Sunday, February 27, 2005

Sometimes It's Hard to Be a Woman

I recently watched the film classic "All About Eve" for the umpteenth
time, and it got me to thinking about what has changed for women
since its 1950 release.

At the time, Bette Davis' career was in decline, a trend that was
happily reversed with the overwhelming success of her outstanding
work in the film. This turn of events is, of course, ironic given her
character, Margo Channing's central conflict: how does a woman
maintain her identity as such while pursuing a career in a man's
world? Who is she when she looks in the mirror, alone in her
dressing room after the day's tasks have been accomplished?
Channing, of course, has chosen a career (one of the few
available to women at the time) that has afforded her great
power and prestige, yet has left her uniquely vulnerable to the
realities of the passage of time. In the film, Davis' character
resolves this conflict not by fighting the prevailing values of the
times but by surrendering to them; she chooses to pursue a
relationship with her significant other, without which, she famously
states, no female can truly be a woman. It is not clear at film's end
whether she completely abandons her stage career, but it is not
difficult to see that it has now assumed a lesser role in her life. (In
one of several ironic plot twists, it is the sociopathic Eve, a person
possessing no recognizably human qualities, who supplants her as
the first lady of the stage.)

Despite the film's domination by strong female characters, its
underlying message seems to be that no matter how much
power women like Margo Channing get, they are still less than whole
without a man to roll over in bed and gaze adoringly at each
morning. As for people like Eve Harrington, a human being
completely lacking in humanity, those are the females that have
successful careers. There is no middle ground here, no balancing
act--one is either a career or a woman but never both.

It is startling to consider how little has really changed for women
in the 55 years since the release of "All About Eve." In the movies,
as in popular culture in general, we are still cast aside once we hit a
certain age, made virtually invisible by a society ever more obsessed
with youth. Worse still, our culture continues to demand that we face
Margo's dilemma: that we choose between relationships/marriage
and career. It is,according to the powers that be, an either/or
proposition. Though we see women doing everything from boxing
to microsurgery on screen, we never seem to see them grow old.
In fact, as far as society is concerned we don't age at all, we simply
disappear (unless, of course, one counts those ubiquitous ads for
various geriatric medications). And without much significant change
in the socioeconomic value placed upon homemaking/relationships/
domesticity, we still seem to be handed the career/woman roles and
forced to choose. We often attempt to do both--to be Superwoman--
usually with disastrous results. And should we have the temerity to
assert that there are, in fact, other alternatives, we are typically
either dismissed as "quirky" or ignored altogether.

As we found out in the '70s, Superwoman doesn't exist (not
even in the comics)--we can't be all things to all people. So we often
give in to the pressure, suppressing a core part of ourselves (either
the desire to love and be loved by another or the desire to achieve
creative/intellectual fulfillment) in order to survive. Indeed, as I and
my close friends get closer to that "certain age," we have found
ourselves increasingly confronted by these issues. Who are we
as women if we are not subsumed by a relationship or consumed
by our careers? Who is that person staring back at us in the mirror?

Of course, at some point, most of us achieve some sort of tenuous
balance in our lives without sacrificing our individuality,
but these are not the heroines portrayed on stage and screen. We
who live in the real world know that being a woman is not an
either/or proposition--it is a balancing act on a high wire (in stilettos
or combat boots) without a net. Someday our culture (and Hollywood,
its mirror), will catch up to who we really are and what we
really want, but only if we stand up and fight for it. Fasten your
seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy night.

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