“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 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.
“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.
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.
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.
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