Audrey Kupferberg: Hidden Figures And 20th Century Women

Feb 17, 2017

In so many ways, we look at feature films as means of expressing our aspirations.  We want films to mirror the best in us.   People of various philosophies differ in which character traits they want defined in films.  As a woman with a feminist philosophy, I relish films that depict independent-thinking women who strive to lead full and meaningful lives.  

Many Hollywood films have touched upon one form or another of feminism and equality of the sexes. As back as far as 1930, we have the example of the MGM drama THE DIVORCEE in which Norma Shearer won an Oscar for Best Actress.  She plays a Manhattan society wife, a modern woman at the end of the Roaring Twenties, who decides to have a sexual fling of her own after finding out about her husband’s infidelities.  The story sets out to challenge the “double standard” so prevalent in the 20th century.    

In 1949, ADAM’S RIB starred Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as two lawyers, married to each other, who come to grips with inequality in gender roles when they challenge each other in a court case involving a wife who shoots her unfaithful husband.  Now this is a comedy meant for mainstream audiences at the mid-century point when post-World War II brides had left the war-time workforce, moved from overalls into full-skirted shirtwaist dresses, and were raising tiny baby-boomers while perfecting the ideal way to make a pot roast.  So feminism in ADAM’S RIB doesn’t become too serious-minded an issue.  In fact, one of the silliest scenes in the film is the demonstration of a vaudevillian, a muscle-bound woman, whose act involves lifting and carrying men on her broad shoulders.  This is the film’s most blatant example of equality of the sexes.  While ADAM’S RIB is an entertaining movie about gender equality, it does not provide a worthy example of feminist philosophy

For a time in the 1970s when feminism was having a resurgence, it was difficult to come by movies featuring meaty women’s roles.  We occasionally continue to have years when female actors can’t find strong roles in mainstream films. 

However, the films of 2016 offered audiences many rich female roles.  From FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS; HELLO, MY NAME IS DORIS; LA LA LAND; ARRIVAL; and JACKIE; to BRIDGET JONES’S BABY, female characters are given plentiful screen time and many were written with sensitivity.  However, only a few of these films stress women’s independent thinking and strength of character.  And so many of these mainstream films deal with straight -- not lesbian or transgender-- women.  Clearly television is more inclusive of gay and transgender stories than mainstream film productions.

Two films of 2016 stand out as true feminist movies.  One is HIDDEN FIGURES and the other is 20TH CENTURY WOMEN.  In these films, audiences are introduced to female characters who are strong and mature and who have ambitions to be the best possible human beings. 

The African-American women in the fact-based film HIDDEN FIGURES are brilliant, level-headed, and ambitious for self-improvement and equal rights.  The character of Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monae, is asked, “…if you were a white male, would you wish to be an engineer?”  She responds, “I wouldn’t have to.  I’d already be one.”     

In 20TH CENTURY WOMEN, Annette Bening masterfully plays the fictional Dorothea.  She and two other female characters of different generations reside in California in 1979 when American culture was going through a whirlwind of changes, with these women caught in the tumult.  They are realizing that the restrictions imposed upon women during past decades are no longer in place.  They are feeling pangs of freedom.  Their exercises in exploring women’s liberation are stressful.   Life is offering wonderful but confusing challenges.

It’s a treat to find mainstream films expressing a genuine feminist philosophy.  While 21st century feminism focuses for good reason on the needs of women to earn equal pay for equal work and to protect women’s reproductive rights, it is important that feminism also should mean the right for a woman to become the most fully developed human being she possibly can be – to walk into a room of people and know that, gender aside, she can be the equal of any person there.  HIDDEN FIGURES and 20TH CENTURY WOMEN help us to understand that point of view.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former Director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and has co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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