Women in 1950's Hollywood Films
The Hayse code and the changing roles of women
I am not a scholar of feminism, but I believe that any such movement such as feminism must have seminal images in the popular imagination to become a popular movement. The popular imagination, here, consists of what its mass media produce. A member of the populous can see the media how she likes, as fascist dictators of the imagination or as an anarchic self governed pool of imagery to add to and take from as they want. Both are useful points of view and not the only points of view. In the nineteen-fifties a large part of the media was Hollywood. The nineteen-fifties was a period of transition in Hollywood. Among the most important transitions that took place in Hollywood in and around that decade was in how women were represented in film.
There have always been powerful and independent women but it wasn't until the nineteen-fifties that an image of such a woman was accessible to anyone who could go to a movie theatre. In the U.S. this meant that the young girls of the baby boom generation, or the archetypal frustrated house wives of the fifties could spend their weekly allowances to consume the latest Hollywood creations. Whether they lived in the cities, the suburbs, small towns, or made the trip into town from the diminishing and distant rural regions, women and men alike would consume the images placed before them on screen. In many ways, much as they do today. In some films of the fifties the portrayal of women was as oppressive to the desires and needs of women as they always had been. The protagonist was a patriarchal male and a women purpose were always subordinate to him and his desires. Into the early fifties the Hayse code, Hollywood's a self imposed censorship code, dictated how a woman was to be portrayed in film. Women in film, according to the code, had to be married or want to be married, had to serve a man, and had to live the domestic life and enjoy it. But in the early fifties the restrictions of the Hayse code were loosened. The way a woman could be portrayed in a film became more open. This loosening of the code is evident in some films, however some attitudes toward the depiction of women did not change.
The coming of the fifties marks the end of Hollywood's Golden age. The golden age of Hollywood was a time when the studio system dominated movie making. There were about seven major studios in Hollywood who made thousands of movies every year. The movies made as if on an assembly line. They were all generally shot in a studio or on the studios back lots. The stories were formulaic. One reason that they were formulaic, among many reasons, was because of the restrictive Hayse code. A film called Jezebel from the late forties, starring Bette Davis, is a film that was made under the full weight of the Hayse code. The protagonist of the film is a woman. She is vengeful unwilling to submit to the patriarchal figures in the film. In the end, as punishment, she ends up being shipped off to work on an island full plague victims, and no doubt die of the plague. The Hayse code would call this "compensating moral values." This character acted in a way that was contrary to the code's morality, so the film makers had to counter that with a sacrifice. She either had to suffer for her wrong doing or to make up or it with a good deed. In the end she did both.
In the fifties the whole Hollywood system went through enormous changes. Perhaps most important was the anti-trust cases against the major studios. These resulted in the studios' losing of "vertical control" over the entire film industry, from production to distribution and exhibition. The studios were no longer allowed to own the theatres. Another major change that began to happen was the loosening of the Hayse code. Previously Hollywood imposed the code upon themselves to keep the government from snooping around Hollywood. But since Hollywood had been busted, and lost control of the all of the aspects of the film industry--production, distribution, and exhibition--the studios had nothing to lose by bending the code. Also now it was more common that movies were produced by independent production companies and then sold to a studio. In some cases these independent productions were released with out the seal of the Motion Picture Association and not subject to the Hayse code at all. "The Marrying Kind" was a movie produced by an independent production company in the fifties. The movie traces the course of a young couple's marriage, to it's near disintegration in divorce court. Prior to this time divorce was not a fitting subject or a movie according to the code. Marriage was not to be questioned according to the code, and especially women were not to question marriage. "The Marrying Kind" is a comedy that addresses divorce head on, in a society that was now dealing with a vast increase in the divorce rate. In the film the main female character is a powerful woman with her own voice. The film plays on the stereotypes of the nagging wife and the stupid, inadequate husband. In a dream sequence of the husband's he has a nightmare. In the nightmare his wife is shown wearing pants and holding a gun. She is depicted as wielding power here, albeit a simplistic violent type of power. The film is full powerful women. The judge in the divorce court is an articulate woman wielding judicial power. In the end the judge convinces them to stay together, so perhaps movie still endorses marriage as the code, but it puts power in the hands of women. The code was not conducive to giving the powers of articulation, judgement, and independence to women as this film does.
Both "Jailhouse Rock" and "Sunset Boulevard" also depict independent and articulate women, however in both films these women are depicted desiring to be married to a male character. "Jailhouse Rock" shows a woman who is a business partner of Elvis's character. She is shrewd in business and holds things together for Elvis's character. But again in the end she is shown as wanting to be married. In "Sunset Boulevard" there is a young woman who is a reader in a studio. She has her own career and works to become a writer. However she does not do so with out the help of the male protagonist. It is clear that women are becoming more independent and are allowed to speak more and more or themselves in these films but are still not totally independent.
Yet films of the fifties still represented women in a less than respectful guise. In "The Defiant Ones", women are depicted as somewhat pathetic and dependent on men; two escaped convicts arrive at a cabin in the woods where a woman and her son live the woman wants to leave with one of the men. She is shown to be conniving, racist, and evil in the context of the narrative.
None the less, the representation of women in film, during the fifties, was a time of change. Films began addressing more realistic desires and needs of the female populous. But it also seems that the old ways are still powerful. The Hayse code may have lost it's power but chauvinism and sexism still reign. There were no women nominated for best director award in this year's Academy Awards (probably, though I didn't watch them so I'm not positive).