Individualism and Commitment in American Cinema: Part VII–Gender

Commitment and Gender

Up to the 1970s, the male-dominated Hollywood failed to reflect the progress women were beginning to make in the economic and occupational marketplace. There was an ideological backlash in the film industry, manifested in three important ways.

Male Domination

First, there was a paucity of screen roles for women, particularly leading roles. Men dominated Hollywood not only quantitatively, but also qualitatively. The typical, big-budgeted movies were action-adventures, focusing on male friendships and male courage. The major movies of the decade usually featured two male stars, with few, or no women, in their narratives.

Streisand: Only Female Star

Finally, most of the box-office stars in the 1970s were men. Between 1970 and 1976, Barbara Streisand was the only woman among the Ten Box-Office Stars who had the largest drawing power. And the biggest names in the industry were stars with a strong and tough image, such as Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino.

The change in the screen roles allotted to women occurred in the late 1970s, a whole decade after the emergence of the women’s movement. One new trend has been to portray women as more concerned with the public and political domains. In the past, screen heroines were confined to domesticity and exhibited little interest in what was happening in the big, outside world. However, several movies in the last decade have dealt with the process by which women gain political consciousness.

The greatest contribution of the 1980s to screen heroism has been the inclusion of women–a new element in a mythology that has been almost exclusively confined to men. In the 1980s, for the first time, female screen roles surpassed men’s in their diversity and variability. What was common to the new heroines was their transformation from ordinariness to extraordinariness.

Norma Rae

Martin Ritt’s Norma Rae (1979), an account of a textile worker turned labor activist in the Deep South, was inspired by The Grapes of Wrath. The narrative begins with the arrival of an outsider, Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Liebman), a Jewish labor organizer from New York. His arrival sets in motion events that will forever change the town and its workers. Reuben has to fight against a rigid capitalistic management, racism (the white workers fear the black will take over), closed-minded religious leaders, and, most important of all, victimized workers, either unaware of their exploitation or passively accepting it. In the film’s most emotional scene, Norma Rae (Sally Field) grabs a piece of cardboard, scrawls in large letters “Union,” gets on a table and holds the sign. At first, the workers are bewildered, then slowly they shut down their machines.

The film provides a new type of screen heroine: A 31-year-old widow and mother of two children, one of them illegitimate. By standards of classic American films, Norma Rae is a woman of loose morality, but in sharp deviation from conventions, she is neither punished for her promiscuity, nor for giving birth out of the wedlock. As protagonists, Norma and Reuben could not have been more different. A leftist intellectual, Reuben is engaged to a Harvard University labor lawyer, and his favorite leisure activities include poetry, Chinese food, and opera. By contrast, Norma has never travelled and has not read much; in fact, she has never met a Jew before. However, they share in common true grit and strength to recognize a good cause and fight for it–which is more important for their friendship than similar backgrounds. Norma Rae epitomizes the democratic ethos and the potentially openness of American life.

Norma spends more time with Reuben than with her husband Sonny, a good, trusting man. When Sonny complains that she has neglected her domestic chores, cooking, washing, ironing, Reuben describes Norma’s personality in three brief sentences: “She stood on the table. She’s a free woman. You can either accept her or not.” In a feat of jealousy, Sonny confronts his wife, suspecting she might be unfaithful to him. Here too, Norma deviates from other screen heroines. She hasn’t slept with Reuben, but she admits “he’s in my mind.” As a mother, Norma is not the self-sacrificing type. “I’m a jail bird,” she tells her children, “I’m not perfect, I make mistakes.”

The closure of Norma Rae stands in opposition to more conventional Hollywood endings. Norma and Reuben part with a respectful handshake rather than the cliched kiss. And even though there are still differences between them, they part as equals, both have benefited from the friendship. Reuben thanks Norma for her stamina, companionship, and commitment to the cause. He changed Norma’s life, which is now richer. Norma has gained self-respect and self-discovery of resources she has had in her, but needed to be revealed. By American films’ conventions, Norma is a feminist heroine, demonstrating that an uneducated but resilient woman could acquire political consciousness. For a Hollywood film of l979, Norma Rae made a new statement about gender and politics.

Farm Trilogy

Three movies in 1984 described farming from the point of view of women: Places in the Heart, starring Sally Field, Country, featuring Jessica Lange, and The River, with Sissy Spacek. The appearance of three movies about farm life in one year, as if suddenly the farmers’ plight was the most important issue on the national agenda, was probably a coincidence. What was not a coincidence, though, was that all three films featured strong heroines. After two decades of underrepresentation and stereotypical casting, the American cinema finally offered more and better roles for women.

Though different in style, the three movies share similar narrative and thematic conventions:

1. A crisis disrupts the family’s stability, forcing the woman
to take charge.
2. The woman proves to be stronger and more committed than the man.
3. The husband is not around when most needed.
4. The woman is first a mother, then a wife.
5. The struggle is against Nature (storms, floods, barren land) and
human elements (governmental bureaucracy).
6. The banks threaten to foreclose the farm; bankers, as representatives of Big Business are negatively portrayed.
7. The politicians either don’t care and/or are ineffectual.
8. The values of country life are superior to the Big City.
9. The woman gains self and political consciousness.
10. The husband comes back and the unity of the nuclear family is restored.


Though inspired by newspaper articles about the farmers’ hardships in the MidWest in the early l980s, Country dealt more with the myth of farming than its realities. A tornado during corn harvest destroys the crops and, with the FMHA (Federal Farmers Home Administration) calling in on short notice their loans, the farmers face bankruptcy and the loss of their land.

The film contrasts farming as a way of making a living and farming as a way of life. Gil Ivy (Sam Shepard) claims that the FMHA “can’t look at it short-term,” that farming is “a way of life,” they may have several bad years, “but it always comes back.” However, for the FMHA and the banks, “It’s business,” a modern corporate, and anyone failing to look at it that way is “behind the times.” But the unfeeling administrator is dismissed as “a college boy who knows nothing but numbers,” thus perpetuating the myth of the superiority of pragmatic experience over formal schooling. The film also deals with the organizational dilemma of impersonal bureaucracy versus personal relationships. Gil is in favor of a personal approach, missing the times “when the bank used to loan money on the man, not the numbers,” and Jewell says she would rather be a thief than do what they do for living.

The farmers’ problems are seen as the fault of governmental policies. Encouraged to expand, they adopted wholeheartedly President Carter’s slogan, “We’re gonna feed the world!” but, soon after, the government put embargoes on foreign sales. “I don’t know how to work harder,” Gil says, “I don’t know how to beat those goddamn pencil-pushers neither.” There is also a domestic conflict: A proudly stubborn man, Gil resents “everybody knowing our business,” wishing to keep their troubles to themselves. “That kinda pride’ll kill you quicker’n a gun,” says Otis, Jewell’s father. Worse yet, Gil won’t let Jewell get a job as a waitress. Under pressure, he collapses emotionally. He drinks heavily, gets nasty and abusive with the children, and finally walks out on his family.

Otis preaches to his daughter the Depression’s collectivist spirit: “You get your neighbors, share your equipment, trade your labor. Beg, borrow, or steal, but, by God, you hang on to this land.” Indeed, Jewell decides to take over, organize a collective action. In the film’s climax, the farmers rebel against the government-sponsored auction. An earth mother figure (a modern Ma Joad or Mother York), Jewell holds the family together. Throughout, an emphasis is placed on the centrality of the nuclear family in providing love and support. The film begins, appropriately enough, in the kitchen, where Jewell holds her 10-months-old daughter on her hip and at the same time cooks hamburgers.

The “farm trilogy” also portrayed dramatic changes in the perennial role of the screen mother. The new, liberated mother is no longer suffering and self-sacrificing, as Mildred Pierce or Stella Dallas did for the future of their children. No longer weak or submissive, the new mother is determined, in full control of her life and in charge of her emotions. Edna Spaulding (Sally Field) in Places in the Heart is a young Texan housewife, whose husband-sheriff is killed in an accident. After 15 years of marriage, she suddenly finds herself with no talents or skills for anything but cooking and taking care of her children. Nonetheless, with will power, steadfastness, and hard work she successfully faces a series of hardships: a foreclosing bank, a greedy cotton dealer, and even a tornado. Country and The River challenge the traditional screen images of men, depicting them as less committed to the cause of keeping the land, weaker, and more emotional than their female counterparts.

Jane Fonda

It is significant that Jane Fonda became a major box-office star, not when she played sex kitten roles (Barbarella, 1968) or romantic ingenues (A Period of Adjustment, 1962; Barefoot in the Park, 1967), but strong, politically committed women.

The roles which catapulted Fonda to national stardom included: the politically oriented playwright Lillian Hellman (Julia, 1977), a submissive middle-class wife who becomes politicized through her involvement with a Vietnam War paraplegic (Coming Home, 1978), a socially-conscious television news reporter who takes great risks to reveal the dangers of an unsafe nuclear plant (The China Syndrome, 1979), and a passive secretary who transforms into a socially aware employee by rebelling against her sexist boss (Nine to Five, 1980). All of these films are based on the same narrative formula: a passive (often submissive) woman, who lacks any political awareness, changes into a committed activist.