20 November 2001
Portrayal of Feminine Allure
The coming of World War II heralded a new era for women. As men left to fight abroad, women were left to fill their void in the workplace. Familiar images such as “Rosie the Riveter” radiated strength and competence, traits previously emphasized primarily in men. As woman’s role in society broadened, new visions of attractiveness developed to accommodate this unprecedented aspect of femininity. Henry Hawk’s portrayal of women in The Big Sleep (Warner Brothers, 1946) highlights these changes in social construction of female sexuality and appeal in the context of a male dominated society.
To analyze the impact of women in the picture, one must examine Philip Marlowe, the hero and epitome of masculinity. Throughout the film, Marlowe displays the admirable qualities of a man: intelligence, strength and justice. Additionally, Marlowe’s role as the hero of the film creates an example to which all men should strive. He represents the goals and desires of men, and as such his behavior helps delineate the position of women. Women constantly throw themselves at Marlowe, allowing him to pick from a fairly wide selection. His choice of Vivian holds considerable weight in determining the traits that make a woman popular. Marlowe’s interactions with all women help elucidate the intricacies of 1940s feminine allure.
Vivian Sternwood Rutledge makes the biggest impact on the hero, and therefore represents the most appealing qualities of the day. From her initial introduction, Vivian evokes an image quite unlike the stereotypical feminine mystique. To begin with, her voice is deep and strong, even masculine, distinct from any past voice of sensuality. Additionally, she presents herself in a manner quite different from the standard of the day. Instead of wearing a dress or a skirt, Mrs. Rutledge wears slacks and a buttoned down shirt, almost masculine attire, yet with an undeniable feminine quality. Her image exudes strength with elegance, and she begins to demonstrate her capacity to handle any task that may come her way. Vivian’s strength and masculinity reveal changes in feminine construction, and by choosing her over other women in the film, Marlowe reflects the importance of these traits. In her first scene with Marlow, she tries to coax some important information out of him, knowing literally nothing about why he was summoned. Exhibiting her sharp wit and keen sense of rhetoric, she deftly probes Marlowe’s job, never directly revealing her intent to know his assignment. While she never missteps, her intricate wordplay with Marlowe fails to gather information. This subtle plot turn reinforces the strength and domination of the male gender. Although women such as Vivian are growing more strong and capable, Marlowe still bests her in a battle of the wits. Vivian’s introduction alone shines some light on the portrayal of woman’s role in society and feminine allure in the film.
As the movie progresses, Vivian’s actions further demonstrate the qualities found attractive in a woman. As he returns from Geiger’s house with an intoxicated Carmen, Marlowe enters the house to see Norris standing as usual and Vivian in a sweeping nightgown. Yet instead of asking Norris to help with Carmen, he puts the burden on Vivian, without regard to her gender or attire. Clearly, Marlowe has great faith in Vivian’s abilities after only meeting her once, highlighting Vivian’s own strength and independence. Conversely, the fact that Carmen landed herself in trouble and needed saving reproduces the “damsel in distress” pattern of old. Yet even with ample opportunity to begin a relationship with Carmen, he opts for her stronger older sister. The fact that Vivian must also help with her sister only points to the magnitude of her own strength, making her even more attractive to Marlowe. Later, Vivian finds herself in Joe Brody’s apartment faced talking to Marlowe. Although Brody has...
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