vronsky (Fredric March) is seen through his eyes. Our whole comprehension of Anna is through the male gaze, as was often the case in most of Garbo’s 30s pictures. Before she has many lines of her own, Anna is defined for us first as a sister, then as a wife and mother. Only after these frames of male relation are in place is she able to speak or in any way express her own character.
The hypocrisy of this progression of facts is that the transparency of Anna’s marital situation is not only available to the audience, but also to Count Vronsky, who will ultimately threaten its stability. Though Anna is continuously vilified for “encouraging his advances,” he is not once blamed for “advancing” on a woman whom he knows to be married! Also, it is important to note that she is accused of encouraging his attention during the period of their relationship when she is in fact rejecting it, long before she succumbs to his flirtations.
The only time Vronsky’s actions are questioned is when his mother comes to visit him, advising him not to pursue Anna. But even his own mother admits: “I came here to give you some good advice, which I knew in advance you would not be taking.” Then she kisses him on the head. Here we have another hypocrisy, for it is Anna’s relationship to her son, her duties as a mother, which are repeatedly employed to chastise her decision. The question then arises – how can motherhood be so essential in the one hand and so ineffectual on the other? The great demands of motherhood are used to keep a woman in her place, but whether in that place or out of it, her word has no weight at all in the life of her son.
Do we place a similar double standard on women today, expecting them to be perfect mothers but not respecting them unless they also have an active professional career?
Count Vronsky encourages Anna to leave her husband and son behind and live the life of an exile with him. He, who has nothing to lose by committing himself to Anna, is completely insensitive to how this move will hurt her, immediately by the loss of contact with her son, and in the long term by severing her from respectable society. Their whole relationship is completely dependent on his continued presence, yet how wantonly he makes up his mind to leave her and join the war!
It is painfully ironic that he should feel totally justified in berating her for trying to hold him back: “I wish you’d have the good sense to face the realities of our situation!” If anything, it is he who has failed to face any sort of reality but his own. She has faced the reality of a life outside of society, without any contact with her own son, and yet he remains so totally blind of his own lack of reality that he is able to thus turn on her.
Interestingly, Vronsky defines the gendered double standard when he declares “Anna, I’m a man! I have a man’s work to do! I want my comrades and my career! And love isn’t everything.” The words could not be plainer, for in essence isn’t he really saying “Because I’m a man, I have the right to freedom”? We are faced with another irony, for couldn’t Anna just have legitimately said “I’m a woman! I have a woman’s/mother’s duty! I want my family and my home! And love isn’t everything.” Indeed, earlier in the film when she was rejecting his advances, she said many things along these lines. But she was not taken seriously. Therefore, we can conclude what the film text is saying of Anna: “Because she is a woman, she has no rights, either to home/family or freedom.”
A few key points are made during the film’s swift denouement. After Vronsky leaves for battle, Anna goes to her brother Stiva’s house. This is the same Stiva whom Anna reconcilled to his wife because of the trouble he cause with all his philandering. Yet, he feels perfectly justified in making this little speach to her about the sanctity of marriage:
“I see Karenin’s (Anna’s husband) point – the sanctity of the home. There is such a thing, you know Anna, and it must be preserved, even in these times. Moral effect on the children. Moral effect on the public.”
Not only does the film text let Stiva off scot-free for his adulterous behavior, but it allows him the platform to chastise his sister for hers! The only morsel of verity in this film is when Dolly, Stiva’s husband, compares her lot with Anna’s, saying “Well, whatever way one lives there’s a penalty, I suppose.” Boy, you said a mouthful, toots!
There are three lines spoken toward this nether part of the movie that are terribly significant, both because of what they say and because of who is saying them. As Anna is leaving her brother’s house, her friend’s husband comments, “Whatever she has done, there was something in her look that tells me she is paying for it.” A man, an almost stranger is passing judgement on her based on her appearance – that never would happen today, would it? [read sarcasm]
After Anna’s demise, Vronsky (who, let us remember, is responsible for her demise) is being comforted by an army friend who tells him, “She was doomed.” Somehow, neither seem aware of the fact that it was Vronsky that led her, nay pushed her, to that doom by pressuring her to sacrifice the stability of her marriage and family for their affair. This same friend, significantly male, speaks for Anna when he tells Vrsonsky “She’s forgotten. And she’s forgiven.” For that I call bull spit! First of all, don’t speak for her – 1. she’s not you and 2. you’re not even a woman, who might understand something of what she’s experienced and 3. it’s none of your damned business! Secondly, there is no indication made, to this man, to any character in the film, or to the audience, that she either blames or forgives any of Vronsky’s behavior.
The tragedy of ANNA KARENINA is that its title character is trapped within a series of male gaze frames which prevent even the omniscient audience from honestly discerning her emotions, thoughts, opinions, feelings. Everything we see of her is perceived through either Vrosnky’s view of her or the patriarchal society’s view of women in her position.
Arguably, this cinematic male gaze trend is avoided when there are women working on the project. But in this case, despite Clemence Dane being on the writing staff, the patriarchal societal view is imposing such a thick male lens on both those writing the film text and those witnessing it that all remain blind to the irony, hypocrisy, and double standards imposed on the female protagonist.
I would like to think that, slowly but surely, Hollywood is growing away from this pattern of female marginalization within film texts. It is one thing to note how long we have come since 1935, but we can also see in films of our own time similar patterns of this gendered double standard. As more women and people of minority are employed as producers, writers, and directors, films will begin to reflect more realistic experiences of those groups that have hitherto been marginalized. I encourage you to support the following group in their efforts to support gender equality in the media: