“The Women” a Masterpiece of Troupe Subversion and Toxic Feminism

There are few dynamics as rich in complexity as female friendships. The 1939 film The Women is a masterclass in exploring the inner world of femininity and the subversion of stereotypical female classification. We are given an inside look at women within their element, a window within their private spheres. A dressing room, a fashion show, a salon, a country home, and a women’s powder room. These private spaces are the stage for explosive exchanges where the complex humor of female relationships is played out. Though the movie centers around marriage and romantic relationships, it is an example of female friendship and the dangers of toxic feminism.

The cast of The Women
Left to Right: Peggy, Silvia, Nancy, and Edith.

The film was based on Claire Boothe Luce’s play and written by screenwriters Anita Loos and Jane Murfins. Though directed by George Cukor, the movie utilizes the female gaze. Many films have had predominantly female ensemble casts, which has used it as an excuse to play into male fetishization: lingering shots on the female form, camera angles that focus on sexualization, etc. however the movie artfully sidesteps this.

This film’s focus is tightly contained on women and women alone. Even the animals used in the film were all female. It must be noted that due to the era within which the play and the film were produced, the representation of womanhood is limited to affluent Caucasian women within New York. The lack of diversity within the ethnicities and socioeconomic status is without a doubt a narrow view, especially when looking from the lens of a 21st century, fourth-wave feminist perspective. However, we cannot be quick to dismiss the small, yet powerful step taken to break the misconception that women are one-dimensional beings that are easily categorized.

“Mary Haines, you’re living in a fools paradise” More than the Madonna

On the surface, it can seem as though the film plays into the Madonna/Whore dynamic commonly seen in films with a female-dominated cast. However, at a closer look, The Women subverts this common trope. At first glance, the film’s protagonist Mary Haines comes off as the Madonna: a perfect society wife loved and admired both within her private sphere and society at large. She is a loving, elegant, and dedicated wife and mother who finds joy and belonging in the domestic sphere, something that she is often mocked for by her peers. Yet this is just an initial look at Mary as a person. Indeed, to classify her as the naive wife and mother who is living in a “fool’s paradise” as said by Silvia Fowler, the movie’s most pervasive example of toxic feminism, would identify her as a passive victim of circumstance.

In many ways, the film is dependent on seeing her the way that many in Mary’s circle see her, which is as a demure woman who is, in many ways, too good to be true. Upon closer inspection, we realize that Mary cannot be written off as a one-dimensional Madonna. Like all the other women in the film, she exerts agency within her life. Mary is seen to be brilliant, rash, aware, stubborn, nurturing, prideful, vibrant, and conniving.

Unlike the passive Madonna, her flaws are visible yet do not make up the total of her character. The pain of losing the man she loves and the heartbreak it causes herself and her family is devastating. We as the audience are present for the full range of emotions that she experiences when her husband’s affair is revealed to her. There is the initial pain of betrayal, the rage that causes her to jump to separation, the bargaining of trying to fix her marriage through distance and commitment, the desire to live in ignorance, and then the pride that leads her to ask for a divorce. The stubborn commitment to her pride intertwines with her deep and lasting love for her husband Steven, even into the last scene.

The Women

Dear little Crystal” More than the whore

Just as Mary subverts the Madonna classification, Crystal Allan, the woman who has an affair with Steven Haines, Mary’s husband, challenges the Whore archetype. We see early on that Crystal is a narcissistic manipulator who isn’t above breaking up a home to gain the financial and social status she craves. In any other circumstance, this “other woman” who seduces the family man away from his loving pure wife would be tailor-made for the “Whore” trope. But before we jump to oversimplification, the dominant view must be remembered.

If the film were done through the male gaze, this would be a revelation, however, from her introduction Crystal’s true colors are shown. The main characteristic of the “Whore” is that she lures naive, but foolish, men in with raw sexuality; however the phonecall she makes to Steven and the way the maid claims he describes her shows that she is presenting herself not as a sexual siren, but as a demure lamb. She “traps” Steven by presenting herself as a soft-spoken, pliable, and meek woman begging to be rescued, leveraging a man’s verging midlife crisis as a means for him to play out his knight in shining armor fantasies with a seeming doe-eyed innocent who makes him feel strong.

Objectively, Marium Aarons, the woman who Mary meets on her way to a Reno divorce, should fit within the “other woman” trope: she’s a showgirl, street savvy, quick-tongued, and has an affair with Howard, the husband of Mary’s cousin, Silvia Fowler. Yet she too escapes this oversimplification. Miriam is shown to love Howard, rather than pursuing him for money or status, and gives no indication that she ever resorted to masking her character to entrap him for selfish gain. And just as Miriam is no simple “whore”, Silvia is far from a “Madonna”. As mentioned, Silvia is acidic and vicious in her relationships to where no name is safe in her mouth. By her admission, Silvia shows no respect nor love for her husband and could be described as argumentative, if not verbally abusive, to Howard. Yet rather than juxtaposing her against a soft-spoken woman offering Howard the opposite of Silvia, Miriam matches, if not exceeds her in defiance and grit. Miriam is authentic and unapologetic in who she is, showing both a world-weary wit and a profound sensitivity that allows her to evade the same categorization as Crystal Allen.

In the end, rather than condemning Miriam as being the other woman to the husband of a close friend, she replaces Silvia in the inner circle. The reason for this is Miriam is fiercely loyal to the women in her life, prioritizing Mary’s wellbeing rather than dragging her down or gossiping about her to others. She provides valuable insight into Mary’s situation that acknowledges the love she still has for her husband without dismissing the pain of betrayal. Like most of the women in the story, she exists as a flawed yet loving individual. For this, Miriam earns a space within the inner sphere of Mary’s close friends.

This changing of the guard represents the complex and seasonal nature of all friendships. It is common knowledge that who we surround ourselves with influences our choices. It is the influence of Silvia that causes Mary to enter into the affair with an attitude of confrontation rather than repair. It is this accusation, pride-fueled influence that causes Mary to leave her marriage rather than rely on the lasting love that she has for Steven, falling victim to the belief that all men are weak and cannot be trusted. This view is as one-dimensional as the characterization that all women are frivolous gossips. The film does not deny that there is some credence to these gendered observations, indeed, the plot relies on it, however, it explains the nuance. No aspect of these characterizations is one-dimensional.

“A man has only one escape, to see a different version of himself in the mirror of another woman’s eyes” The husband dimension

This reveals another aspect of the film that deviates from expectations: the husband is held accountable. We never see or hear Steven, yet thanks to brilliant acting and writing, a characterization of Mr. Haines is shown to the audience. He is given multidimensionality through conversations, one-sided phone calls, and passive remarks. Steven is characterized as more than the cheating husband and more than the victim of a conniving woman. In other stories with similar plots, the husband is let off the hook as being a terrible partner, shifting the blame solely on the woman, making it a tug of war between the two women vying for his attention as though he is the prize and pawn in a stereotypical cat fight.

The Woman

For a film that has an all-women cast, it is remarkable that they sidestepped this passive presentation and ensured that Steven was represented as a man who is deeply in love with his wife and family, allowed himself to enter into an affair, and experienced deep regret as a result. Never is he given a pass for his actions, but his off-screen struggles and character are still fleshed out with greater complexity. As shared by Mary’s mother, “Steven is bored with himself.” explaining how all men fall into a midlife crisis causing some to chase external validation from another woman. Here is another point of interest: if it wasn’t Crystal Allen, it would have been someone else. In the end, we see Mary return to him.

Though we root for Mary as the protagonist, we are not strong-armed as an audience to forgive Steven. He broke a vow, had an affair, and bore the consequences of his actions in the last ditch attempt to do the proper thing by marrying Crystal. Here alone is a powerful insight into who he is as a man. Were Steven Hayes a lesser man who wanted the dalliance for sexual gratification he would have rejected Crystal right after the divorce, yet his naivety on her true character as well as the observation that he is a gentleman, shows his desire to do right by the people in his life.

“Steven and I are equals, we took each other of our own free will, for life, because we loved each other.” The loss of love

Mary is not mourning the loss of her social standing as a married woman, indeed she rarely considers the social scandal when thinking about the affair. The social instability of public humiliation is not the source of her pain, but the loss of faith in a man that she loved. Mary’s pained by her husband’s failure to uphold the covenant of marriage based on mutual respect and love. Commendably, the affair does not cause her to doubt her identity because her identity was never found in her husband, it is the devastation of comfort and peace within them, as a marriage of individuals, and someone with whom she had built a happy and contented life. Indeed it is her individualized identity that causes her to jump the gun and ask for a divorce.

A common line that is used repeatedly is “I have my pride.” This pride is represented as the toxic extreme of self-respect. Mary is valid in her pain and outrage at her husband’s adultery. Though explained, it is never excused, being very clear no woman should endure a relationship that is not mutually loving or healthy. In this way, the film validates and exalts female autonomy. The women in the film are individuals in their own right, to the point where Mary and Peggy are seen as odd for their desire to support their husbands’ lives with equal value to their own. However, Mary can show a balanced representation of a wife in marriage. She dotes on her husband and child not as a stifling fulfillment of expectation, but out of genuine love and nurturing nature that fits with who she is as a person. Never does Mary ever condemn the other women for pursuing careers, or not matching her love of domesticity, indeed she encourages and exalts the other women in their individuality, refusing to be shamed for her love of domestic life out of a security in her identity. In this way, Mary is modeling healthy feminism.

“After all I’ve done for you.” The dangers of toxic influence

Silvia and Edith Potter represent toxic feminism, the problematic extreme of believing that any woman who loves her husband and genuinely enjoys domestic life is delusional. Both Sylvia and Edith are representatives of one-dimensional expectations. They, especially Silvia, do not believe that women can enjoy domestic life, have a wholesome public image, and still have intelligence and autonomy. Silvia gives her opinion, often without being asked, and sews seeds of discontentment and self-doubt all in the name of female empowerment. Her influence on Peggy is specifically damaging due to the young woman’s naivety. Peggy is presented as a younger, more idealistic version of Mary. Unfortunately, she lacks the self-assurance and confidence in her identity to withstand the vicious criticism and passive aggression of Silvia’s influence. Under Silvia’s constant commentary, Peggy’s marriage is pushed to breaking point, causing her to accelerate something that could have been resolved with a simple conversation with her new husband into believing she is a victim of financial abuse, and misogynistic control.

Here lies the danger of Silvia and women like her: she destroys the lives of women in her life in the name of friendship. For all her talk of supporting women and wanting to protect their independence, Silvia has no respect nor loyalty to any of her female friendships. She is a key example of toxic or fake feminism. Sylvia is dependent on the black-and-white classifications of the genders, devoid of nuance or emotional maturity, to function within the world. She believes that if you are happily married to a family, you are deluded and ignorant of obvious problems. In the same way, all men are weak, unfaithful, and controlling, lesser beings destined to disappoint. Rather than supporting a woman’s choice, she condemns it when it defies her classification. She gossips about her friends is eager to tear them down and displays no loyalty or prioritization of their well-being.

Silvia abuses the feminine spheres for destructive aims
Silvia abuses the feminine spheres for destructive aims.

In a performative farce of modern womanhood, Silvia is playing into the stereotype that women are catty, gossiping, frivolous, and conniving. As seen when she plots for Mary to hear about her affair from a manicurist rather than telling her in confidence, and her temper tantrum when Mary doesn’t side with her at the discovery of her own husband’s infidelity, Silvia is hiding explosive petulance. She expects absolute devotion from friends who she has wronged in the delusion that she did it for their good, while she experiences glee in destroying close friends. Indeed this delusion is what prevents her from taking any responsibility for the downfall of her so-called friends. In short, she has abused the sanctity of female friendship. Nancy Blake, a fiercely independent intellectual and friend within the sphere of married women, observes that Silvia’s nitpicking of Mary is out of jealous inferiority. Silvia is satisfied when she learns about a friend’s cheating husband or a woman’s poor behavior because it satisfies her preconceived gendered classification. She is playing the role she thought she was meant to play: a nagging married woman who gossips about her friends behind their backs. Nancy should by all accounts be the one to tear Mary and her ideal life to the ground, as a single professional woman, instead she displays healthy feminism by defending her friend’s choice to pursue a conventional life that brings her joy. In addition, Nancy recognizes the destructive nature of Silvia’s presence and calls her out.

Celebration of complex femininity

The Women does not condemn female empowerment, but rather its corruption and the hardness that can result when left unchecked or manipulated to toxic ends by poor friendships. In the same way, the movie defies the limited classification of women as Madonna/Whore, using this subversion as commentary on toxic feminism and the nuance of femininity.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. An enlightening article

  2. This is a timeless classic, as wonderful today as it was in 1939.

  3. Great analysis on this classic film. A little dated in some aspects but still enormously entertaining.

  4. Good piece. Normally I complain about the endings of Golden Age films, but the ending to this one was perfect. Only Joan Crawford could take down an entire room of women who hate her with one line.

    • “There’s a name for you ladies, but it isn’t used in high society…outside of a kennel. So long, ladies!”

  5. Yasmine

    Whose smart idea was it to remake this (twice)? It never needed a remake. It is perfect. It is PERFECTION.

    • Adelaide Dupont

      Well, a proof of concept could be a post-Hayes-Code perspective, which the 2008 version of THE WOMEN might offer.

      And then I think of the Technicolor fashion show – a splash of colour which filmgoers would probably take for granted today [unless in a LUME-like setting where you could be immersed in that world or in a virtual reality context].

      Ah – interfering with perfection!

      [there was a 1956 musical comedy and a 1977 version by Fassbinder – along with the 2008 version – which is probably closest to the film we are discussing here.

      All three wanted to do different things with the basic story and plot and comment about their world].

  6. Lillianna

    The struggle between the women reminds very much of “Raise the red lanern” (1991, Zhang Yimou). The different women in “The women” may be not concubines, for their social status they are nevertheless very much dependent on their men.

    • Adelaide Dupont

      And a concubine is not so far from a courtesan or indeed a whore [as a profession; not as a trope or an appellation].

      I explored RAISE THE RED LANTERN some months back this year.

      [and more generally the whole East Asian concept of the monarch-concubine – especially in Joson Korea and various eras of Han Chinese society]

      Zhang truly is a legendary director.

      It is the dependence – and the status, yes.

      For example, Mary and Crystal may be the most obvious example.

      And being dependent on OTHER men is a danger – in a society which does not recognise interdependence.

      Did you see the encouragement and exultation in RAISE THE RED LANTERN as well as the struggles?

      Miriam’s story is very interesting as well.

  7. Rosiland Russell is hilarious!

  8. So, even without men being in the movie, they are put at the center.

    I was hoping they’d talk about something else other than men. I realized how boring these females were, and so pathetic that they let men rule their thoughts and life.

    I hated this movie because of it. If they didn’t put men at the center, I would have adored it. If they had other interests in life other than talking about men, I would have admired it.

  9. Ashlynn

    I have got to be honest, I expected more out of this one. I still think it was a good movie and really loved the female cast and the portrayal of how females are. The gossip, the emotions, the craziness, everything.

    However, the movie basically contradicts itself by having Mary end off trying to win her cheating husband back, whom she left. The movie is about female power, it’s about the growth of the women even through hardship. By having Mary basically beg for her husband back, it completely throws the “strong woman” look right out the window because it makes her seem like she has to rely on him. Not that one doesn’t deserve a second chance, but I personally think the ending crushed the whole movie and the message of the movie.

  10. Justice

    This, by far, is the greatest classic b. i. t. c. h. film of all time. It can never be equaled.

  11. Adelaide Dupont

    Title of the article: if these Women are subversive as a troupe – or are they representing individual and group TROPES? That is what I would be led to read.

    Especially when you cover how the Madonna and the Whore are being used.

    I also see the Maiden; the Mother and the Crone in THE WOMEN.

    The “Loss of Love” and the “Dangers of Toxic Influence” – oh yes, love and influence [especially shown through the character of Silvia]

    Financial abuse and misogynistic control – serious then as now.

    The destruction of young and idealistic Peggy through Silvia’s influence.

    I feel the explosive petulance; the absolute devotion [expected] and the glee.

    And oh! The corruption and the hardness!

  12. Reginald

    You are not allowed to be a gay man without the ability to name at least three characters and quote at least five lines from the film. That should be the law.

  13. Ignore the 2008 remake.

  14. I wish I could see the broadway version of this by Clare Boothe Luce.

  15. Despite the fact that there are no men in this film, they’re still in it. They carry the film. You just don’t see them.

  16. Interesting film. It must have been pivotal when it came out.

  17. Miracle

    While the gender politics underlying the plot are undoubtedly dated (men can’t be blamed too harshly for cheating because apparently none of them have self-control, therefore women just have to put up with it… sure movie), the film is delightfully campy, catty entertainment. Thanks for writing about it and reminding me that I like the film.

  18. Sebastian

    I love the heavy drinking scene.

  19. Jazlynn

    I have always found Norma Shearer to be melodramatic but I suppose her acting style appealed to audiences during this era.

  20. This movie is the textbook definition of joie de vivre.

  21. Watched this a long time ago. It played out more like a drama with brief comic relief than anything.

  22. This film was so cringeworthy. The extremely poor portrayal of women here is sad. Some of the jokes made allotting to women being good for only their bodies is so trash. I understand these may have been the times. It just shows how diminishing ppl thought back then.

  23. I’ve known about The Women for a long time, but never really felt enough of a pull to sit down and watch it until just now. You have convinced me.

  24. The thing that strikes me about the film are the trivialities that make up the majority of the women’s concerns, and how little that has changed between then and now, even though women’s outer realities today are far more filled with the drudgery of work.

  25. It sounds like a pretty obnoxious film.

  26. Kennedy

    Very witty and well scripted film.

  27. I enjoyed the fact that the entire cast was women. This made the movie better in my opinion.

  28. The scene with Mary’s mother and the rest of the film left me truly question both men and love.

  29. The dangers of toxic influence section — wild!

  30. I hope they use this movie to teach people how to cast for roles.

  31. Movies like this from back in the day are probably why they portray women like that now.

  32. Some banter was whitty and enjoyable but more times than not it just reminded me of Thanksgiving dinner at my aunt’s. I know that’s what some people live for gossiping and “tea” but it really annoys me.

  33. The technicolor fashion show scene was unexpected!

    • The fashion show scene was absolutely amazing… the props, the stage, the outfits, and the technicolor!

  34. Tyshawn

    I honestly did not expect anything amazing from this for it being a 1939 movie, but I really enjoyed it.

  35. The sexual undertones were very surprising.

  36. roberto

    Gossip and cat fights. Sign me up

  37. Kingston

    A gem from the magical Hollywood.

  38. John Wilson

    It’s interesting to me that author Clare Boothe Luce, a very conservative woman, by all accounts had decidedly mixed feelings about her reputation as an early feminist.

  39. A remarkably well-written treatise on a classic film I somehow have not seen.

  40. What a magnificent cast, too. Rosalind Russell can do no wrong in my book.

  41. I bet Betty Friedan took alot of inspiration from this movie

  42. I love this analysis! I enjoy reading analyses of movies and books. There’s so much to talk about and analyze about any literature art.

  43. Fasteddieemily22

    I really appreciate your analysis. I’m a big believer in women ensemble films that challenge certain societal and cultural tropes. Great job:)

  44. Joseph Cernik

    A 1939 movie with themes addressed today. It would be interesting to see how this might be remade for the present.

  45. Marcie Waters

    I love this movie and the different portrayals of women in it, but I’ve always been a little disappointed that Mary went back to Steven. Those were different times though!

  46. Although a true lover of 30s and 40s Hollywood cinema, I never got around to watching this one; it appeared to be dated and campy; the horrific 2008 remake didn´t help. Your analysis changed my mind. Well done!

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