Norma Rae (1979): Gender Roles, Populist Ideology and Change

Martin Ritt’s Oscar-winning Norma Rae is a fictionalized account of Crystal Lee Sutton, the textile worker turned labor activist (played by Sally Field), living in a Baptist town in the Deep South.

Set in the summer of l978, the narrative begins with the arrival of an outsider in what appears to be a dormant town. His arrival sets in motion events that will forever change the town and its workers. The film is original in its use of outsider: Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Liebman) is a Jewish labor organizer from New York. Dressed in tennis shoes, blue jeans, and a T-shirt, he projects the nervous, intellectual energy associated with Jewish culture and the Big City.

The narrative pays attention to the social context within which he struggles to unionize the workers. The textile mill is the major source of employment, thus the inhabitants “depend on it for their livelihood. 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. The plant looks like a battlefield, full of jolting, nerve-shattering machines, whose deafening noise produces ceaseless trembling vibrations. The enormous space is filled with rows of old wooden looms. There are no windows and no sunlight, only blank brick walls. The mill suggests a prison, a closed, timeless world, in which the workers don’t and can’t think. They can’t even hear what people are saying.

In the first sequence, Norma Rae (Field) realizes that her mother, Leona Witchard (Barbara Baxley), has not heard what she had said twice. She rushes her to the doctor to examine her hearing. At first, the cool Dr. Watson dismisses the case’s seriousness, “it happens all the time.” His advice is to find another job. “What other job” screams Norma, “In this town, this is the “only job.” “You’re nothing to any of ’em,” she tells her mother–and herself. Indeed, the workers are vastly exploited: They are overworked and underpaid. Lunch breaks are too short. A sign in the dining room instructs: “Give your chair to a spinner, they only have 15 minutes.”

As other workers, Leona shows traces of beauty gone; she works with her face buried in a spider web of threads. Norma’s father, Vernon Witchard (Pat Hingle), doing backbreaking stoop labor, later dies on his job. In film’s most emotional scene, Norma grabs a piece of cardboard, scrawls in large letters “Union,” gets on a table and holds the sign. At first, the workers are bewildered, and then slowly, one by one, they shut down their machines. The deafening noise gradually turns into a meaningful silence.

Norma Rae also stands out in choosing “not” to sentimentalize the town, despite its many social ills. There is racism against blacks, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, sexism, religious fanaticism. For example, upon arrival, Reuben is accused by Norma’s father of being a “crook, agitator, and Communist.” When Norma is promoted to a supervising job, her family and friends show overt resentment, suspecting she might side now with the management. Her father says he doesn’t “like to be pushed” by his own daughter, and the other workers don’t talk to her. Disgusted, she quits her job and goes back to work on the floor.

Nor does the film idealize New York’s union leaders, who reproach Reuben for using a woman with such “low reputation.” They may be committed to unionism and other causes, but when it comes to interpersonal relationships, they too possess stereotypes and rigid norms. Fearing a woman like Norma might give the union bad name, they demand that he ceases to use her; he defiantly refuses.

Nature is represented by the lake, where Norma and Sonny spend a relaxed day in the country. It is also the place where Norma and Reuben go swimming. There are two refreshing points about this sequence. First, they don’t make love and the scene is devoid of any romanticism or eroticism. Second, Reuben and Norma are not observed by others and there is no gossip. One almost expects the swimming scene to follow the conventions (sensationalism, gossip) of a similar scene in Peyton Place (l957). The violation of these expectations makes the scene all the more pleasurable. Norma spends more time with Reuben than with her husband, a good, trusting man. At first, Sonny complains that she has neglected her domestic chores: cooking, washing, ironing. He is also envious that, when taken to jail and has only one phone call to make, she calls Reuben, not him. Expressing his resentment to Reuben, the latter sums up Norma’s personality in three brief sentences: “She stood on the table. She’s a free woman. You can either accept her or not.”

The closure of Norma Rae is remarkably consistent, standing in opposition to more conventional Hollywood endings. Norma and Reuben part with a respectful handshake rather than the clichd embrace or kiss. And even though there are still differences between them, they part as equals, both have benefited from the friendship. Reuben has changed Norma’s life, which is now richer; she is much more politically aware. But Reuben thanks Norma for her stamina, companionship, and commitment to the cause. The closest Reuben comes to expressing personal interest is by saying, “I enjoyed looking at your shining hair.” Norma has gained self-respect and self-discovery of resources she has always had in her, but had to be revealed. Norma is now a new woman, with a new consciousness.

Robert Ray claims that “ideologically,” Grapes of Wrath and Norma Rae are virtually the same movie, regardless of their superficial differences: male hero versus female hero, right-wing (John Ford) versus left-wing director (blacklisted Martin Ritt), farm work versus city work. His interpretation suggests, “Both films propose that political problems can only be solved
by messianic, individualistic leaders.” However, individualism is a longenduring attribute (myth) of most American films, particularly the social problem films. Ray oversimplifies the comparison between the movies, stating that both “portray workers as powerless, lazy, and fearful.” According to Ray, Norma Rae, seems different because it employs the standard Hollywood strategy of assimilating (and coopting) a fashionably dissident individuals potentially threatening to the prevailing ideology, in this case, feminism, defused by having Norma Rae appear dependent on the male labor organizer.

But by American films’ standards, Norma “is a feminist heroine, demonstrating that an uneducated but resilient woman could acquire political consciousness (the first necessary step in any protest movement) and could also introduce normative and structural changes. Feminist critics have argued that Norma gains consciousness with the assistance of a man, implying that without a man she would never have changed. But under the circumstances in which she lives, is it possible for Norma Rae to change without the assistance of a male outsider? Could change have originated in town by any of the local residents, male or female?

For a Hollywood film of 1979, “Norma Rae made a new statement about gender roles, populist ideology, and real politics.