Susan Faludi Goes to the Movies


I've been reading Susan Faludi's Backlash.  I had been planning to wait until I finished it to write a review, but I just read her chapter on movies and had so many thoughts on it that I felt I should do a mini-review now before I forgot everything.

Let me start by saying that I've enjoyed the book thus far.  There are a few points I disagree with, and some assertions about which I'm skeptical, but overall I've found her argument compelling.  Faludia wrote Backlash in 1991, and her argument is that attitudes towards Feminism in the US undergo a cycle of progress and backlash.  There was the suffrage movement in the late Nineteenth/early Twentieth Centuries, leading to universal suffrage in 1919, followed by a backlash in the 1930s.  There was the advance for women in the workplace during World War II, followed by the return to the home and Nuclear Family in the 50s.  There was the advance of equal rights and career-oriented women in the 70s, followed by a backlash against working women in the 80s.  Most of the book is focused on analyzing the 80s backlash and contrasting it with societal trends in the 70s.

I'm largely in agreement with Faludi's views, but I feel she makes some spurious arguments when she gets to her chapter on the films of the 80s.  Faludi spends most of the chapter discussing Fatal Attraction, then turns her attention to broader trends in 80s films.  The Fatal Attraction analysis is convincing; the trend analysis is not.

Faludi marshalls powerful evidence that Fatal Attraction is not only a de facto anti-feminist film, but that it was consciously intended to send an anti-feminist message.  The story was written with a somewhat feminist message in mind.  A man sees his wife and family off for the weekend.  He then opens his little black book, calls a woman up, and has an affair with her.  The woman is devastated to discover that he's married and has used her.  She ends up trying to kill herself, the man's wife finds out, and he the rest of the movie explores the fallout of his thoughtless behavior.  The message the author was trying to convey was that there are serious consequences when men treat women like objects rather than respecting them as human beings. 

The story was bought by a producer with the intention of turning it into a feminist film.  The movie was then bought by Paramount and the original producer was pushed out for a new one.  The movie was given to Adrian Lyne to direct, and the first thing he did was to rewrite the script.  The male character needed to be more sympathetic, or the audience wouldn't care what happened to him.  The story went from thoughtless-man-sleeps-with-woman-and-she-tries-to-kill-herself to thoughtless-man-sleeps-with-woman-and-then-she-does-crazy-things-to-him-and-tries-to-kill-herself.  Not sympathetic enough.  So they changed it so that the woman seduced him, forced him to sleep with her, then torments him.  Still not enough.  Alright, now the woman's been driven psychotic by her career-orientation; she snares him with sex, then stalks him in the hopes of getting the marriage that her career has prevented her from obtaining.  The wife originally had a career.  Her character was re-written into a doting homemaker.  This was the version that was shot.  In the original ending, though, Glenn Close kills herself in the end while music from Madame Butterfly plays in the background.  Now she's too sympathetic.  The studios made them re-shoot the ending, so we get the new one where Michael Douglas starts to kill her, then Anne Archer finishes her off. 

Faludi also provides some fairly damning quotes from the director.  Glenn Close was driven crazy by her career, and while not all career women go as far as her, it is clear, according to Adrian Line, that they're crazy to some degree.  A woman's place is in the home.

So Faludi makes a sturdy argument that Fatal Attraction is anti-feminist.  Further, it's a pretty relevant target for her book.  Fatal Attraction was one of the top-grossing films of the decade.  It remains well-known and watched to this day. 

Then Faludi moves to broader trends in films.  The first problem with her analysis is that it's all anecdotal.  She picks out movies that fit her model of the bad, anti-feminist 80s film and contrasts them with her hand-picked good, feminist 70s films.  But how trust-worthy is this?  It's very easy to cherry-pick a few examples and then declare a trend (in fact, Faludi decries this very scheme of argumentation when she rebutts trend-journalism articles.  These articles tend to interview a few women who have left careers and then, with no statistical backing, declare that women are abandoning their careers for families in droves).  I'm not saying there wasn't a trend toward more anti-feminism in films in the 80s, but I'd like to see some statistical evidence compiled.  Perhaps someone could classify films as Feminist, Anti-Feminist, or Neutral and compare the numbers in each category over the years.

The thing is, though, based on the rest of her film analysis, I don't trust Susan Faludi to make those classifications.  She starts by discussing films which present the fairly overt message that women aren't fulfilled unless they're married and have children, such as Surrender and Baby Boom.  That's not too bad.  She gets overzealous, though, in declaring other films to be anti-feminist.  Any movie that shows a woman getting married and being happy about it is anti-feminist.  Any movie depicting babies and implying that they may be a source of happiness for a woman is anti-feminist. 

I see where she's coming from, but I feel she goes to far.  Her point is that these movies reinforce traditional notions of female life goals; women need to be married to be happy, women need to have babies to be happy.  I see her point, but I don't agree with it.  My problem is that people in real life get married and decide to have babies.  If you mandate that a film is anti-feminist if it depicts marriage or parenthood in a positive light, you've erected a pretty formidable barrier for the feminist film-maker who wants to appeal to any kind of mass audience.  It seems as though the solution to films which depict traditional lifestyles in a positive light is not to shun all films that do so; it's to create films that depict non-traditional lifestyles in a positive light. 

Faludi at least has a point with those films, but one I disagree with.  There are a lot of movies she condemns, though, that really stretch her credibility.  Any movie that fails to present a strong female character exemplifying feminist virtues is anti-feminist.  According to Faludi, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is anti-feminist.  Big is anti-feminist.  Field of Dreams is anti-feminist.  Star Trek V is anti-feminist.  The was one part of the chapter where I laughed out loud.  Half-way through, Faludi declares that Aliens is anti-feminist.  Even though Ellen Ripley kicks ass, Faludi argues, she does it, in part, to save a child.  The child calls Ripley "Mommy."  Thus, Aliens sends the message that women can only kick ass as part of their protective-maternal instincts.  Now I see Aliens in a whole new light.  Clearly, had Newt not been involved, Ripley would have rolled over and been eaten in the first alien attack.  After all, Ripley was dainty as a doiley until she discovered there was a child to protect.  Only then did she go into ass-kicking mode.  There are dozens of reasons not to like Aliens.  Anti-feminism isn't one of them.

It would be unfair to read too much into the Aliens condemnation.  It's clear that Faludi isn't really serious about that.  She's dismissing a counter-example by finding a stretched reading that makes it fit into her broader trend.  Still, though, Faludi watches films in a very odd way. She interprets them as making very strong implications about what they depict.  If Ripley kicks ass to save a child, then Aliens is implying that women can only kick ass if it's to save a child.  If a movie shows a woman happily married, it implies that women can only be happy if married.  If Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade has no strong female characters, it implies that there's no such thing as a strong woman.  And so on. 

Its annoying, because there are some good arguments in the chapter, but by the time you finish it it's a lot harder to take Faludi seriously thanks to the sheer number of films she takes offense at.  I would still cautiously recommend the book, but the movie chapter has shaken my faith.  Faludi tries to over-prove her point and winds up tarnishing her good arguments.


Aliens, eh? Does she say anything about Alien, in which Ripley turns out to be the one and only person capable of kicking the alien's ass and, in addition, gives no indication of having any maternal side whatsoever? I'd go so far as to argue that she's actively un-maternal, as when she's refusing to let an injured fellow crew member in through the airlock to receive medical care because it's a violation of quarantine policy.

"There are dozens of reasons not to like Aliens. Anti-feminism isn't one of them.".

Kudos and amen.

Thanks for reading the post! I posted it pretty late and didn't bother doing my cursory editing job. I just read through it for the first time and the grammatical errors and general awkwardness almost made me give up on my own post.

As I thought about it more, there are some other rhetorical techniques that Faludi uses in that chapter that annoy me. For example: She's very fond of using evidence of audience reaction to gauge whether a movie is anti-feminist.

She starts by using this against Fatal Attraction (she cites reports of men in theaters cat-calling Glenn Close and demanding that Michael Douglas "shut that bitch up" and such). The evidence, though, is anecdotal; who knows how prevalent this sort of thing was? She subsequently makes a strong case against Fatal Attraction, though, so it's not all that bad.

The bigger problem with this sort of evidence is exposed when she uses the same technique against The Accused, a movie about a rape trial. Faludi concedes that it depicts rape very negatively and isn't (at least overtly) anti-Feminist. The problem, though, is that she heard a report somewhere that at some point some man in a theater cheered on the rapist during the rape scene. There! Proof of anti-feminism at the film's core!

This, to put it politely, is batshit insane. The filmmaker can't control every moron who watches his film in public. If I go to a revival of To Kill a Mockingbird and shout "Woo! Fry the bastard!" after Tom Robinson is setenced to death, it doesn't make To Kill a Mockingbird a racist film.

She also flippantly dimisses any overt feminist message The Acccused has by saying that "we don't need to be told that rape is bad." I had a whole argument prepared against this point, but it boils down to: Frankly, we do. We shouldn't have to be told rape is bad, but here in the real world there are enough people who don't take it seriously that cinematic reminders are necessary.

And of course, the real problem with The Accused isn't that it's anti-feminist, or that it's too weak-kneed in its feminism: It's that it was released in 1988. If it had been released in 1978, Faludi would have lauded it. It doesn't fit the model so she derides and dismisses it.

The biggest real problem, though, is that she doesn't make a very good comparison. Faludi examines a number of trends in popular 80s films, encompassing dozens of movies. She contrasts these with the glorious films of the feminist 70s... of which she only feels the need to mention four. This is hideously flawed methodology. If I wanted, I could hand-pick four feminist films made in the 80s and contrast them with a selection of films from the 70s that had anti-feminist undertones, and thereby prove that the 80s were a cinematic feminist utopia after the abysmal anti-feminist 70s.

Grr. The more I think about that chapter the more I hate it. Maybe I should skip past her cultural criticism to the political criticism; in the next chapter she takes on television shows.

February 2012
Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
      1 2 3 4
5 6 7 8 9 10 11
12 13 14 15 16 17 18
19 20 21 22 23 24 25
26 27 28 29      

Contact Zach


Webcomics of Which I am a Fan

Sites I Read Daily: Politics

Sites I Read Daily: Video Gaming

Sites I Read Daily: General Miscellany

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Zach published on January 6, 2006 4:57 AM.

Columbia Spam was the previous entry in this blog.

Again is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Powered by Movable Type 5.04