Girls on Film is a weekly column that tackles anything and everything pertaining to women and cinema. It can be found here every Thursday night, and be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter Feed for additional femme-con.
Since women make up less than 20% of the writers’ share in Hollywood, the female experience is generally filtered through the eyes of men. The results are often problematic, leading to legions of femme fatales, lifeless professionals, and doting mothers. Luckily, however, there are male writers/filmmakers who break out of the bounds of tradition. In the midst of airheads and arm candy, there are some whose treatment of female characters transcends the norm, softening the blow of Tinseltown’s gender inequality. Men Writing Women is a new series at Girls on Film that will pop up now and then to investigate these writers and their dynamic women.
Thirty years ago Monday, Karen Carpenter lost her battle with anorexia nervosa, a fight detailed in one of Todd Haynes’ first short films Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. The aspiring filmmaker eschewed the usual biopic mainstays, removing the interpersonal melodrama and re-creating the singer’s story with Barbies, Haynes carving away chunks of peach plastic to show the singer’s declining health in handmade doll’s houses full of everything miniature, even the Ipecac that killed her. The film became an underground cult classic, the random copy still popping up on YouTube and other sites even after Richard Carpenter’s lawsuit required all copies be destroyed.
Banned curiosity, however, wasn’t at the heart of Superstar’s continued notoriety. The Washington Post described the use of the dolls as something that would elicit a giggle that would “soon die in your throat,” calling the film “a compassionate and deeply affecting treatment” that leaves “a greater resonance than half a dozen rise-and-fall biographies.” As a male filmmaker, Haynes immediately set himself apart with his specifically denoted interest in the female experience. A title card explains that the film will be “an extremely graphic picture of the internal experience of contemporary femininity,” and how Carpenter’s fame “only intensified certain difficulties many women experience in relation to their bodies.” Instead of upholding women as an untouchable, alien other, Haynes strove to examine their experience, merging biographical elements with elaborations on the disease and how it manifests in women physically and emotionally.
It’s no wonder Haynes was immediately interested in offering detailed female experiences in his films. The very first movie he saw was Mary Poppins, which “deeply affected me, and made me respond by wanting to create things in response to it.” As a child, he went backstage on a Lucille Ball television show, watching her alternate between “general of the behind the scenes” and the goofy femme we all know. When he went to university, he studied with Mary Ann Doane, one of the pioneers in the study of gender in film. She, in fact, showed him “many of the films that had an impact on his filmmaking,” and ultimately included him in her intellectual endeavors with her 2004 Camera Obscura piece “Pathos and Pathology.”
Haynes is a shining example of the power of exposure. Being introduced to powerful and formidable women opened a space for the filmmaker to avoid women as the other. Instead of a struggle to understand the woman the camera focuses on, an act that immediately creates a distance and removal, in Haynes’ world, we’re tasked with reading her environment and how she reacts to it. From dolls’ houses to tracking shots of suburban homes and the glitz of glam rock, Haynes’ cinematic spaces allow for a more open environment for women, even in the face of often oppressive scenarios and landscapes.
What’s really interesting is that Haynes’ modern interest is continually placed in a historical, and often melodramatic, context. The filmmaker doesn’t focus on today or the future, but about how his relationship with the signs of his past plays out in his vantage point of the present. As he once told the New York Times: “The idea was to use old movies, old genres and old subject matter to trick people into thinking about their world today.”
From his oldest to his most recent, from starring gigs to supporting blips, Haynes’ female characters interact with oppression but are never limited to it. While obvious in his films starring women, it’s also visible in his films that do not. In Poison, which ushered him into the halls of New Queer Cinema (as well as the NEA controversy of the ‘90s), supporting women are doctors and mothers. There is melodramatic love, but also a sense of depth beneath the surface. Likewise, when Haynes investigates his bizarre attraction to slaps with Dottie Gets Spanked, we’re offered a boy’s insular life, but framed within the appreciation not of a pinup or woman manipulated by the male power around her, but rather a Lucille Ball-like icon in charge of her life.
Haynes expanded on this idea further with Velvet Goldmine. Superficially, he’s got a dynamic supporting woman in Toni Collette’s Mandy Slade, who makes a mountain out of a generally molehill part of the wife who gets tossed aside when the male star finds fame. She’s matched with a right-hand woman to keep an eye on the elusive Brian Slade, but this is secondary to how Haynes’ treatment of his male characters redefines fandom and thereby challenges notions of the female experience. There are many female fans that gush for the glam rocker, but Haynes explores fandom through his male characters, reframing it not as a girlish obsession, but a human compulsion to find one’s creative voice. Slade starts as a fan, and evolves into a superstar, and our ideas about fanaticism is then filtered through Christian Bale’s Arthur. His bumbling appreciation and not-quite-right replications of Slade’s style remove the gendered edge. Likewise, when Haynes needs to discuss the love between Slade and his Curt Wild (Ewan McGregor), it is told through two girls playing with dolls – a nod to the filmmaker’s early work just as much as a blurring on the lines between masculinity and femininity.
Haynes then bursts through the barriers with 2007’s I’m Not There., in which Cate Blanchett is one of the six actors re-creating Bob Dylan. Blanchett embodies the singer’s most recognizable visage, flowing into the role so fluidly that it earned her the film’s only Oscar nomination. This isn’t a movie about women; it’s a film about masculinity and fame. Nevertheless, Blanchett’s inclusion and performance allow Haynes to chip away at the rigidity of male and female roles in cinema.
But, naturally, it is Haynes’ female-centric films that allow women to truly shine. It’s ironic, considering that they are his women-in-houses films, a theme that seems to be on the opposite end of enlightening or empowering, as the camera focuses on housewives trying to embody perfect examples of Donna Reed femininity. But as the filmmaker once explained: “Stories about women in houses are the real stories of our lives. They really tell what all of us experience in one way or another because they’re stories of family and love and basic relationships and disappointments.” Yet as much as the house offers the story, and an avenue to explore interpersonal relationships, it is Haynes’ treatment that makes the oft-misused space empowering.
“I’m drawn to female characters, not all of them are strong characters. I think I’m drawn to female characters partly because they don’t have as easy or as obvious a relationship to power in society, and so they suffer under social constraints or have to maneuver within them in ways men sometimes don’t, or are unconscious about, or have certain liberties that are invisible to them.” Haynes in Interview Magazine
In Safe, Julianne Moore’s Carol White is excessively diminutive. She speaks softly, following the motions of marriage and femininity, struggling to not be a bother unless absolutely necessary. She’s a woman who will sit and choke for air without ever asking for help. She’s stuck in large, oppressive spaces that ideologically cage her, and it is only as her health deteriorates that she begins to grow, to challenge her own path of life, and find herself in front of the mirror to create a new “I” after finally admitting: “I really hated myself before I came here.” It is through her chemical suffering that she begins to assert herself and realize the necessity to have a self to assert. Carol is not so much a female character to display the expanse of experience, but a conduit for exploring the habit to follow tropes without question.
It is the perfect lead-in to Moore’s second piece with Haynes, Far from Heaven. In it Haynes explores both manifestations of sexuality and the oppressive, societal demands for a pitch-perfect performance. Cathy Whitaker is the 1950s manifestation of the perfect woman. She has the gorgeous and charming husband, wonderful kids, a perfect house, beauty, and the perfect mix of charm and manners that make her the focus of the local paper’s society pages. But quickly she realizes the futility in being that woman – that any perceived slip will lead to a rapid fall from grace, like being kind to a black man (Dennis Haysbert) and having public conversations with him. Like Carol, she has an awakening, but there’s also a secondary power in that we see the fissures of the Donna Reed lifestyle through her female eyes. It is a woman from whom we gain understanding of this world, who ultimately denies the power of societal expectation to follow her own heart. She sees beyond her narrow world and wants to explore it as others recoil in fear.
Through each female-centric film, Haynes adds upon notions of femininity and motherhood, culminating with his five-part miniseries Mildred Pierce. Kate Winslet’s Mildred is the quintessential housewife, making a cake in pristine clothes in a pristine house. Her husband is cheating on her, and she passive aggressively begins to chip away at him until he leaves her, ending their marriage and forcing the mother to be self-sufficient, creating the three paths Mildred must navigate over the series – her professional life, her love life, and her motherhood, specifically in regards to young socialite-in-her-own-mind Veda.
Pierce is both a figure of seemingly unstoppable power and a figure of emotional weakness. She is a mother, an entrepreneur, a lover, and a wife. She struggles to balance each demand (and not in a I Don’t Know How She Does It way), and there is never an easy answer to any issue she faces. The stigmas of the real world slip in at times, like when she’s emotionally punished for having a night away with a man, but never to the extent of Carol or Cathy. She has friendships with men and women, and while in the world of a melodrama, Mildred Pierce is without many of Hollywood’s usual emotional outbursts. Even moments of weakness sometimes become power, such as the moment she finds herself lying about her job as a waitress to make ends meet, trying to save face when challenged by daughter Veda, and decides to make it come true. During the struggles of the Depression, being a housewife and mother, she becomes what Stephen King called “a careful, almost predatory observer” at work and uses what she learns to open a chain of restaurants.
Her life is messy and flawed, yet it’s only as a mother that she shows true emotional weakness, so desperate to give her girls a secure life that she ushers her young Veda into a highly problematic and exacerbated version of her own social failings. As a lover and wife she’s quite keen, knowing when she’s being manipulated and tolerating it for her own personal gain. As a professional she’s skilled, only felled when her desperate urge to bond with her daughter takes the better of her. The environment in which she exists is decidedly old world, but Haynes allows us to investigate her life without the shackles of marginalization. There are limits in her world, but her experience is about how she navigates it, not how it’s oppressive.
As a miniseries, Mildred Pierce is the first film where Haynes can really explore the female experience, opening up a book’s worth of discussion points and creating a space to experience Pierce’s life rather than have it filtered through cinema’s narrow time and audience demands. There were no censors filtering out key points of the original tome. He didn’t have to turn it into a murder mystery without the same emotional resonance, like the 1945 film.
Altogether Haynes’ films create a space for women to explore manifestations of the past while speaking to the present. His compelling female characterizations are not contingent on one film’s plot, but his interests as a filmmaker and man. His influence and interest in women’s experiences allows a space where his characters can blow the Bechdel Rule out of the water because they are investigating themselves and their own experience, not just the worlds of their husbands and lovers. There are flaws and perks, low and high points that make Todd Haynes one of the very few male filmmakers actively interested in a genuine and thought-provoking female experience.
Additional must-read: Haynes’ long interview with Bright Lights Film Journal.