Woman's PicturesDEFINITION AND HISTORY
FILM THEORY AND THE WOMAN'S PICTURE
GENRE, THE WOMAN'S PICTURE, AND
THE FEMALE AUDIENCE
The term "woman's pictures" potentially embraces all films—made anywhere in the world, and throughout the history of cinema—that are about, or are made by, or consumed by, women. In practice, however, in its most common usage, the meaning of the term is much narrower than this, referencing a subtype of the film melodrama whose plot is organized around the perspective of a female character and which addresses a female spectator through thematic concerns socially and culturally coded as "feminine." A considerable and influential body of film history, theory, and criticism has grown up around a highly distinctive manifestation of this genre: a group of pictures produced in Hollywood during its "classical" era, the heyday of the studio system between the mid-1930s and the mid-1950s. In their time, these films were dubbed "women's weepies" and "three-handkerchief movies," a not-very-subtle derogation of their tearjerking qualities and of the gender of their audiences.
In common with the Hollywood melodrama, the woman's picture's characteristic themes involve moral dilemmas and conflicts associated with sexuality, home, and family, commonly set in a middle-class milieu and played out in stories of the fates of individuals. However, the woman's picture departs from the melodrama in two key respects: in the focus and trajectory of its narrative concerns and in its rhetoric. Within the setting of the family, issues that may be seen as of particular concern to women are explored, while at the same time a typical plotline of the woman's picture carries the story from a woman's desire, through her transgression of "appropriate" codes of female behavior and consequent temporary happiness, through to retribution for her transgression and her renunciation of desire and final capitulation to dominant moral codes. A key point of distinction between the Hollywood melodrama and the woman's picture lies in the fact that in the latter the story is told from the perspective of the central female character, inviting identification with the dilemmas she faces and sympathy for her eventual fate—hence the woman's picture's notorious tearjerking propensities.
If the classic Hollywood woman's picture is a sub-genre of the Hollywood melodrama, it also has subgenres of its own. According to Mary Ann Doane, they include the medical melodrama, in which a traumatized or disturbed female character tells her story to a sympathetic (male) doctor (for example, Possessed, 1947); the maternal melodrama, whose plot centers on a mother-daughter relationship and which is typically narrated from the mother's point of view (Mildred Pierce, 1945); the love story, which focuses on impossible choices, misunderstandings, and consequent loss endured by a woman in love (Letter from an Unknown Woman, 1948); and the paranoid gothic woman's picture, in which the central character is troubled by fear and suspicion of the motives and behavior of her husband (Secret Beyond the Door, 1947).
Defined thus as a particular set of themes and rhetorics, and comprising its various subtypes, the Hollywood woman's picture enjoyed its high point during a relatively limited period of time, mainly during the 1940s. The two film versions of Imitation of Life, Fannie Hurst's (1933) novel about a white woman, her black female friend, and their respective daughters neatly bookend the genre's classic era. While the plot of John Stahl's (1886–1950) 1934 adaptation centers on the kinds of issues that were to become the hallmark of the classic maternal melodrama, narrative viewpoint in the film is relatively unfocused and no clear point of identification emerges. On the other hand, the plot of Douglas Sirk's (1897–1987) 1959 remake edges away from maternal issues and moves towards concerns that dominated the 1950s family melodrama, which typically centers on, and constructs points of identification with, wayward adolescents (as in Vicente Minnelli's [1903–1986] Home From the Hill, 1960).
For a while, then, the woman's picture enjoyed a high profile in Hollywood's output, and during this period a number of Hollywood's foremost directors made at least one "weepie." Some of these directors are not associated with melodrama, nor indeed with female-centered plots of any sort (for example, Alfred Hitchcock [1899–1980], whose paranoid gothic woman's picture, Rebecca, was released in 1940). Others include Sirk, whose key contribution as a Hollywood director was to the family melodrama rather than to the woman's picture, but whose Sleep, My Love (1948) is also very much in the paranoid gothic mould, and George Cukor (1899–1983), best-known for his strong female characters in musicals and romantic comedies, who directed the woman's pictures Gaslight (1944) and AWoman'sFace (1941). No Hollywood director made a career or a reputation directing woman's pictures, though; this was a reflection, undoubtedly, of the low esteem in which "women's weepies" were held in their time.
If the lifespan of the woman's picture was short, the genre had its predecessors as well as its successors. The capacious genre of melodrama has been a staple of popular cinema from its beginnings, and many of the earliest films featured female-centered plots or dealt in some way with "women's issues": motherhood (in D. W. Griffith's The Eternal Mother, 1912), for example, and doomed romance (in Frank Borzage's celebrated 1927 tearjerker, Seventh Heaven). Moreover, into the 1920s, a number of female directors specialized in pictures of this sort, most famously, in Hollywood, Lois Weber (1881–1939), whose often controversial social problem melodramas tackled such "women's issues" as divorce, child abuse, and birth control (Where Are My Children?, 1916; The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, 1917). However, while the female desire-transgression-renunciation plot was already a feature of many such films, their viewpoints and identifications are diffuse by comparison with those of the 1940s woman's picture, and their attitudes towards female transgression more unremittingly punitive.
In the 1950s and later, by contrast, the intensely female-centered plots and rhetoric that distinguish the classic woman's picture disappear, giving way, in stories of familial relationships, to films about the "generation gap" (as in Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause, 1955), disturbances and dysfunctions within the family (for example, Ray's Bigger than Life, 1956), and plots centered on male characters (as in Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow, 1956), about rekindled love between a married man and an old flame, told from the man's point of view. At the same time, the themes and rhetoric associated with the woman's picture largely migrated from cinema to television, in particular to social problem dramas and the soap opera. Where woman's picture themes still figure on cinema screens, they increasingly surface in films that are generic hybrids, such as Thelma and Louise (1991), which constructs a female-centered narrative viewpoint but within the conventions of a characteristically male-centered genre, the buddy movie. And to the extent that the family melodrama survives on the cinema screen, it has tended not to be female-centered in terms of either plot or rhetoric. Examples include Terms of Endearment (1983), Ordinary People (1980), and Kramer vs. Kramer (1979).
Where the woman's picture endures, it does so in the shape of the maternal melodrama. But even here, in films about the eternally troubled relationship between mothers and daughters, the woman's picture's distinctive characteristics are diluted. Such films may seem uncertain in their address, as, for example, in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002), whose narrative viewpoint alternates, at times vertiginously, not just between mother and daughter, but between other characters as well. Alternatively, their plots lack believability in a contemporary setting: in Stella, a 1990 remake of King Vidor's 1937 Stella Dallas, for example, the protagonist's self-sacrificial renunciation of her daughter seems unnecessary, even ludicrous. Perhaps because it explores new territory by placing black women at the center of both plot and narration, however, Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple (1985) revives and renews many of the features of the classic woman's picture.
It was not until several decades after its heyday that the classic Hollywood woman's picture at last began to attract serious critical and scholarly attention; in fact, this much-denigrated genre has inspired some of the most significant advances of the past twenty-five years in film history, theory, and criticism. In the 1970s and 1980s, film critics who were also feminists began to interest themselves in the place of women in cinema—at first looking at women as characters in films and as filmmakers and later at women as spectators of films.
The son of Hungarian-Jewish immigrants, George Cukor began his career directing plays on Broadway. In 1929 he moved to Hollywood, embarking on a fifty-year career in the course of which he directed more than fifty films, from his debut picture at Paramount, Grumpy (1930), to Rich and Famous (1981). Reflecting his background in the theater, many of Cukor's best-known films are adaptations of stage plays (such as The Philadelphia Story, 1940, and My Fair Lady, 1964) or are set in the world of actors and acting (including Sylvia Scarlett, 1935, AStarisBorn, 1954, and Les Girls, 1957).
However, while Cukor's cinema work embraces a variety of genres, he is probably best remembered for sophisticated comedies like Adam's Rib (1949) and Born Yesterday (1950), with their trademark quirky, and very modern, heroines. Cukor worked with many of Hollywood's finest actresses (among them, most memorably, Katharine Hepburn and Judy Holliday) and female scriptwriters. (Ruth Gordon co-scripted the enduring Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy vehicles Adam's Rib  and Pat and Mike .) This earned him a reputation as a "women's director."
Cukor's independent, acerbic, intelligent heroines are never less than interesting, and his films characteristically proffer a kind of feminine angle on the world. Yet they rarely identify fully with the woman's point of view, nor as a rule do they address themselves exclusively to a female audience. In this regard, Cukor has been likened to the American novelist Henry James.
In the 1940s, however, like many other Hollywood directors of the time, Cukor ventured into directing "woman's pictures"—family melodramas with "female-centered" plots, closely addressed to female spectators and audiences. A Woman's Face (1941), made at MGM, stars Joan Crawford as a nursemaid with a hideously scarred face who is eventually redeemed from a life of bitterness. Gaslight (1944), another MGM film and an example of the paranoid gothic woman's picture, stars Ingrid Bergman as an upper-middle-class Victorian wife whose husband (Charles Boyer) is methodically driving her insane.
Released in 1981, Cukor's last film, Rich and Famous—he was over eighty when he directed it—is a story of female friendship, featuring Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen as college acquaintances whose difficult relationship survives many years and divergent life choices. As a remake of the 1943 Bette Davis-Miriam Hopkins vehicle, Old Acquaintance, the swansong of this veteran "women's director" fittingly pays homage to, and updates, the classic Hollywood woman's picture of the 1940s.
Sylvia Scarlett (1935), Philadelphia Story (1940), A Women's Face (1941), Gaslight (1944), Adam's Rib (1949), Born Yesterday (1950), Pat and Mike (1952), A Star Is Born (1954), My Fair Lady (1964)
CineAction!, "Hitchcock and Cukor," 50 (1999).
Clarens, Carlos. George Cukor. London: Secker and Warburg/British Film Institute, 1976.
Higham, Chalres, and Joel Greenberg. The Celluloid Muse: Hollywood Directors Speak. Chiacgo: Regnery, 1972.
Lambert, Gavin. On Cukor. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1972.
Levy, Emanuel. George Cukor, Master of Elegance: Hollywood's Legendary Director and His Stars. New York: Morrow, 1994.
In contributions to analyzing the internal textual operations of films and to developing methods for interpreting films, some of these critics explored the potential for reading mainstream Hollywood films "against the grain," against the surface meanings they offered, producing interpretations that opened up a space for understanding women's engagements with films that, on the face of it, seemed to reinforce patriarchal attitudes towards women. Foremost among such films, of course, is the woman's picture, with its fictions of female desire, transgression, punishment, and loss. Could the female-centered narrative viewpoint that marks out the woman's picture, in eliciting identification with the protagonist and sympathy for her plight, undercut the characteristic storyline in which she is restored to her "proper" place? Could the text, at a subtextual or unconscious level,
generate contradictions that the film's eventual resolution could not contain?
In an essay on the relationship between melodrama and the woman's picture, Pam Cook has argued that, in exploring the conflicts faced by women in patriarchy, the woman's picture can never satisfactorily resolve these dilemmas, because it "must first posit the possibility of female desire, and a female point-of-view, thus posing problems for itself which it can scarcely contain" (p. 17). Thus, while the woman's picture brings to the fore the possibility of female desire, the conventions of the genre must at the same time seek to contain it. This conflict, it is then argued, disturbs the text of the woman's picture, which is marked by such "symptoms" as circular rather than linear narrative structure; "impossible" or implausible "resolutions"; multiple points of view; and themes of blindness, mental instability, and suchlike. In this sense, the woman's picture came to be considered the limit case of classical cinema under pressure, a point amply demonstrated in Cook's reading of the maternal melodrama Mildred Pierce, which tells the story of a troubled mother-daughter relationship and in whose closing scene the eponymous heroine (played by Joan Crawford) goes back to her less-than-satisfactory husband.
Alongside these advances in thinking on film's form and textual operations, film theorists began to consider what is distinctive about spectatorship in cinema. Following Christian Metz's exploration of the unconscious aspects of spectatorial engagements with films, Laura Mulvey advanced the concept of a gendered gaze and gendered spectatorship, thereby introducing the conundrum of the possibility of pleasure in cinema for the female spectator. In her 1987 study of "ideological stress" in the classic woman's picture, Doane takes up this idea, distinguishing between the woman's picture's subgenres on the basis of the kind of gaze, or mode of spectatorship, each elicits: in the medical melodrama, she argues, "the woman is most nearly the pure object of the gaze"; the maternal melodrama is marked by voyeurism; the love story by a narcissistic gaze; and the paranoid gothic by the "aggressivity … of the look … directed against" the woman (pp.178–179).
Doane shows that the woman's picture offers ample scope for drawing on concepts from psychoanalysis in analyzing classical cinema's rhetoric and modes of spectatorial engagement; and in relation more specifically to the woman's picture, her work raises a number of key questions. Does the woman's picture set up a specifically female, or feminine, position for the spectator? Does it provide some space for the free play of female desire, or does it simply document a troubling of patriarchally defined modes of subjectivity centered upon the figure of the woman? Questions about female spectatorship raised by the woman's picture have wide-ranging implications not only for film theory, but for the historical, social, and cultural study of the medium as well. Above all, they demand a distinction between, on the one hand, the idea of spectatorship as a description of the modes of (potentially gendered) subjectivity proposed by the operations of the film text—the "spectator-in-the-text"—and on the other, the idea of the social audience for films—the actual people, male and female, who go to the cinema.
It was a woman's picture that prompted a landmark exploration by feminist critics of all these issues: film texts, spectatorship, pleasure, genre, and gender. During the 1980s, the 1937 Stella Dallas, arguably the founding text of the classic maternal melodrama, was at the center of an extended debate in which it was suggested, among other things, that no identity can be assumed between a present-day feminist reading of Stella Dallas and the responses of female audiences in the 1930s. The debate foundered at the point at which this question of the social audience—and specifically the historical audience, the women who saw Stella Dallas in the 1930s—was raised, and this issue remained unresolved. The Stella Dallas debate thus prefigured a key problem facing film theory: the question of the function, and the address, of popular culture—specifically of genres within mainstream cinema—in relation to audiences, both past and present, male and female. What is the relationship
between the modes of subjectivity proposed by the woman's picture and the female audiences to which these films were marketed? How does the woman in the cinema audience, as a social subject, negotiate meanings proposed in the rhetoric of the film text?
In its time, the Hollywood woman's picture was deliberately targeted at female audiences, and not just in terms of the films' "female-centered" subject matter and address. In fact, as Maria LaPlace contends, the textual attributes of the woman's picture draw on a wider women's culture, linking women's consumption of commodities with the commodification inherent in the star system. This, she argues, created a symbolic system in which women could try to make sense of their lives and perhaps even create imaginative space for resistance."
Thinking about the woman's picture as a genre, in other words, calls for conceptualizing films—texts—as nodes in a whole network of cultural phenomena that may include, for example, women's popular fiction, Hollywood studios' production practices (such as, say, scriptwriting), and the Hollywood star system, through to broader cultures of consumerism and femininity. The distinctive features of the woman's picture as a Hollywood genre of a certain period are shaped through its combination of historically-specific textual, intertextual and contextual attributes.
LaPlace tests this approach in a study of Now, Voyager (1942), a film based on the best-selling 1941 novel of the same name by Olive Higgins Prouty and starring Bette Davis as an embittered, unattractive woman who eventually breaks free of the thrall of a domineering mother and finds a man she can love, settling finally for something less than the conventional happy ending. Drawing on a range of nonfilmic source materials, including studio pressbooks, fan magazines, film posters, and studio production files, LaPlace shows how, in the 1940s, this film participated in, and contributed to, cultures of femininity and consumerism. Through its particular intertexts of production and consumption, the woman's picture constructs cultures of femininity and consumerism.
This kind of study of the genre can be productively extended to take in the films' reception by real-life audiences as well—an approach that may demand attention to an even wider range of phenomena and source materials. A crude measure of a film's popularity can be readily obtained from box-office statistics, while the tone of critical and film industry responses can be gauged from contemporary reviews. So, for example, in a study of the production context and intertexts of Mildred Pierce, Albert LaValley notes that, while the film was a huge financial success on its release, it was far from being a hit with critics, who dubbed it a "tortured drama" and "another tear-sodden story of Mother Love" (pp. 50–51). The gulf between critics and box office neatly sums up the conundrum of the woman's picture: denigrated for its overemotional (that is, feminine) preoccupations and tone, it is also an immense draw for filmgoers.
How did contemporary audiences experience and relate to the woman's picture? The answer to this question remains something of an enigma. From the content and address of the films, from the ways they were marketed and promoted, from reviews, and even from boxoffice statistics, conjectures can readily be advanced. But even so, the actual experience of female audience members at the time is elusive. Sources of data are often patchy, inaccessible, difficult to interpret, unreliable, or simply nonexistent. Consequently, there are few in-depth accounts of historical audiences' responses to particular films or genres, while the creation of new data in this area is beset by numerous methodological, conceptual, and practical pitfalls.
Nonetheless, a few attempts in this direction have been made, including Jackie Stacey's Star Gazing (1994), a study conducted in the 1990s of British women's memories of cinemagoing in the 1940s and 1950s, and Helen Taylor's Scarlett's Women (1989), based on ethnographic research with fans of Gone With the Wind, in both novel (1936) and film (1939) forms. However, neither takes the woman's picture as its focus: Stacey is concerned more broadly with the female social audience, Taylor with a highly distinctive variant of audience involvement—fandom—and with a film that, by any version of the accepted definition, cannot be regarded as a woman's picture. Therefore, we know very little in any depth about the audience for woman's pictures at the time; consequently, there is ample scope for research in this area.
At the same time, however, social and cultural historians have achieved rather greater success in understanding the woman's picture as a form of popular culture and in assessing it in the context of women's history. The 1940s, the heyday of the woman's picture, was a crucial decade for women, in the United States as in many other parts of the world. In relation to the United States, for example, Andrea Walsh (1984) notes that in 1942 eleven million men left for war, the women they left behind took up new and challenging roles at home and at work. When they came back, the GIs found America was a transformed country. Its women had matured and expanded their horizons; and Hollywood was part of this female story of residual and emergent cultural currents.
Against this background, we can see how the 1940s woman's picture, in a key moment in women's twentieth-century history, enacts and constructs a struggle between female independence on the one hand and desire for security in home and family on the other. It is illuminating to note, for instance, that Mildred Pierce was released in the autumn of 1945, just as soldiers were returning home from war, at a time when a large number of working women felt guilty and confused regarding their new roles. As Walsh notes, Mildred's ambiguous reunion with her husband "might be seen as a parallel to that of the war wife and her GI mate" (p.131).
Studies in cultural history such as Walsh's aspire to be sensitive to the historical realities of the moment in which the woman's picture flourished as well as to the situation of its original audience, without lapsing into simplistic notions about films reflecting reality. In conjunction with work on texts, spectatorship, intertexts, and audiences, this sort of approach sheds light on the wider social and cultural factors involved in the rise of the woman's picture, and indeed in its demise, and lends depth to our understanding of the continuing transformation and hybridization of this important film genre.
Cook, Pam. "Duplicity in Mildred Pierce. " In Women in Film Noir, edited by E. Ann Kaplan, 68–82. Revised ed. London: British Film Institute, 1998.
——. "Melodrama and the Women's Picture." In Gainsborough Melodrama, edited by Sue Aspinall and Robert Murphy, 14–28. London: British Film Institute, 1983.
Doane, Mary Ann. The Desire to Desire: The Woman's Film of the 1940s. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987.
Harper, Sue, and Vincent Porter. "Moved to Tears: Weeping in the Cinema in Postwar Britain." Screen 37, no. 2 (1996): 152–173.
Kuhn, Annette. "The Stella Dallas Debate." In Women's Pictures: Feminism and Cinema, 209–214. 2nd edition. New York, London: Verso, 1994.
LaPlace, Maria. "Producing and Consuming the Woman's Film: Discursive Struggle in Now, Voyager. " In Home Is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman's Film, edited by Christine Gledhill, 138–166. London: British Film Institute, 1987.
LaValley, Albert J. Mildred Pierce. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1980.
Metz, Christian. "The Imaginary Signifier." In his Psychoanalysis and Cinema: The Imaginary Signifier, 1–87. London: Macmillan Press, 1982.
Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Screen 16, no.3 (1975): 6–18.
Stacey, Jackie. Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship. New York, London: Routledge, 1994.
Walsh, Andrea S. Women's Film and Female Experience, 1940–1950. New York: Praeger, 1984.