My courses in Women’s Studies have given me the voice and tools to go out in the world and create change to better our society.
Suite Box 1321
Jenny Saville’s paintings of obese women are shocking portrayals of the female figure in contrast to our thin-obsessed society. While her paintings are graphic, vivid and grotesque, they also serve as a realistic view of the body figure many women have grown ashamed of. These paintings give obese woman a place in art and society, finally.
Modern American culture has become increasingly more body and beauty conscious; women who don’t have perfect cheekbones, or have more than an ounce of fat are condemned, labeled “Imperfect”. Women are held to an impossible standard of beauty, and those who fail suffer mentally and emotionally, and often push themselves to their physical limits. Saville has used her gift of brilliant and energetic painting to carve these “imperfect” women their own niche in the world.
Often times her subjects seem bloodied, bruised, somehow beaten down by their “ugliness”, yet their eyes are often deep and emotional, sometimes even seductive. Expertly Saville paints these women on giant canvases, so that from a distance the viewer can experience the figure with a sense of awe, and from a closer view, the viewer can observe the feverish brush strokes that make up these beautiful giantesses.
Body image involves our perception, imagination, emotions, and physical sensations of and about our bodies. It s not static- but ever changing; sensitive to changes in mood, environment, and physical experience. It is not based on fact. It is psychological in nature, and much more influenced by self-esteem than by actual physical attractiveness as judged by others. It is not inborn, but learned. This learning occurs in the family and among peers, but these only reinforce what is learned and expected culturally. (“Body Image”)
Throughout the last century the female body image has bounced back and forth drastically. During the 1920’s, as women fought for liberation from their stifled lives, the ideal figure was slim with short hair, very boyish. During the 1940’s women left their homes to join the work force and keep the economy going during World War Two, the ideal figure shifted to brawny and capable. In the 1950’s the female figure shifted to a more curvaceous form. Large breasts and wide hips meant that women were capable mothers, nurturing and fertile. In the 1970’s female rebellion broke out again, and the bodies of the ‘20’s were revived (Cohen).
In the United States about ten percent of females have some sort of eating disorder, and from these women about 50,000 of them will die as a result of their disorders. In a poll from People Magazine, about eighty percent of women said that they felt insecure about their bodies from the images of the female body found in magazines, movies and TV (“Body Image”).
Everyday women are bombarded by the media, being told “skinny is sexy”, but who is really behind this media machine? The cosmetic, diet, and fashion industries make billions of dollars a year and are dependent on the disempowerment of women (“Body Image). Women are taught that they will never fit in without squeezing into these impossible ideals, and if women can never fit in, they can never be happy. And so the pursuit of the ideal continues and the cosmetic, diet, and fashion industries that make up an empire of beautification, thrive on (“Body Image”).
So, in our skinny-obsessed world, where does this leave the fat people? Over-weight people are discriminated against daily by numerous people, from politicians to doctors, and even strangers on the street. I As a result of discrimination from the “obesity epidemic” “fat” people are coming together in an acceptance movement. In a study by The Cooper Institute of Aerobic Research, it was shown that out of 25,000 men, a fit over-weight man is much healthier than an inactive thin man. Another point that came out of this study was that over an eight-year period technically “obese” people were less likely to die from heart disease, cancer, and strokes than inactive, people of normal-weight (Samuel).
Inadvertently Jenny Saville’s paintings of obese women have helped to bring “fat” discrimination to the public eye. Saville’s paintings Plan, 1993, figure one, Hyphen, 1998-99, figure two, and Hem, 1998-99, figure three, are all of over-weight women superficially, but beneath the painted rolls of fat, Saville has lit up real women with beauty of their own, women who do not fit in to our society’s impossible canon of beauty.
Plan (figure one) is a female nude expertly painted onto a giant seven-foot by nine-foot canvas. The figure is actually modeled after the painter herself, Saville. The point of view is forward and extremely low, the painting starts at her lower thigh, just about knee level, and looks up upon the woman. The most of the canvas is taken up with the woman’s thighs, stomach and the bottom of her breasts. Her right arm awkwardly pins her breasts to her chest, and at the very top of the canvas her face peers back down at us. Her skin is pail and looks slight bruised and pocked.
There are markings on the woman’s stomach and thighs. These lines are like the lines used for instructions in plastic surgery, but also they are like the lines of a contour map. They map out the woman’s body, as she herself is a landmass to be conquered. When asked about these marks in an interview with Simon Schama, Saville answered “I wanted as many associations as possible to do with organization of a mass, of a human attempt to order something unruly, in this case fat” (Gagosian Gallery 125).
If one examines the face of the figure, one can see her personality and sensuality starting to emerge. Her lips are parted and somewhat pursed, they are plump and very sexual. The one eye we can see is soft and engaging, beckoning the viewer into her painting. Her breasts are half exposed, as if the woman is trying to cover herself up slightly, even though her genitals, a clear affirmation of her womanhood, is fully exposed.
From a distance the viewer is awestruck by the shear size of this painting, and it is immediately apparent that this woman does not fit the typical “model” figure. Her thighs are thick, her stomach is not as flat as it could be, and her breasts are large, but upon coming closer, you can see the beauty in this woman. It may be hard to see past her large size, but once you can, you absolutely cannot miss her sensuality.
Hyphen (figure two) is a strange painting to view at first glance. The painting is of two heads with one set of shoulders. It is closely cropped so that there is minimal background, and all the attention stays on the figures. But although there are two heads, the painting is actually of one singular figure. The two heads are of two different positions of the figure, grafted together into one image. The idea is much like seeing your own reflection in multiple mirrors at once. The theme of multiple views of the same figure is one that Saville often explores, and she refers to this as grafted flesh sections. The theme was a result of studying medical books and specimens, and observing plastic surgery (Gagosian Gallery 124).
The first head is tilted back, with her double chin bulging. Her cheeks are round from being pushed forward, and her hair is drawn back as not to distract from the face. The figure’s lips are plump and sensual, giving off a sexual feeling, but her eyes are half closed and seem glazed over, as if she is just a quite observer. There is also what seems to be an abrasion below the right eye that disappears from the second figure. The second head is tilted down in quite the opposite way as the first. Her chin is held down, hiding the double chin, and her cheek is pushed against the inside of her shoulder. Again her hair is pulled back, to keep from distraction. Her lips are plump and sexual, just like the first figure, but here they are open, as if she might be cooing someone just beyond the painting to come to her. Her eyes are wide and sexual, rimmed by thick eyelashes.
There are two distinct heads in this painting, but only one model. It is interesting to see the two different personalities in this one woman. The first figure is tired and laid back, content to observe, while the second uses a “baby doll” pose to draw people into her. Both are completely sexual, though. “Fat” women are not generally thought of as sexual beings, but it is in this portrait that Saville exposes the subtle sexuality an overweight woman can posses.
Hem (figure three) is a ten-foot tall, seven-foot wide oil painting of a massive woman. Saville claims her inspiration for this piece was Rembrandt’s Woman Bathing in a Stream (figure four); she said that she wanted “to work with a big area of white” (Gagosian Gallery 127). Hem, much like the painting Plan, has a very low point of view. The painting starts at the woman’s thighs, and then moves up the woman’s obese stomach, which takes up the majority of the canvas, to her breasts, and finally her face. She doesn’t stand face to face with the viewer, but at a slight angle. The woman herself takes up most of the planar space, so there is not the distraction of a background.
The woman’s thighs are massive and her stomach seems to be the focal point of the picture. Her genitals are under played, unlike in Plan, but her breasts are somewhat accentuated, as they don’t sag under their own weight, but stand firm at attention. The woman’s arms are back, mostly out of the painting, as if free from the body. Her gaze is forward, not looking down at the viewer at all, but above his head. Her eyes are squinted, as if she was looking into the wind, which gives her an air of power and sternness, and her lips are closed, silently asserting her power and sexuality.
The whole right side of this figure is formed out of white paint, which both accents the light on the body, and the body’s paleness. Because the painting itself is so massive, one can see the beautiful marks of Saville’s brush strokes. It is amazing to see how one stroke of a slightly darkened flesh tone can create the underside of a roll of flesh.
Saville believes that she doesn’t paint traditional portraits, and that “if they are portraits, they are portraits of an idea or a sensation” (Gagosian Gallery 124). A first impression of this painting is that it is a portrait, but if not in the traditional sense, than what idea or sensation does it portray? Power. This is a portrait of the surprising power that an obese woman can possess. Just like with sexuality, it is not the general conception that “fat” women are powerful, but if one can step back from the fat for one moment, one will find that “fat” women are so much more than their bodies.
“Fat” is an epidemic in today’s world. If you are fat, than you are taught that you are not sexy, and never will be until you look like the stick thin models on television, in magazines, in movies. Women are literally dying to fit into an ideal body type that is impossible for most women to attain. The majority of women are unhappy with their own body image, and so their self-esteem is lowered. And throughout all this, the only people that benefit are those who run the Beautification Empire made up of the cosmetic, diet and fashion industries. Over weight people are discriminated against daily, especially women. And in the midst of all this, Jenny Saville has created many paintings of overweight women, three of which, Plan, Hyphen, and Hem, show these women as more than just “fat”. These three paintings force their viewers to look past the bulging chins and stomach rolls, to the power, beauty and sexuality these women posses. Unintentionally, Saville has brought the issue of what lies beneath the fat to the surface of society.
“Body Image.” Eating Disorder Referral. Eating Disorder
Referral and Information Center. 13 Dec 2007 <http://www.edreferral.com/body_image.htm>.
Cohen, Barbara. “The Psychology of Ideal Body Image as
an Oppressive Force in the Lives of Women.” Center for Healing the Human Spirit Publications 1984 12/13/2007 <http://www.healingthehumanspirit.com/pages/body_img2.htm>.
Gagosian Gallery, Jenny Savile. New York, NY: Rizzoli
International Publications, Inc, 2005.
Samuel, Juliet. “Fat Pride World Round.” Reason Online
10/23/2007 12/13/2007 <http://www.reason.com/news/show/123151.html>.
“Body Image.” Eating Disorder Referral. Eating Disorder
Referral and Information Center. 13 Dec 2007 <http://www.edreferral.com/body_image.htm>. This is an interesting website that has a lot of different articles on body image. The main website is dedicated to the prevention and treatment of eating disorders, and offers a lot of information on eating disorders and related subjects. It also provides tips on finding doctors and support for those suffering from an eating disorder.
Cohen, Barbara. “The Psychology of Ideal Body Image as
an Oppressive Force in the Lives of Women.” Center for Healing the Human Spirit Publications 1984 12/13/2007 <http://www.healingthehumanspirit.com/pages/body_img2.htm>. This is a really great, really long, article that gives a great history of body image throughout the twentieth century in the United States. It also goes into detail on how the diet industry influences body image. It also touches on media influence on self-esteem, which is very interesting.
Gagosian Gallery, Jenny Savile. New York, NY: Rizzoli
International Publications, Inc, 2005. This is a book I bought, which is filled with many of Jenny Saville’s paintings. One of the parts that I really appreciated about this book is that is also has close up shots of a lot of the paintings, so that you can really see the brush work, and it also has pictures of Saville’s studio and reference books. There is also an interview in the back between Saville and Simon Schama, and an article that includes Saville’s work, by John Gray.
Samuel, Juliet. “Fat Pride World Round.” Reason Online
10/23/2007 12/13/2007 <http://www.reason.com/news/show/123151.html>. This was an interesting article that I found online. It discussed the “obesity epidemic” in decent detail, even giving cases where people have been discriminated against by doctors, being told they just need to loose weight when in fact they had serious medical issues. There are other cases stated in here where fat discrimination has led to unfortunate events, such as not being able to adopt, and how children can be taken into foster care in England for being overweight.
The third wave of feminism has raised knitting, sewing, needlework, and all of the crafts traditionally performed by women to a high status by respecting the work of women who have come before and by changing these crafts to suit the needs of their modern day advocates. Crafting is infinitely important to feminism and women’s studies for a number of reasons. It is a large part of women’s history, it has played a role in women’s political activism, and it has provided women with an outlet for creativity in both the past and the present.
The recent history of women’s crafts is complicated and turbulent. Sewing and knitting were essential skills for clothing one’s family, and so all girls were taught at a young age that they might contribute to the household as well as learn what they needed to know to keep their own families warm someday (Stoller 2003). Since they had little choice in the matter, and because these activities were so gendered, there is some bitterness associated with knitting and sewing. Debbie Stoller, author of the best-selling Stitch ‘n Bitch books and editor of the third-wave feminist magazine Bust, writes that her grandmother told her that “in the evening, the boys were free to do anything they liked, but all the girls had to sit and knit” (2003). This forced production and the denouncing of crafts by second-wave feminism added to the devaluation and negative views of women’s work (Railla 2004). Third-wave feminism helped to renew the interest in and respect for these crafts, thanks in part to magazines such as Bust and books like Stitch ‘n Bitch and Jean Railla’s Get Crafty. By not only supporting knitting and sewing but reconditioning them to fit the needs and wants of modern crafters, these and other books make the crafts not only acceptable but desirable and practical. Beyond that, merely respecting the work of women who came before is vital to a true understanding of women’s history and to feminism. Railla puts it best when she writes “our culture views women’s work as stupid, simple, suffocating—things that can easily be replaced by mechanization, crappy fast food, hiring poor women, and neglect—precisely because women have always done them…I am not suggesting that every women should enjoy knitting and cooking and embroidery. But I am suggesting that we give women’s work its props as something valuable, interesting, and important…It’s not stupid and it’s not easy; it’s damn hard work that we need to respect. Moreover, it is our history, and dismissing it only doubles the injustice already done to women who didn’t have any choice but to be domestic in the first place.” (O’Connor 2005: 18)
Through the history of women’s crafts to the modern day reincarnations, they have provided women with an outlet for their creativity. Even when they did not have a choice as to what they knit or sewed, they came up with interesting techniques and details to make their work more interesting and unique—adding new stitch patterns to a plain sweater, sewing a dress in a different way, and generally changing the crafts to keep them interesting. Crafts are still a way for women to express themselves and they continue to change them to suit their needs and styles.
In terms of political activism, crafting was used by women in Chile to tell the rest of the world the inhumanity they faced at the hands of ruthless dictator General Pinochet during the 1970s and 1980s (Argosin 1996). The women embroidered scraps of fabric with pictures telling the stories of their missing or dead family members, sewed them into large tapestries known as arpilleras, and smuggled them out of the country (Argosin 1996). Activism in this form is still alive and well; Cat Mazza, a New York-based knitter, has started microRevolt.org, a website devoted to raising awareness and protesting sweatshops and corporate-logo apparel (Gschwandtner 2006). She does so by encouraging knitters to take corporate logos as their own, and even developed software to help them turn pictures into graphed knitting patterns (Gschwandtner 2006). The main projects have been to knit corporate logos into blankets and to present them to the corporations in protest of their sweatshop practices (Gschwandtner 2006).
The importance of crafting to women and feminism in the future is the maintenance of the history of women’s crafts, as well as the personal benefits it provides, such as relaxation, creativity, confidence, and a sense of accomplishment. Knitting has been dubbed “the new yoga” for its ability to relax the knitter, and many people cite the tactile experience of knitting and other crafts as a break from the world of mechanization and technology (Railla 2004). The main benefit, asserts Railla, is that today women have a choice—women can choose to knit or sew, or they can choose to do other crafts, or they can choose not do any crafts at all (2004). Because women today do not have to churn out a pair of socks a day and instead are free to make whatever they want, the crafts become much more enjoyable. Finally, by maintaining the history and keeping these crafts alive, an increased sense of respect for women’s work is developed, both for the crafter and those who observe her crafting or see the finished products. Remembering that other women did have to churn out a pair of socks a day adds to the value of projects today because it makes women appreciative and respectful of what others have accomplished and grateful for the choices and opportunities that exist now.
Argosin, Marjorie. Tapestries of Hope, Threads of Love: The Arpillera Movement in Chile, 1974-1994. New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.
Gschwandtner, Sabrina. “MicroRevolt: Knitting as Resistance to Sweatshop Labor.” Interweave Knits, Winter 2006, Volume XI, No. 4. p. 6 (1 page).
O’Connor, Jennifer. “Riot Prrrls: Cast Off Your Stereotypes.” Herizons, Summer 2005, Vol. 19, Issue 1. pp. 16-44 (5 pages).
Railla, Jean. Get Crafty: Hip Home Ec. New York: Broadway Books, 2004.
Stoller, Debbie. Stitch ‘n Bitch: The Knitter’s Handbook. New York: Workman Publishing, 2003.
“She herself felt that she suffered from sex-antagonism and it is possible that some unconscious feeling, let us say of the novelty of a woman’s intrusion into the domain of exploration so long reserved to men, may in some quarters have existed.”
– From Fanny Bullock Workman’s obituary in the Alpine Journal
The giant backcountry bowl known as Tuckerman’s Ravine, on the side of Mt. Washington sits luminous when hit by winter sun. Its ridge frighteningly resembles the back of a large sleeping monster. Usually it must be reached by means of snowshoes, with skis and boards strapped to ones back. It is magnificent and steep. Many have died there. When I was speaking to a male friend of mine about making a ski trip up there, he said, “ha, you? Tucks?” After hearing his words, I was more determined than ever to accomplish the trek up and ride down. I will never forget his amused smile beforehand and how it turned to a look of bewilderment when I was telling him of my successful trip a few weeks later. Such deprecating words raised ire within; then as a catalyst of sorts, fortified my mountainous future.
It is no doubt comments like this one that lead many women to their deaths. Unintentionally of course, but as Maria Coffey says in her book Where the Mountain Casts its Shadow , “It seems like all the cutting-edge women climbers eventually do get killed. They are just that much more driven. Where a guy might put in 90 percent a woman would try to put in 110 percent” (107). It has taken years to break through the door with the “No girls allowed sign on it”, and still once in a while it is slammed back in our face with enough force to nearly knock us off belay. There has always been a gender bias when it comes to women’s competence in the wilderness, but what progress has been made in the last century or so? Has it gotten any better? My hope is to at least bring to surface what has repeatedly been slipped under the radar of current awareness.
At the turn of the 18 th century women began one by one inching their way out the kitchen door and onto the trails. Long dragging skirts were pinned or held up once down the trail a ways or even (having a pair of bloomers hidden underneath) left tucked beneath a rock part way up the mountain to be retrieved on the way back down. Some of the first women to hike in the White Mountains in the late 1800’s had even been known to climb up trees at the tops of mountains despite their hindering skirts. It was hardly ever heard of that women hiked without men “guiding” them for quite some time. And it would be several centuries until women would be accepted as leaders in the outdoors.
As a reader of women’s mountain history, a few things always stuck out to me; little flare-ups of independence that were mostly kept quiet. The famous Dolly Copp who traveled the Whites and was known as an outgoing innkeeper in the White Mountains , on her 50 th anniversary left her husband, saying, “Hayes is well enough. But fifty years is long enough for a woman to live with any man.” And off she went. I also noted how there were several early women explorers that remained single all their lives, such as the sisters Eugene and Edith Cook, “key figures in the great path-building endeavors in and around the northern peaks of the Presidential Range in the 1880’s” (When Women and Mountains Meet).
Slowly things began to shift in the mountains. Women were proving they had what it took to endeavor into the harsh world of mountaineering. It was the men, which seemed to have trouble adjusting. As Jennifer Jordan highlights in her book Savage Summit , “Just as male soldiers have historically had trouble adjusting to female presence in combat, male climbers have often resisted the inclusion of a woman on their very male expeditions to the high mountains.” Whether it be a “biological imperative men feel to protect women” or “the sexual tension from having a woman present during their three month celibacy on an expedition […] most men admit that the problem is not with the women, it’s with the men not being able to deal with them, but that doesn’t help the women who have to deal with the criticism, ridicule, and isolation for months on end” (9).
Other men it seems simply have a chip on their shoulder about women climbers. Perhaps feeling their territory is invaded, and yes, threatened. On an expedition to K2 in 1978 Cherie Bech was one of three women on the team. In a snide comment in reference to her, another member on the team John Roskelley, made it a point to tell people he had “never met a woman climber ‘worth a damn’ ( Jordan 11). They lacked either strength or the skill or both at high altitude. As Jordan points out, the first two times women were included on K2 expeditions they were weakened by battles of ego and sexual tensions. Their next expedition would rid itself of these problems, by ridding itself of men (13).
After experiencing an all women’s expedition, the late climber Wanda Rutkiewicz said in an interview, “Climbing with all-women teams gives me the most satisfaction, because even the presence of a man on a rope sometimes subconsciously frees one from taking responsibility for a climbing action.” However, when asked to join an expedition to Everest she leaped at the chance to become the first Pole and first Western woman to reach the world’s highest summit. Being back with men on an expedition was no easy thing. When she was given the title of “second deputy leader” (a sought after title), the other men sent bitter vibes towards her. Their snide remarks and her irritation at their “fragile masculinity” ended up in a shouting match. She yelled back saying that “they were assholes who didn’t mind if women were on expeditions so long as they were in their tents and not actually climbing the mountain. To hell with them , she thought, I will not sink to feminine wiles to get my way and be better liked by the bastards. I am here to climb a mountain! ” ( Jordan 39).
Unlike the strong Wanda Rutkiewicz whom I admire greatly, there seems to be women who are working their way to the top in Winter sports such as skiing, but aren’t exactly resisting the “feminine wiles” to get there. 24 year old, Kristi Leskinen “decided to start her own game: women’s park-and-pipe skiing” according to Outside Magazine (Nov. 05). Though her breakthrough into the previously men’s only-freestyle is highly respectable, I am not so sure her “trick for amping up the buzz for high-flying females” is. Taking off some clothes and posing for a sexy Nordica pin-up as well as a lingerie spread in FHM. Though, she insists, “I’m not a model, I’m a skier.” Much of our current society might not see this as being problematic; but one must stop to think of how she might affect the female-youths of America . I would like to think that it is possible to live like Wanda, and that hopefully there are still some Wanda’s out there in future generations.
There are more and more women venturing out, whether it be man-less, solo, or with a hopefully non-sexist male. With such books as Solo, on Her Own Adventure , Women on High: Pioneers of Mountaineering , and guide books such as Walking in the Mountains: a Woman’s Guide , or Women & Thru-Hiking the Appalachian Trail , it is easy to find inspiration in the world of mountain women. Though, I found Leading Out: Women Climbers Reaching for the Top to be out of print. It is an excellent book delving into some firsts for women’s mountaineering. I wonder at the fact that it was taken out of print. However I suppose I should not judge how women are doing solely by the literature that is in circulation.
The 20 th and 21 st centuries have been a time for firsts among women’s history. In 1970 the first all women’s expedition to Denali was a success with all six members reaching the top, in 1978 Arlene Blum lead the first all women’s team up Annapurna I (26,500 feet) becoming the first women and Americans to ascend the tenth highest peak on Earth. On September 29, In August 1987, Climbing magazine came out with a special women’s issue and in1988 the first American woman, Stacey Allison reached the Summit of Everest via the South East Ridge . However beyond the one issue of Climbing there was virtually no media coverage of women climbers, “this was corroborated by the National Sporting Goods Association 1990 census which counted 1.8 million women rock climbers in the U.S. , nearly forty percent of all climbers!” (da Silva p. xix, from intro in Leading Out).
Since then the media coverage has slightly improved. Seal Press, a feminist publisher, publishes many books on the outdoors and women, written by women. There are articles about women in outdoor magazines, such as a recent dispatch in Outside about 20 year old Danielle Fisher, who became the youngest American to stand atop Mount Everest, “and the youngest person ever to complete the Seven Summits, knocking off the highest peak on each continent in just two years” (Outside, Oct. 05′ p.28) When I read that, my first reaction was jealousy and competition, but mostly I beam with pride that a young woman my same age has done that. I feel a collective happiness that the youngest American to summit was not a male. The lists of women’s firsts may seem long, but it is not when compared to all the firsts made by men.
With lists like that it could almost seem woman are being treated equally in the mountain world, but I could not help but notice that maybe we aren’t quite there yet, when I recently walked though EMS. I went in looking for a pair of non-cotton pants to hike in, but not only did I find that there were far more men’s pants, the ones supposedly for women, didn’t fit like women’s pants. I asked a young woman who worked there about it, and she said she has the same problem. We both joked around saying, “you have to wonder if its men who are designing these pants”. She explained that there was a new company by the name of Prana, that was beginning to make pants more fit for women, but they were expensive, and there weren’t very many types to choose from. I left the store disappointed and had better luck trying on a pair of boys pants in Filenes, though, those didn’t quite cut it either.
The pants are a minor detail compared to the progress being made in the form of women’s outdoor organizations. As Mary Butler points out, “Females are generally more motivated by self-improvement and achieving team goals, according to a 1997 report from the President’s council on Physical Fitness and Sports […] What’s really important is developing quality relationships” (Butler, par. 12). Perhaps this is why many women have been turned off by outdoor pursuits until the more recently all-women’s groups such as, Women’s Outdoors Inc., Women’s Wilderness Institute, “This year the Program tripled in size”(Butler, par. 7), and Chicks with Picks, which “ promotes self reliance through learning technical skills that help women become more equal partners with their counterparts.” The theme of all their clinics is “Women Climbing with Women, for Women”. They “promote women’s empowerment, the spirit of service, and giving back to the community through supporting local women’s shelters, Tri County Resource Center and Starting Point.” Over the last four years they have raised $75,000 for the shelters. As of now they are their largest donor ( http://www.chickswithpicks.net/brains.htm ).
With several women’s only organizations thriving, I imagine Wanda’s spirit to be smiling proud. But as Venture Center and Challenge Course Coordinator Angel Ekstrom said, “As a whole I don’t think it [women’s equality in the outdoors] has come a long way, but, we’re out there, we just aren’t perceived or valued as our counterparts.”
While speaking with Angel, the only female staff member of the Adventure education department at Plymouth State University , she recounted a time when teaching a technical mountaineering course at Colorado Mountain College . She had a non-traditional student, he was 45, just retired from the service and had been of high rank, “He challenged me in everything throughout the entire course, confronted me with everything, questioning my abilities and such […] but I needed him to go through the curriculum to learn this stuff, I just kept going, kept teaching. After the course, he wrote to me, and said, ‘I challenged you in everything, but you really stuck it out and I have to apologize, because, I never learned more.”
Questioned because of her gender, she did one of the best things and ignored it, persisted and proved her skills. Were she a man, such skill would probably not have been questioned. “When I am running a hard-skilled curriculum course, that’s when it [sexism] surfaces. I keep having to prove myself, it gets tiring, it seems men, if ever, only have to prove themselves once, but women have to prove their skill over and over, but it’s the small success stories that keep you going”
Women’s recreation in the wilderness has always been of importance, and is even more so in today’s plastic-wrapped, 9-5 world. Women still experience social injustices and inequities, which according to Sarah L. Pohl, affect them personally and interpersonally (416). “One possible method through which women are able to reclaim their voices is by participating in wilderness recreation (Bialeschki & Henderson, 1993; Henderson, 1996). Henderson (1996) explained how outdoor recreation was conducive to resisting traditional female roles, that can lead to discovering a new sense of self. She said, “In nature, conformity to traditional female roles is not required. In the outdoors, women often discover aspects of themselves that they did not know existed prior to challenging themselves in this environment” (416).
There are currently 56 males in the Adventure Education Major, and only 15 females. In the minor there are more females than males. The ratio of women to men planning on becoming future adventure educators is alarming. Considering all women’s outings and courses in the wilderness, far more are effective for all women groups just as all women’s expeditions have been more successful. For this reason, future female leaders are indispensable.
When Angel Ekstrom worked with the Women in Rock and Leadership program she, “never had 100% success with a mixed gender course,” whereas in a women’s only course they were extremely successful. She believes that it is highly important that there be all women’s courses for the reason that it creates a less competitive and more supportive environment. “I know for sure it works, and I would love to provide more, but women have to come.”
Why are there so few females pursuing a life-occupation in the outdoors? In a study by Linda Allin (2004) about Women and the relationship of an outdoor career to family life, said, “The outdoor industry is an occupational area where many jobs involve long, irregular hours and/ or residential work, taking time away from the family. Despite their increased involvement in outdoor recreation, women remain under-represented in the higher levels of outdoor management and leadership” (64). Out of the 21 female outdoor educators interviewed in her study, 9 of them were single. And those who did marry during their career did so later than the average age (28) according to current societal trends (66).
Mixing an outdoor career with family is not the easiest thing, some more extreme mountain women, such as Alison Hargreaves, have even been ridiculed for it. Away from her family much of the time climbing 8,000meter peaks, she was criticized for selfishly risking her life when she had two children and a husband at home. She had been built up as a cutting edge mountaineer, and when she did die shortly after reaching the top of K2, the media tore her apart as being a bad mother, calling her selfish, “in choosing the mountain over motherhood” (Jordan 261). A “firestorm began, causing Alison to suffer in death the indignity of having her morals and her mental health questioned in a way never suffered by the men who died with her or by the other fathers who have left children behind: Alex Lowe, Scott Fischer, Rob Hall, Paul Nunn, Al Rouse, Maurice Barrard, Nick Escourt, and so many more” (261).
Who is more important to a child? Father or mother? I don’t think they can be compared. When someone no matter what gender they are is bitten by the “climbing bug” most of the time there is just no stopping them. In Ellen Miller’s opinion, a Colorado-based mountaineer, the issue of children is something that affects the gender imbalance. After interviewing about 60 women who have summited Everest, she found that most of them did not have children at the time they were climbing. “For me personally, and I think for many women, either you want to climb or you want to have a family. I don’t think many women can do both very well” (Coffey 11).
The psychologist Geoff Powter calls a certain pattern found in climbers the “repeating personality syndrome”, the need for constant change to create excitement” (Coffey 66). Often it is the women who are “bitten by the bug” that can get competitive with the men, humming to the beat of, “I can do anything you can do better.” It is usually these that succumb to a backlash created by women’s oppression in the outdoors, taking it too far, sometimes forgetting why they are there in the first place and then ridiculed for taking risks. As I mentioned earlier, they simply put in more effort than men, trying to prove themselves. This can be fatal. Three of the first five women who climbed K2 died on descent, the other two died a few years later, on other 8,000 meter peaks.
I myself can’t help but feel the need to prove myself sometimes in the mountains. For a long while that is how I hiked. However, it is ten times better hiking or doing anything in the mountains when you aren’t thinking, “I have to get to the top faster than a guy would” or “I’m going too slow, if a guy were here, he would speed right by” when the truth is, I know I can keep up if I push myself real hard, but that isn’t why I am there. I am there to enjoy nature, overcome myself, and most of all to forget about societal imbalances, not amplify them.
Many women journey into the outdoors for different reasons than men, many aren’t there to compete and prove themselves by doing “really tough stuff.” But it doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of the same things. As Angel said, “ I’m not competitive by nature, if someone wants to get in line first, be on top of the mountain first, I’ll step aside and let them push by, but when there is an educational component I can get very competitive…Sometimes it can be considered a weakness that you aren’t as competitive, don’t have as big an ego, but its not that I cant keep up or that I don’t have the skill.”
Whether a woman is an extreme alpinist obsessed with bagging peaks, or one who simply wishes to take a day hike or learn a new outdoor skill, she should be able to do so without the boys flinging stones at her from behind the wall of their club-house. Though not as often, this still happens. Women have traveled a long distance, experiencing the highs and lows of mountain culture, but like Angel said; there is still a long way to go in the Outdoors for women.
Allin, Linda. “Climbing Mount Everest : Women, career and family in outdoor education.” Australian Journal of Outdoor education vol. 8(2) (2004): 64-71.
Brown, A. Rebecca. Women on High, Pioneers of Mountaineering. Boston : Appalachian Mountain Club Books, 2002.
Butler, Mary. “Women’s Outdoor classes gain popularity.” Rocky Mountain News 27 May 2003, Local.
Coffey, Maria. Where The Mountain Casts It’s Shadow . New York : St. Martin ‘s Griffin , 2003
Collins, Luke. “Dispatches: Rising Star” Outside Magazine October 2005: 28 da Silva, Rachel ed. Leading Out . Seattle , Washington : Seal Press, 1992.
Jordan, Jennifer. Savage Summit the true stories of the first five women who climbed K2, the worlds most feared mountain. New York , NY : HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2005.
Megroz, Gordy. “Dispatches: 2006 Ski & Snowboard Report: The Hot List” Outside Magazine November 2005: 37.
Pohl, Sarah L., Borrie, William T., Patterson, Michael E. “Women, Wilderness, and Everyday Life: A Documentation of the Connection between Wilderness Recreation and Women’s Everyday Lives.” Journal of Leisure Research Vol. 32, No. 4 (2000): 415-434.
Stark, Elizabeth, and Jackson, Monica. Tents in the Clouds, the first women’s Himalayan Expedition. Seattle , Washington : Seal Press, 2000. http://www.chickswithpicks.net/chicksEast.htm.
When analyzing the Women’s Ways of Knowing study, it is clear that enormous technological advancements have occurred since the study’s completion, and these advancements would seriously affect the study’s results if it were repeated today. The contagious catch phrase, “I’m a woman, hear me roar!” was a memorable byproduct of the 1970’s feminist revolution. It is interesting then, that most women interviewed for the late 1970’s Women’s Ways of Knowing study, frequently expressed frustrations with finding and expressing their voice. It is my intention to prove that advancements in technology, specifically the invention of web logs, or ‘blogs’ would have created a desperately needed, safe forum for these women that would facilitate their recognition and vocalization of voice. As a result, the way in which women reacted to and participated in their various learning environments would change dramatically. Specifically, women would find a feminine support system through blogs that would encourage them to break free from such Women’s Ways of Knowing categories as Silence. Furthermore, more women would gravitate towards Procedural and Constructed knowing, due to the infinite amount of opportunities for exchanges of original, creative systems of thought and constructive debate that blogs would provide. Blogs would create the kind of environment that women from the first wave of the Women’s Way’s of Knowing study desperately needed. Consequently, if the Women’s Way of Knowing study was repeated today, the results would represent a connection between learning and technology, therefore presenting the modern day woman as a more confident learner and voice oriented knower.
Historically, there have been many trends in the traditional classroom that perpetuate sexism. Most research on gendered education relates the ‘invisibility’ of female students in the classroom. Although they are physically present, they are seldom called on, and more likely to be interrupted or not rewarded for original thought (Sadker & Sadker). It is no wonder then that many females interviewed in the Women’s Ways of Knowing study were placed in the Silence category. An important characteristic of a woman residing in Silence is that she “see’s herself as ‘deaf and dumb’ with little ability to think” (Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, Tavole). Surely a woman’s experience in a patriarchal classroom would abandon her in such a category. Since many women expressed the need for forms of thinking to be showcased as a “human, imperfect, and attainable activity” (Belenky), it is clear that their teaching authorities were not creating the safe venue that their vulnerable voices desired. A woman thriving on the technological bliss that is blogging, however, could attest to the fact that thinking is certainly human, imperfect, and very accessible. In fact, the very act of creating and evaluating knowledge is just one ‘Google’ away. Just by typing in “blogs by women,” a female learner is on the brink of endless support and opportunities to discover and fine tune her own voice. If a woman possesses characteristics of a Silent knower, it is most likely due to previously negative, sexist experiences she has encountered in her education. A Silent Knower might find solace in the candid recollection of one female blogger, Patia. “I was seventeen years old and two weeks into a therapeutic, wilderness survival course when I said something- I don’t remember what-that angered a popular, arrogant boy. He looked at me dismissively and said, ‘skank’” (http://www.sbpoet.com). This anecdote could stimulate a Silent knower into remembering her own experiences that led to an absence of voice. Furthermore, this one experience of reading another woman’s account of sexism could create a tidal wave of enlightenment. If Patia, the blogger, was once silenced, and now creating blogs that are accessible to an infinite amount of learners, and full of a rich, identifiable voice, then why can’t the Silent reader propel herself into new categories of knowing? Surely with enough exposure to strong, feminine voices, the Silent knower would slowly gain her own voice and awareness of the power that language has to create, exchange, and define knowledge.
In addition to the evolvement of the Silent knower, a Women’s Way’s of Knowing study conducted in the current state of technological ecstasy would generate results that placed many more women into the Procedural and Constructed knowing categories. Although there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the phenomenon of computer anxiety is a direct result of styles of computer programming being catered towards a male learner (Cooper), it is clear that computer anxiety would virtually disappear once a female became familiar with the welcoming, user friendly world of blogs. It can then be assumed that a woman’s entire involvement with her education would change. Since computer anxiety has “far reaching and long lasting consequences” (Cooper), it is clear that the elimination of computer anxiety would allow the female to explore a previously male dominated discourse. This opportunity would germinate the kind of nurturing learning experience that many women in the first Women’s Ways of Knowing study did not receive. “The kind of teacher they praised and the kind for which they yearned was one who would help them articulate and expand their latent knowledge” (Belenky).
With qualities that allow blog users to instantly respond to, and receive responses to their writing, women developing their voices could receive instant feedback from other supportive women. A recent post by The Heretic, a self proclaimed feminist blogger, illustrates the kind of discourse that is possible between bloggers. The Heretic writes, “A woman can be everything she wants. Where men are doomed to certainty, women see a world of choices.” Blue, another Blogger responded to The Heretic just five hours later, “I have always liked uppity women. Submissive women are a bore and it is a chore to help them muddle through the chaos that is life. A woman that has no chains and is an individual, true to her core, is a delight” (http://www.mediagirl.org/2005/03/an-uppity-woman-can-be-whatever-she-wants). The Heretic has received positive feedback that simultaneously reaffirms her own voice while opening an entirely new area of discussion. This kind of academic interaction would propel a woman into a Constructed or Procedural category of knowing. Since a defining characteristic of the Procedural knowing is careful listening, or figuring out why another point of view exists, the safe forum of debate and exchange of knowledge that is generated through blog use, would help to construct a Procedural knower. A Constructed knower’s defining characteristic could also be fostered through blogs. A Constructive knower seeks knowledge and truth by constantly questioning authority and engaging in constructive dialogue. What better venue than the “blogsphere” to cultivate this quality. Since instant feedback and dialogue is a main attribute of blogs, women lingering on the brink of Constructive knowing, would learn to question and share knowledge confidently, thus crowning them a true Constructive knower.
Although the Women’s Ways of Knowing study was a monumental advancement in the feminist movement, it is clear that current technological advancements would seriously affect the study’s results if it were repeated today. The psychologists who designed the study were correct in assuming that women’s ways of knowing greatly contrasted with male’s ways of knowing. However, it is clear that researchers failed to predict the propensity that technology had to influence learning. Women’s Ways of Knowing researchers believed “that conceptions of knowledge and truth that are accepted and articulated today have been shaped throughout history by the male-dominated majority culture” (Belenky). Surely they did not anticipate the articulate, female dominated voice that is defining blog discourse. It is my belief that blogs are redefining the feminine perspective of learning. Through blogs, women are finding their voice, and familiarizing themselves with other female voices. They are breaking free from such knowing categories as Silence, and are thriving in the enlightenment and opportunity that exists in Procedural and Constructed knowing.
“The meaning of the word ‘feminist’ has not really changed since it first appeared in a book review in the Athenaeum of April 27, 1895, describing a woman who has in her the capacity of fighting her way back to independence,” wrote Susan Faludi in her award winning book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. From the beginning of the woman’s movement, which may have first gained strength when the first term to “feminism” was defined, there was, and still is, fear installed in the “F” word. As Daphne Patai explains in an essay titled Rhetoric and Reality in Women’s Studies, so many women are afraid of this word because of the assumptions given to it. Patai uses Glenn Close’s feelings toward feminism to state her point. Close, who played Alex in the popular 1987 film Fatal Attraction, said she wanted “no part in the clichéd image of what a feminist would be. “They don’t like men you know,” they are “kind of, um, butch” (22). From this fear of the “F” word, the birth of something fiercer grew along side the women’s movement. It is something that grew in silence, it reappears and disappears many times and again leaving no traces behind it, and it installed fear in the feminists who fought trying to win rights for all women. This fear can be identified as a counter assault on women’s rights, or better know as the Feminist Backlash.
At the beginning of the 1970’s, America went through some major social changes in terms of women’s rights. Women were given the right to choose after the Roe V. Wade decision in 1973 and jobs became increasingly both hard to find and hard to keep. Women, who were in the work force, as described by Kathleen Berkley in her book The Women’s Liberation Movement in America, worked “not because they wanted to by because they had to in order to make ends meet” (104). Between these two changes alone, the antifeminist backlash of the 1980’s was set into affect. Betty Friedan, one of America’s most famous feminists, commented in a 1995 interview that jobs were being downsized “downsizing means that jobs are disappearing and more and more workers are being laid off. The main victims of this are men, the so called ‘angry white males.’ Their frustration is funneled and manipulated into a backlash against women and racial minorities.” Friedan continues “the backlash is also taking the form of attempts by fundamentalist religious groups to undo the right to abortion, the right of women to control their own bodies, in short, to push women back into the home again” (Bizot, 48).
During this period, the antifeminist backlash extended from the independent voices of American citizens and into the presentation of all forms of media. In television, advertisements, movies, and even in magazine articles women were forced to believe lies such as the man shortage (a shortage of men to marry and start a family with), difficulty conceiving children if they waited too long to have children (because they chose career over family), and above all deep depression if they didn’t act quickly to achieve the perfect nuclear family structure. But the lies didn’t stop here; American women were forcefully kept away from feminism with the way the media blamed it for every problem and concern the United States faced as a country, and succeeded. Susan Faludi comments that “The backlash has succeeded in framing virtually the whole issue of women’s rights in its own language so the backlash convinced the public that women’s “liberation” was the true contemporary American scourge-the source of an endless laundry list of personal, social, and economic problems” (xviii).
The main goal of this antifeminist backlash was to push women back into their acceptable roles as wife and mother. The feminist movement itself threatened the nuclear family, and according to Faludi was “set off not by women’s achievement of full equality but by the increased possibility that they might win it” (xx). With the feminist movement gaining so much success, the fears of many Americans would come true; family would be put on the back burner while women became successful in their jobs and careers. But while this antifeminist backlash did succeed, and while it may sound lit this agenda is a conspiracy against American women, it isn’t. Faludi reveals that “these phenomena are all related, but it does not mean they are somehow coordinated. The backlash is not a conspiracy, with a council dispatching agents from some central control room, nor are the people who ser its ends often aware of their role; some even consider themselves feminists.” Faludi continues, “It is generated by a culture machine that is always scrounging for a “fresh” angle” (xxii). It is important to recognize it because it is a part of the popular culture we consume everyday of our lives and it shapes us as individuals and as a society.
In the pages that follow, this research paper will focus on a very small portion of the antifeminist backlash as it was presented in motion pictures of the 1980’s and that which expanded into the early 1990’s. By “small portion” I do not mean it is any less important than the other types of media involved. In fact, Faludi describes that “the film industry had a chance to absorb the ‘trends’ the 80’s media flashed at independent women-and reflect them back at American moviegoers at twice their size” (112). What I do mean by this statement is that it is only a small part of all the media that were already reflecting the backlash upon American society.
I have chosen three films to examine for this study which reflect the antifeminist backlash: Fatal Attraction, released in 1987; The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, released in 1992; and Poison Ivy, also released in 1992. I chose these films based on their very similar story lines. They all involve a type of love triangle between two women and a man, and they all involve a very obsessive and predatory female character, who is always overcome at the end. To bring this study a step further, I will look at two recently released films to determine if another backlash is being presented to us within motion pictures. These two films are, Swimfan and Unfaithful, which were both released in 2002. Swimfan, just as the other three films I have chosen for this study, also features an obsessive and predatory female character. Unfaithful, on the other hand, shares a very close relationship with Fatal Attraction, and uses the same director Adrian Lyne, who is know for having a “history of directing movies depiction the degradation of women” (19) as quoted by Susan Bromley and Pamela Hewitt in an essay presented in the Journal of Popular Culture.
There is no specific way in which these films, that all represent the antifeminist backlash, are presented. Any media offering viewed by an audience leaves with their own interpretation of what they have just viewed, so the thoughts and perceptions received vary among those who view it. But the antifeminist aspect of Fatal Attraction (which is presented more securely and by which I am about to speak), and the other films I have chosen, usually work around three characters: the man who takes on the role of the husband; the housewife who has no career but takes care of her husband and her family; and the feminist who works hard at her career and has no husband and no children. This feminist character badly wants a family for herself, but because she chose her career over family she cannot have it. In order for her to receive it for herself, she must conquer the wife and replace her. The most important thing about the storyline is presented in these motion pictures is how the feminist character herself is conquered at the end of the film. She is usually killed off by those who fear her most, and suffers the most awful consequence of her actions; death. She is punished not for her awful ways of trying to replace the housewife and mother, but for being a feminist and choosing career over family. Many of these films of the feminist backlash in the 1980’s and early 90’s follow this similar story line, including the films I have chosen to examine in this essay.
Fatal Attraction, released in 1987, is the most commonly talked about movie among scholars for its role in the antifeminist backlash. It was a big hit at the box office at the time of its release that according to Faludi it “continued to attract record crowds and grossed more than $100 million in four months” (113). Male viewers in the audience screamed obscene remarks at the movie screens while the women who attended sat in silence (Faludi 112). If the moviegoers did not know the meaning of the text presented with in the film, they were doing no wrong; they were acting out the films intentions.
Alex (played by Glenn Close) meets Dan (Michael Douglas) at their workplace, and the two have a heated affair while Dan’s wife Beth is out of tow visiting her parents for the weekend. Dan and his mistress spend the weekend walking Dan’s family dog, eating fancy dinners together, and of course having hot and steamy sex at all hours of the day. When the weekend is over, Dan goes back to his family as things were before him and Alex began their brief relationship, but Alex won’t let it happen; she fels emptiness when he leaves her, and she must fill the void in her life where she wants her own family, Dan as her husband and a child for the two to share. In actuality, she envies Beth, and this is what drives her to get what she wants. In one particular scene, mentioned by Liahna Baberner in her essay Patriarchal Politics in Fatal Attraction, the camera shows Alex spying on Dan and his perfect family cuddling around the fireplace. Alex “vomits- not from the contrived sweetness of the scene, which might be appropriate-but from jealousy” (33).
In order to receive what she wants, Alex torments Dan’s family by threatening Dan to tell his wife about their affair, kidnapping Dan’s daughter, and even going to great extents to boiling his daughter’s pet bunny that he gave her. But because Alex chose her career over family, she cannot have both and is forced to choose one or the other. The only problem is, she wants Dan, and only Dan, to be her husband even though she cannot have him. In her efforts to get Dan back, Beth kills her for her evil ways of trying to destroy her and for choosing her career and not creating a family for herself.
In Sandra R. Joshel’s essay titled Fatal Liaisons and Dangerous Attraction: the Destruction of Feminist Voices, Joshel argues that Fatal Attraction “sells a notion of feminism.” By this, Joshel means that Alex’s “words of self determination, empowerment, and desire actually distort feminist language and gesture at what can be popularly associated with feminism” (59). The film also betrays feminism by showing that it’s a threat against men, and that Alex is “a controlling bitch who’s freedom depends on depriving men of theirs” (Joshel 61).
Alex, in no doubt is presented as the feminist character and is being punished for her ways of choosing her career over family. The message being delivered in the film is “that women who opt for the career track are to be viewed not merely as unfeminine, but also as destructive who must be themselves destroyed” (Bromley 17). She is presented by the film to be a “psychotic monster,” who we feel no sympathy for, and is constructed in a way to which we learn to hate her for her evil ways of trying to destroy the “ideal” nuclear family structure that has “re-emerged as the popular ideal of the 1980’s, and the message in Fatal Attraction affirms the necessity of protecting the family structure from the dangerous professional women” (Bromley 18).
Ironically, at the early stages of when this film was being written, it did a complete 180 degree turn. The film actually started out as the husband being the “most hated” character in the film, but when Paramount Pictures refused to do the film because the man was too “unsympathetic,” according to Faludi, the writer of the screenplay James Dearden was forced by Paramount to rewrite both the husband’s character and his mistress. By the end of the rewrite, the husband ended up being the victim of an obsessive monster, his mistress. Even when the film was screened to a test audience before its release, the audience wasn’t satisfied with its original ending of Alex slitting her throat to Madam Butterfly; it wasn’t good enough suffering for Alex and her evil ways of destruction. Paramount spent an additional “1.3 million” dollars, according to Faludi, to rewrite the ending to satisfy the audience. In replacement, they created the last scene for Beth to kill Alex, which became the ending that we see now. Bromley comments with this new ending, “Alex’s destruction and wife Beth’s survival point out the way Fatal Attraction opts for a traditional message, presenting the positions of professional women and wife and the mother as two distinct, disconnected options. The film presents this division as an either/or dichotomy through the characters of Alex and Beth and translates the out come into a fight to the death between a bad woman and a good women” (19).
The film itself in terms of camera angles, settings, and the props used also add impact to Alex being the “evil woman” and Beth being the “good woman.” Beth is pictured as living in a very secure and warm home, while Alex lives at the outskirts of the city above a meat shop. The alleys to her apartment are dark, as so is her ways of seducing Dan. From their first encounter, we get a sense of how bad this woman really is, just by what is being presented to us in the scenes during Alex and Dan’s affair. Bromley suggests that “when the camera closes in on Alex and Dan approaching her building for their first sexual encounter, one get a feeling of the entry into hell with crooked, dark figures poised over seething cauldrons amid dark streets veiled in smoky mist, all images designed to reinforce her dangerous nature” (20).
It’s a common saying that it takes two to tango when looking at the affair between Alex and Dan. But its interesting how this film depict Dan not being at fault for his actions, and actually is said by Baberner that the “responsibility of the catastrophe is shifted from male wrongdoing to female predation; what begins as a tale of a man’s violation of the trust of his loved ones turns into a misogynistic rant against the social posture and sexual autonomy of the independent woman.” Ellen Willis, quoted by Baberner, says that men are aloud “a sexual fling as long as it doesn’t mean anything, and he can shower off its after-effects before he’s caught” (31), which is actually what Dan did. The affair between Alex and Dan was only a brief fling, and he returned to the comfort of his nuclear family.
I didn’t see the film until years after it was first released, but the affects of the film on its audience haven’t changed. Upon viewing this film for the first time, I found it surprising that male viewers felt no different than those who attended the film in the theaters. In fact, I believe this film helped many men reach untruthful conclusions, not only about feminists, but all women alike. While there is a difficult relationship present between men and women in terms of understanding each other, Fatal Attraction doesn’t help by making all women seem as if they are obsessive and “psychotic” like Alex, or by suggesting that her character qualities represent that of a “bitch” by showing Alex’s strength, determination, and knowledge of what she wants from life, and women who express these same qualities are “bitches” themselves.
A few years after Fatal Attraction’s big impact on moviegoers, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle hit the movie screens in 1992 with a similar story line. The film contains three main characters like those of Fatal Attraction: Claire, the wife and mother; Payton, the nanny she hires to care for her daughter (because she wants to build a greenhouse); and Claire’s husband. The nanny, Payton, tries to destroy this family not solely based on that she loathes for a family of her own, but rather because hers was taken from her when Claire accused her husband (a gynecologist) of rape. Elayne Rapping wrote in her review of the film that it “passes itself off as a feminist basher. It thinks its Fatal Attraction for the nineties.” And Suzanna Walters commented in her book that it “presents us with the newest killer woman: the killer nanny as the logical backlash extension of Fatal Attraction” (Walters 131).
While the film might not have been as big as Fatal Attraction, it is not surprising that the two are very similar. First, they both feature the same perfect family structure, the bad women depicted in both these movies are blonde while the wives are brunettes, and while in this film one is the nanny, in Fatal Attraction Alex actually did attend an interview to be Beth’s nanny. Rapping helps support this comparison by commenting in her review “On the most superficial level, of course, this film does invite immediate comparisons with Fatal Attraction. There’s the perfect thirty something family; handsome, successful dad; pretty, doting wife; commercial cute kids; suburban home of palatial proportions with impeccably ‘homey’ décor and a variety of carefully tasteful clothing and housewife ‘touches’ out of L.L. Bean and Bloomingdales. And then, from ‘out there’-where the crazies are malcontents lurk who inevitably mess things up for the stylistically and politically correct of this world-comes the Evil Blonde, seemingly offering gifts, but harboring murder in her twisted heart.” But the comparisons between the two movies don’t stop here. Rapping also suggests that these two films share the same kind of bad woman. She writes “both feature the same kind of protagonists-rich, privileged, liberal, stylish yuppies-who live in fear that all will soon be taken from them by the random violence of those on the outside who have been driven crazy by rage and envy.” And, to add to a long line of comparisons between the films, both of the “evil blondes” depicted in both films are pictured to be “home wreckers.”
The antagonists in both films are very different though, Rapping comments extensively on this in her review of the film, in which she seems to argue later that this film is not part of the backlash, by saying that in Fatal Attraction the evil blonde is “a zipper less fuck,” and in the Hand that Rocks the Cradle “a perfect mommy’s helper.” While Rapping discontinues her comparisons and contrasting of both films, there are many more present between them. For instance, Alex desperately wants a family of her own, and she will do anything in order to get it. While Payton in a way does want a family, she once had one until Claire accused her husband of rape. Solely, Payton’s own purpose of trying to replace Claire is to try and steal from her what she stole from Payton. Another aspect that is different between these two films is the two women in Fatal Attraction don’t share any type of relationship besides them both having slept with Dan. But in The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, the two women do share a relationship. Payton actually became Claire’s nanny based on one thing: to steal back what is rightfully hers because Claire accused her husband of rape and took all that was important to her away.
Because there are many aspects of these two films that make them very different. Some might argue that The Hand that Rocks the Cradle is not a film that creates a backlash against feminism. The reasons many would argue it isn’t is based on one detail of the film, that Payton is not a career woman and is actually trying to take back what is hers, therefore it would only be a film about revenge. For instance, while Rapping might comment on the film being one that “thinks its Fatal Attraction of the nineties,” she seems to argue in her review that this film is not part of the feminist backlash. She first says “Fatal Attraction actually pitted a sexy, successful career woman against an equally sexy but traditional housewife and mother, thus setting up a true political contest between the classic good and bad woman, in which ‘bad’ was encoded ‘feminist’ in neon letters. This film does nothing of the kind.” She then continues arguing this later in her review by commenting “Neither of these women is a career woman, much less a feminist.” While comments of the film could mean two different things, one meaning that this film is not part of the feminist backlash, or secondly that it is and it’s imbedded deeper with the meaning of the text, but she seems to make it sound as if she is saying it isn’t.
If her argument is that The Hand that Rocks the Cradle is not an antifeminist film, I disagree and there are many things to support my opinions. First, with Payton actually being a nanny, one might say that is her career even though she still acts as an at home mom and her only intention is to be a “home wrecker.” Secondly, as Rapping describes Alex as being a “bad woman, in which bad is encoded ‘feminist’ in neon letters,” I very much believe Payton is lit up the same way. Also, an interesting quote in the film, that even Rapping points out in her review, that Payton says to Claire when she is having an asthma attack “You can’t even breathe by yourself” also suggests that Payton is indeed the feminist in this film. This quote alone suggests that Payton is on her own, taking care of herself without any family and is a very independent woman, even though she was forced to be. It’s easy to say that Payton actually is suffering to have a child because of “the symbol of both her menace and her suffering is her need to nurse a child” when Payton’s “wetness at the nipples” are shown in one scene, as noted by Stuart Klawans in his review of the film. And lastly, compared to Fatal Attraction, as Alex is pictured to be a “monster,” Payton isn’t any different. Payton comes into the family to be the nanny but tries to destroy the perfect family; as does Alex also try to destroy the perfect family. Walters supports my argument by stating in her book that this film is an antifeminist film because it “pits one woman against another” (Walters 139).
Even though I believe that Payton is actually the “feminist” character in this film, which must be killed off in order for everything to return to its normal state, Suzanna Walter’s brings a completely different point of view on this film. She believes Payton isn’t the feminist character, that Claire is, and she is the one that is and needs to be punished. Walters writes in her book “the bad woman here is not the typical working woman, and she is not even in any explicit sense ‘bad.’ Rather, the bad woman is the woman who does not take care of her children full time” (Walters 131). What Walters means by this is, Claire wanted to build a greenhouse and couldn’t find enough time to do so because she was taking care of her daughter and her husband. So in order to have more free time to finish her greenhouse, she hired Payton to be her nanny. As Walters continues her argument in her book, she uses a bit of symbolism to prove her point. “The mother’s fecundity must be channeled toward her family,” Walters writes, “not toward the external world (the greenhouse)” (Walters 132).
Poison Ivy, also released in 1992, structures its antifeminist message a little differently than those I have discussed before. Drew Barrymore plays the “home wrecking” teenage blond bombshell that is the envy for a young girl who she befriends and as “eye candy” for her father. She is the predatory female that tries to overcome the dysfunctional daughter that seems to be the misfit of the family, only to replace her. All Barrymore’s character wants, which makes the film very different from The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and Fatal Attraction, is to be part of this family and have it as her own. For example, to achieve what she wants, she seduces the father, attempts to kill the daughter, and tries to kill the mother who suffers from a deadly illness. In a way, the film is different because Barrymore’s character seems to want to replace both the daughter and the mother alike. The film is described by Walters to be “a young girl’s desire for preying on a weak father and desirous daughter alike until her own death saves the remnants of the nuclear family” (133).
Stanley Kauffmann suggests that the film is “the picture itself is a mechanism similar in structure to the recent The Hand that Rocks the Cradle,” and Stuart Klawans suggests that Payton “has become a killer Magdalene because of sufferings imposed by a melodramatic plot. Barrymore becomes a killer Magdalene simply because she is poor.” Klawans then comments that Drew Barrymore’s character is a “vicious innocent who talks her way into the home of her pray, where she spends the rest of the movie taking possession of whatever she can and destroying what she can’t.”
This film features the predatory female as the other two films have; whose main goal is to have a family. Barrymore’s character is made to look evil even though the father in this film is partly at fault for having a brief fling with the teenager and putting his nuclear family at risk of destruction. And lastly, the evil young woman is destroyed at the end when she is killed by the daughter in order to save the nuclear family structure.
Just because this young teenage girl doesn’t have a career, let alone she isn’t old enough to even work, this film still expresses its antifeminist message very clearly. The film does “pit one woman against another,” as Walters has explained, and, as Susan Faludi suggests, in all movies of the antifeminist backlash “women’s lives were framed as morality takes in which the “good mother” [the daughter and the mother], “wins and the independent woman gets punished [Barrymore] (113).
The long lists of films continue from those I have chosen to examine in this essay. Others include: Pretty Woman, Baby Boom, Basic Instinct, and even Stephen King’s Misery. Many films released during this same decade share many similarities in terms of their antifeminist messages.
I decided to take my study a step forward, because my suspicions were sparked from a number of different resources that I have noticed in the media and in the current events taking place that another backlash might be resurfacing. My suspicions lead me to believe this, because the abortion right is being questioned, the economy isn’t doing well, and because commercials, television shows, and movies seem to be sending antifeminist messages. It is very likely that the women’s movement will not be able to get rid of backlash, it will resurface and disappear, time and time again, like a common cold. With prediction from Ruth Rosen, from her book The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America, she argues the backlash is far from over by saying “like small brushfires, these cultural wars many circle the globe, igniting a wild and frightening firestorm. Inevitable, some women will feel defeated as they encounter wave after wave of backlash” (343). With Rosen’s prediction, and my own suspicions of another backlash being in the early stages of its occurrence, I will look at two films that I think might have an antifeminist message behind them.
Swimfan, released in 2002, was commented in a review by Rolling Stone Magazine that “Fox has spent millions hyping this high school Fatal Attraction.” Erika Christensen plays “a teen goddess who goes psycho when swim hunk Jesse Bradford takes a dip between her legs and then paddles away” (Rolling Stone). The film begins with its opening scene of Ben and Amy, high school sweet hearts, having sex in Ben’s care on a road out in the middle of nowhere. While we only get a brief look at the two love birds, the camera switches to a care driving by, and follows it to set the mood of the evil that is about to come in the film. The dusk of the night, acts as if suggesting a dark cloud is being set over the whole town and over Ben’s life.
Ben is presented to the audience as the popular guy in school, and as a good guy all around that everyone loves. He is a dedicated swimmer, and a good student, with a very pretty girlfriend. He shares a very close relationship with his mother, and even works part-time at a hospital in the area, in which he befriends an older man that he takes care of. From the representation of his character, he can’t do anything wrong, not even if he did cheat on his girlfriend with the “evil” Madison. Madison on the other hand is seen as evil from the very beginning of the film. We know she is the “evil woman” of the film by the way she looks at you with her evil eyes, her evil voice, and even the way she makes her anti-social-nerdy brother Christopher petrified of her existence.
Madison most defiantly expresses feminist qualities. As was described by Joshel about Alex’s “words of self determination, empowerment, and desire” the same can be said about Madison. Madison knows what she wants, when she wants it, and will go to all lengths to get it, no matter what stands in her way. She is seen as a threat to Ben because she wants to destroy his perfect relationship with Amy, and she is a threat to Amy not only because she wants to replace her by killing her, but because she wants Ben. In any effort she has given to get what she wants, the feminist must be killed, because she is a threat to those who fear feminist the most, the nuclear family, in which Ben and Amy were going to create.
The representation of how “evil” Madison really is suggested in many scenes of the film. For instance, Madison leaves her music notebook in Ben’s car, when he offers to take her home and what seems like she did purposely, so Ben decides to go back to her house to return it. Upon reaching the front door of her house, a dark and gloomy place with its discolored cement walls and dead plants like that out of a horror movie, Madison’s nerdy brother answers the door. He has a short conversation with Ben suggesting that Madison told him the two were “involved,” but was quickly interrupted and “shut up” by Madison herself saying “Christopher, you didn’t tell me we had company,” in her evil voice and the look pictured on her face. Another scene is that of Madison and Ben eating dinner together and her suggesting that “she didn’t want to be anywhere but with him.” She is also a person with a deadly past. She had “someone waiting for her back in New York” as she told Ben, but the only detail she left out was that he was on life support in a hospital because she tried to kill him. Madison also goes to great lengths to try and kill Amy by hitting her with Ben’s truck, in which she stole, to make it look like it was Ben who did it.
As I stated earlier, Ben is the perfect man and can’t do anything wrong. Like it was represented in Fatal Attraction, the quick sexual encounter between Ben and Madison was flipped to being, in whole, Madison’s fault. She technically did come onto him, but it would be thought that it was Ben’s fault also, for giving into temptation. While the two adulteresses spent a brief time together, it seems as if he isn’t even thinking about Amy, as if he forgot about her existence. But we, as the audience, can forgive Ben for his lying and cheating ways and the blame is set upon Madison who won’t let Ben get away, she is after all, the “evil” woman.
Amy herself represents a very delicate and patient woman. She represents more of the commonly know characteristics of a nice girl and wife material, in opposition to what Dearden, the writer of Fatal Attraction said about Alex’s evil ways, “in reality, you don’t want to spend your life with a woman like that” (Bromley 49).
Surprisingly, this film shares a lot of similarities with Fatal Attraction and the other films that I have examined in this study. The first, and most obvious, is the predatory female character that tries to conquer and replace Amy, Ben’s girlfriend. Madison is a blonde “hottie,” who is considered evil from the beginning of the film. And Amy, is a delicate brunet who is very sophisticated, both of these similarities are also seen in other films. But what makes this film more interesting is how closely related it is to Fatal Attraction, more than The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and Poison Ivy. For instance, Alex loved Madam Butterfly, the music was basically the film’s theme song, as here in Swimfan, Madison is a very musically inclined person, and the music she plays seems to play into the “evil woman” profile the film has created for Madison. She plays her instrument, usually a very sad tune, “to escape” she tells Ben; and in Fatal Attraction, Alex listens to Madam Butterfly in many scenes where it is “driving her mad.”
A couple of scenes in particular within the film are also very similar to Fatal Attraction. For instance, Madison surprises Ben when he is in the locker room changing for work. She asks him why he isn’t returning her phone calls or even talking to her, Ben tells her “remember I’m with Amy.” This is exactly how Dan had to tell Alex, to remember that he is with Beth and has a family with her. Another striking similarity is after Ben was expelled from a swim competition, because they found drugs in his urine. From his rage, he goes looking for Madison, finds her, and disrupts her playing her cello, to wrap his hands around her neck like he was going to choke her but only threatens her. This scene is very similar to the scene when Dan chokes Alex and threatens her to stay away from his family. This film is full of similar scenes and situations like that in Fatal Attraction.
The film also expresses, not just at the beginning of the film, but throughout the whole scene, the eeriness in terms of lighting that Fatal Attraction did around the place of sexual intercourse. In Fatal Attraction, it was Alex’s apartment that was lit with a dark, black steam. In Swimfan, it becomes the pool that has a blue lighting to it. The pool eventually becomes the place where Madison suffers for her destructive ways, which is different from Fatal Attraction because in Swimfan Ben kills her in the pool, Beth actually kills Alex in her own home, but both “evil women” are killed by drowning. There are an endless amount of similarities associated between this film and Fatal Attraction, and these similarities seem to out way the differences.
In terms of the character organization, the film is different from both Fatal Attraction and The Hand that Rocks the Cradle because Madison is not a career woman. She is similar to Barrymore’s character in terms of being a young woman, in Poison Ivy, but this film is different from Poison Ivy as well. While Poison Ivy features Barrymore trying to ruin the nuclear family structure, Madison tries to break up the perfect “dating” relationship between Amy and Ben. The two aren’t married, but because they are high school sweethearts, she is still trying to ruin a family structure that might occur later on.
This film most definitely has an antifeminist message. Like Walters and Faludi both agree on, films of the 1980’s backlash “pit on woman against another” and “women’s lives were framed as morality tales in which the “good mother” wins and the independent woman gets punished,” this film does the same, but offers it in a different perspective.
In the same year as the release of Swimfan, Unfaithful was released into theaters as well. Unfaithful, directed by the same director of Fatal Attraction Adrian Lyne, is a film about a wife’s secret love affair and the pain it caused her husband. Constance, (played by Diane Land) the wife of Edward (Richard Gere), meets a man in the city while she is out running the family errands, and has many sexual encounters with him, while her husband knows nothing about it. that is, until he notices how ‘different’ she has been acting through all her lying, and ends up killing Paul (her lover played by Oliver Martinez) and covering up the crime. It becomes a very personal film with many shots of the back of Connie’s neck, the hands of her husband and her lover, and the flashbacks that are embedded within the film.
The film begins with a dark, gloomy, and windy scene in the middle of the fall. It’s cold, the water outside Connie and Edwards’ house is still, and a sad instrumental music plays. All the aspects of the opening scenes suggest what is going to happen in the upcoming events of the film. The wind eventually becomes the main reason that Paul and Connie meet in the streets of the city when she bumps into him. The wind is so strong it knocks her on her knees scraping them up and causing her to bleed.
This wind, shown in the beginning scenes, could be something to suggest that what might be in their normal setting will be changed, and that the nuclear family will suffer from destruction. This strong wind also is strong enough to blow up Connie’s skirt that in the first scene in the city, to not only show off her perfect legs, but to suggest the sins she is about to create. The still water outside the family home is suggested that everything is still; putting more emphasis on the affair that will destroy Connie’s family. And the scraped up knees that Connie suffers from, could suggest that Connie has spent too much time on her knees.
Connie is an at home mother and wife. At the beginning of the film, Edward comes down from their bedroom to Connie and their eight year old son, where Connie is cleaning up the kitchen, getting her son ready for school and making sure Edward’s appearance is all in place. She signals to him, by pulling on the back of her pajama shirt, that his sweater is inside out. From this scene in the film, we know that Connie’s only career and responsibilities are taking care of her family, and that she has adapted to the gender role that is expected of her as wife and mother. Their home seems like it’s a place of comfort for the family. They have very nice things all provided by Edward, really giving no reason for Connie to have to look for anything else in her life.
Since the family lives in the country, the wife goes into the city to run errands all the time, and the city becomes the place of “hell” as it did in Fatal Attraction as well. The similarities the film shares are surprisingly not limited to this one. As Philip Kerr suggested, “the film lacks in the as Lyne’s previous film Fatal Attraction had, but it does borrow some of the clothes of the horror genre.” The film shares the same elevator, the same sexual encounters, the same Edward and Connie working out in the garden when the police show up to question their involvement in the murder of Paul, and when a sexual encounter is about to take place between Connie and Edward their son disrupt it with cries about not being able to sleep.
The two men in the film are very different from each other. Edward is a providing husband in terms of materialistic things. But Paul on the other hand can provide Connie with, not really love, but attention and great sex. Connie’s affair was exciting to her and she was being treated by Paul very different than how her husband treated her, these aspects of their affair is what drove her short lived happiness and eventually into the emotional strains that it left upon her family.
But to step away from the typical adulteress film, there are many aspects of the film that really interested me. For one, the book that Paul gave Connie, it became the object of their love affair. This was the one materialistic thing that the two lovers shared. In many scenes of the film, Connie is shown cherishing the book, reading its pages over and over, and became the one connection to how Connie could reach Paul when his phone number that was written on a piece of paper hidden inside the book fell out. Another aspect was the first sexual encounter that took place between Paul and Connie. The sex scene is first show to the audience when Connie is on the subway train home, and she has flashbacks about the encounter between them. From the moment they met, Connie had no idea what she was doing, and felt waves of guilt but waves of pleasure. So, during the scene, it seemed like she didn’t want to have sexual intercourse with Paul but he pressured her by commenting that “they weren’t making a mistake.” She cried in her flashback, but she laughed with delight at the same time. Even though she was unsure of her actions, she still did it, and continued to do so for much of the film. In this same scene, Connie is pictured going to the bathroom on the subway train to wash herself and get rid of her panties, by throwing them in the trash, suggesting that she was showering herself of the affair, but it wasn’t that easy for her, as it was for Dan in Fatal Attraction. While it might be okay for a man to have a brief fling as long as it doesn’t mean anything, it’s not okay for a woman. The scars of the affair cannot be washed away and is forever with her. This same trashing of the clothes is seen again after Edward kills Paul and throws his cloths away before attending his son’s school play. Connie even goes to great lengths to give Paul a gift, one that her husband gave her, a snow globe that had two lovers expressing their love for each other in the city. The snow globe ultimately becomes the object that Edward uses to kill Paul.
We get a sense that Edward is a workaholic husband, and assumed that Connie was a wife that wasn’t shown very much affection from him, so at the beginning we don’t really blame Connie for her cheating ways. But, by the middle of the film, the fault between the characters shifted, Edwards was no longer the one at fault because he was suffering emotionally from his wife’s cheating ways, and the guilt is ultimately put on Connie. Stanley Kauffman agrees that “the focus of the story moves from Connie to her husband Edward.” In the end, her husband finds out, and ultimately destroys the one thing that was going to destroy his nuclear family. The film as a whole, seemed like it took the same situation out of Fatal Attraction, but replaced the two women with two men and the one man with one woman, in what Kauffman would describe in his essay as “Unfaithful might be viewed as a his and hers set.” The only aspect of the film that really sets it apart from Fatal Attraction is the predatory female, but a pressuring male was put in her place.
The film overall sends this message: even though “feminist” isn’t lit in “neon letters” (as Rapping describes in her essay), Connie kind of does represent a feminist in her own way. She attempts to stray from her family in an effort to leave the comfort of her home and family to do what she wants. She is standing on her own two feet, without the help of her husband and the film acts as the backlash against the independent women who chooses to lie, cheat, and offer a source of destruction to her nuclear family. The film ultimately says this: women who look for love in all the wrong places will ultimately suffer at the end and return to their appropriate roles as a mother and wife. It acts as a sort of melodrama for the wife that chooses to commit adultery and says there is no way, a wife can stray from the home, and if she does, she will end up with nothing in the end.
These films, in all, represent as Susan Faludi spoke in an interview quoted by Susan Bromley, to “reflect what’s going on rather than making new trends” (18). Indeed, Fatal Attraction, The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and Poison Ivy are supported by scholars to be sending antifeminist messages to the audience who loved these films so much. They are very much part of the antifeminist backlash that occurred in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. But the films I have chosen as my own original research, as well, do reflect a backlash as well. Women are currently facing the issue that the right to choose is in jeopardy yet again, and the economy isn’t offering enough jobs for anyone and they are becoming harder to keep. These two problems, are the same two problems that set the 1980’s backlash into affect, so is another backlash resting at our feet? It’s too early to tell, but for me, the arrow points to yes. Through commercials, television, and even movies (which I have discussed here) seem to represent that another backlash is upon us. Pop stars such as Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears seem to raise the question to our society, what has become of women today; they have become sexually promiscuous baring it all, rather than using their body for the one purpose it was intended for, to have children.
While some scholars argue the feminist backlash is “just a myth,” there could be no other explanation why films, all part of the same decade, focused so much on the same story line and featured the same types of characters. Christina Hoff Sommers is one of these commenting on this in her book Who Stole Feminism. She states that Faludi’s research, taken from many different sources, “overlooked evidence that did not fit her puzzle” (234).
The feminist backlash is far from over, and we will witness its disappearance and reappearance over and over again as long as the women’s movement still exists. The feminist movement is far from over, and after each backlash that it witnesses, the young feminists of the next generation will pick up where the last ones left off.