From Sex Goddess to Wonder Woman and Tattooed Twenty-Something
There is a new American woman on the screen. She is a serious actress, with images ranging from that of a Prime Minister and a Wonder Woman to that of a Tattooed Twenty-Something. Prior to the feminist movement, roles for women consisted mainly of sex goddesses and girls next door. The sex goddesses fueled women's fantasies. Slinking before the camera in various stages of undress, they were beautiful, alluring, and unattainable--like Rita Hayworth whose "stripless tease" dance in "Gilda" had women dying their long hair red, secretly bumping and grinding, and singing "Put the blame on Mame, boys".
At the opposite extreme was the girl next door epitomized by America's Sweetheart, Doris Day (Pillow Talk). Wholesome and chaste, (onscreen) Day went around singing "Mr. Wonderful" while waiting for Mr. Right to come along. When that opportunity presented itself, she turned into June Cleaver, played by Barbara Billingsley, the model stay-at-home fifties wife in Leave It to Beaver who cooked, cleaned, doled out good advice, and cared for her family.
Even child stars had their stereotype in the curly-haired, perfectly dressed and irresistibly cute Shirley Temple. Mostly, these roles didn't tax the talents of the stars, despite the fact that some of them actually had talent. They just had to stand in front of the camera and look good.
By the end of the 1960s, all of these female stereotypes: the sex goddesses, the girl next door, the perfect wife, and the too good to be true child star seemed out of step with the times. Feminists wanted real women, women who could act, even "badass" women. Their favorite dramatic actress was (and is) Meryl Streep--considered by many to be our greatest living film actress. Streep commanded respect in roles as varied as the Polish holocaust survivor in Sophie's Choice to British Prime Minister Magaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. Mastering a wide range of accents, including: Danish, German, Polish, English, Australian, and Italian, Streep has received 17 Academy Award nominations (winning three) and 27 Golden Globe nominations (winning eight), more than any other actor in the history of the awards.
Women also cheered for Julia Roberts, whose portrayal of Erin Brokovich, a single mother turned legal assistant who almost single-handedly brought down a California power company accused of polluting a city's water supply, earned her a Best Actress Academy Award. They applauded when Wonder Woman Uma Thurman as the Bride in Kill Bill went on a rampage against the five people who destroyed her life and terminated every one of them.
And, they tuned in on Sunday nights to watch a blowsy, tattooed Lena Dunham, as Hannah on the hit series "Girls". Hannah showed that a television heroine can be frumpy, overweight, and still have love affairs and lots of drama.
Shirley Temple was out. In was the denim-clad, straight-haired Mary Badham as Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout's father Atticus taught her to do the right thing--not just dress or act the right way, although she might have overdone it a little when she sat at the dinner table and asked the housekeeper to "pass the damn ham". Recently chipmunk-cheeked little Quvenzahne Wells became the youngest star ever nominated for an Academy Award. As the indomitable five-year old Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild, she toughed out life with her dying father in the hard luck bayou community of Bath Tub, Louisiana. She pumped her muscles, stared down the beasts, and fended for herself in her own side of a rundown house.
Women of Color Move Center Screen
The feminist movement and the civil rights movement made it possible for women of color to go from supporting roles to stars . First came Pam Grier as Jackie ("Foxy") Brown, a flight attendant for the world's worst airline who earned extra cash as a courier for an arms dealer. Replacing the "mammy" image created by Oscar-winning Hattie McDaniel ("Yes, Miss Scarlet; No, Miss Scarlet") in Gone with the Wind, was Octavia Spencer, the sassy, defiant maid in The Help who didn't "Yes Miss" anybody and who baked her own waste into a pie which she served her mistress. She won an Oscar for that portrayal.
Behind the Camera: Move Over Boys, There's A New Sheriff in Town
The new woman wasn't just ready for her close-up behind the camera. She wrote the script, and she took over the Director's Chair. Nora Ephron made it big in a world where most feature films were scripted by men. Her films, including Silkwood, When Harry Met Sally (who will ever forget the "I'll have what she's having" scene) Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail, and Julie and Julia were all hits. In 2009, Kathryn Bigelow beat out her ex-husband, James Cameron (Avatar) to take Best Director honors at the Academy Awards for The Hurt Locker. In 2013, her film Zero Dark Thirty received a Best Picture nomination. Though she lost out to Ben Affleck's Argo, her controversial film was both a critical and box office success.
Face it, even though the movie business is still male-dominated, it is a far cry from being the old boys club it was.
Filed under: Living in Interesting Times