Femme Fatales and Women in Post-war American Cinema
INTRODUCTION In the Untitled Film Still series, Cindy Sherman drew upon popular culture of Hollywood. Although many artists had done this before, Sherman's strategy was original. For her the pop-culture image was not a subject (as it had been for Walker Evans) or raw material (as it had been for Andy Warhol) but a whole artistic vocabulary, ready-made.1 Adding the then new feminist perspective, her images of female victims and femme fatales in film noir had a new meaning in the late seventies. Sherman’s female protagonist is hence both old and new. After In the Mood for Love, ladies wearing cheongsam (qípáo) can be spotted in innumerable commercials and video works. Wong Kar-wai reinvented the mediaimage of Chinese women / film actresses of the fifties and the sixties. The film was almost an instant classic thus the rest of the “creative” world followed and copied the newly refreshed media-images. What the artist did was creating and what the rest did was facsimileing. Wong brought the nostalgia back by adding something novel and original to the image of female. His mandarin gown transcends fashion. Both Sherman and Wong Kar-wai have exploited the public media-image of women of an era before their times. Comparing with their opposite sex, women fall victim to the media stereotype according to the mass media such as novels, films, television and songs much more easily. The institutionalised media image of female in cinema is rooted in both the creator and the audience’s mind deeply and firmly. Judith Williamson said, “Sherman’s work is more than either a witty parody of media images of women or a series of self-portraits in a search for identity…the perception
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of self, and the perception of self by others, are typically bound up in a complex, even inextricable way.”2 Consequently, all character-studies of film noir become femmist studies. The potential for subversion of dominant American values and gender-myths, provided a group of films through which to make feminist uses of classics-text argument.3 In this paper, the evolution of women’s places in American cinema since the emergence of film noir in the 1940s to the early 60s will be studied. The femme fatale characters will be employed as the initial yardstick in this comparative study of female characters and the end of career of the post-War Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe will be our journey’s end through the history of post-war Hollywood.
FEMALE ROLES IN CLASSICAL HOLLYWOOD CINEMA American cinema is largely defined by the films come out from Hollywood. It would be convenient to use any roles played by leading actresses in the classical period (i.e. from the 1910s to the 1960s) such as Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford to compare and contrast the female’s places in American cinema before and after the Second World War. Yet, the results of the analysis would be misleadingly inappropriate. It takes more than conformity with the taste of mass audience to “raise” and “nourish” a mega movie star under Hollywood’s star system. Rather, each star is preferred to have a unique personality or persona on screen. For example, roles played by Vivien Leigh are very different to those of Bette Davis. The notorious sex symbol persona that made Mae West famous was unprecedented and ahead of her times. Therefore, it is neither ideal nor fair to judge the role of a typical American woman in pre-war cinema based on these superstar-portrayed characters. In addition, the nationality of the characters is another problem. Easy to conclude that female characters from an
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adopted screenplay, albeit English-language plays like Shakespearean dramas, should be discounted. Not until the bloom of film noir in the 1940s, the birth of a firmly established female character – femme fatale could be seen in American cinema. It...