I wrongly assumed that it would be easy to fire off a blog briefly summarizing the history of women’s pictures. When I began, I quickly realized that it is a genre that’s simplistically treated as synonymous with both weepies/tearjerkers and their near opposite, the rom-com; it quickly proved to be more than I bargained for, which is why it’s showing up on this, the last day of Women’s History Month. The history of the genre occupies an interesting position, little discussed and yet obviously affecting and responding to the Hollywood narrative, the larger global film market, and broader history. Anyway, it proved to be a bit too much so, here’s the fast & furious driveby account of a genre that deserves more.
First of all, tear-inducing films are by no means all women’s pictures, which is why someone coined the annoying term “guy cry” for young male-targeted stories/films about dying dogs (e.g. My Dog Skip, Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, &c). For adult males, sentimental melodramas (usually tempered by the macho backdrop of war, the wild west or sports (e.g. Bang the Drum Slowly, Brian’s Song, Knute Rockne) allow men the opportunity to cry with less shame. But, whereas men generally try to resist crying, telling themselves in the heat of a battle scene as the hero lies dying in his buddy’s arms, “It’s only a movie. It’s only a movie. You will not cry!”; women, it is assumed, seek out movies with the hope that they will have “good cry.” I have no doubt that this is part of why women’s pictures have rarely been afforded serious critical examination and were only lauded, for the most part, near the beginning of film history.
During the silent film era, most truly snobby critics still viewed film as an inferior art form unworthy of serious discussion, except to point out its deficiencies. Those few positive critics were usually decidely populist and they, of course, loved the maudlin stories, over-the-top action and improbable coincidence of silent melodramas. Most of still-critically-worshipped director D.W. Griffith’s supposed film innovations were borrowed directly from tawdry works of decidedly low, melodramatic fiction and much of his work can be considered in the women’s pictures genre. True Heart Sudies is about a suffering country girl who continually sacrifices her own happiness to help advance the position of a man who barely knows she exists. In Way Down East, a young innocent is seduced and impregnated by a smooth womanizer who then tosses her aside.
Silent stars like Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford often played spurned or otherwise wronged innocents who suffered mightily at the hands of dastardly men. Both of the actresses played out in ways fitting the conventions of women’s pictures, albeit ones that demonstrate some of the under-acknowledged variety of the genre. Lillian Gish never married nor had any verified relationships (unless you count her close friendship with Helen Hayes or her sister, Dorothy). Instead, she devoted herself entirely to her career for 75 years before dying alone at 99 years old. Pickford’s husband, Owen Moore, was an alcoholic who — unhappy about being overshadowed by his wife’s fame — resorted to beating her, driving her into the arms of dashing womanizer Douglas Fairbanks.
The idea of campaigning for female audiences began when women still didn’t have the right to vote at the ballot box, but did at the ticket booth. With silent film’s reliance on visuals and, usually, highly stylized, dramatic acting, the medium practically seemed ideally suited for melodrama. In the 1920s, Doris Schroeder became in demand for her women’s picture screenplays. Her first screenplay was the provocatively-titled Heart of a Jewess. Her specialty was creating different characters that look like a who’s who of women’s picture stock characters: tomboys, fallen women, vengeful femme fatales and hedonistic gold-diggers. Of course, part of the fun of the pre-Hayes Code era was the ability to show all sorts of tawdry, sordid, gleeful immorality as long as the bad girls end up drug-addicted, rejected or dead. Madame X (1920) was one of the first of such films. In it, a woman (played by Pauline Frederick) is separated from her child and then defended by her unknowing, grown-up son when she’s wrongly accused of murder.
In 1927, the first Academy Award for Best Actress went to Janet Gaynor, the star of 7th Heaven, a woman’s picture wherein a poor, cheated, abused and persecuted woman finds a loving husband, only to have him snatched away to fight in World War I. He makes the unlikely promise to communicate telepathically with his wife every night. Eventually, the heroine thinks he’s died. Against all odds, he returns to her alive… but blind.
It was only when film began to be taken seriously that more serious critics began to dominate film theory. For the most part, they shunned the melodramatic hallmarks of the women’s picture as uncinematic, usually expressing the view that a more intellectual filmmaker’s concerns with film visuals should focus on composition, editing, &c and not emotionally appealing fancy costumes and sets. Somewhat oddly, whereas emotion seems perfectly acceptable in music, from the super sentimentality of Franz Schubert to the comically lachrymose Radiohead, emotion, we are told, has no place in serious film. Of course, all popular film remains, despite critical suggestion, primarily concerned with emotions, whether the genre is action, drama, horror, porn or thrillers. Most audiences go to the cinema in search of an emotional fix. It could be argued that the escapism offered by plutographic spectacle films is almost intrinsic to the genre and extremely cinematic.
The disparity between film critics and audiences is even more glaringly obvious when it comes to foreign films. In most countries, the melodrama (often also a women’s picture) is usually favored by the populace, who’ve frequently never heard of most of the critically-championed films that end up released in America. Look, for example, at Iran, whose New Wave of directors are barely known at home where, conversely, the popular films are generally unheard of abroad.
Women’s pictures’ roots in literature were also ultimately frowned upon as extrinsic contaminants stunting film’s growth. The seemingly convoluted twists and border-line magical coincidences were looked down upon and yet books like Anna Karenina, Camille, Jane Eyre, Madame Bovary, Wuthering Heights and pretty much everything by Jane Austen have nonetheless proven lastingly popular with filmmakers and audiences, who often enjoy repeated movie adaptations every few years.
Occasionally, in the hands of the right director, what would otherwise be viewed as silly clichés are considered (usually in hindsight) ironic social critiques disguised in camp clothing. Many emotionally manipulative directors, despite their frequent forays into women’s pictures, are viewed as serious directors only because they’ve (despite frequently working within the genre) skillfully managed to avoid being seen for what they are, e.g. Erich Von Stroheim, Josef Von Sternberg, Lars von Trier, Michael Powell, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Todd Haynes. Others, like Douglas Sirk, Edmund Goulding and George Cukor, have been redeemed through re-assessment of their work. Because of their ongoing popularity, women’s pictures (though still viewed as low art) remain viable, now re-branded as “chick flicks.” Given a hip, insouciant (and annoying) nickname, directors of chick flicks like Nora Ephron and P.J. Hogan are at least considered respectable, even as most of their works are scarcely different from the disparaged works of their predecessors. When you look at the top ten highest grossing American films, many are arguably women’s pictures and all contain most of the ingredients of the genre, despite their target audience.
- Gone with the Wind (1939)
- Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
- The Sound of Music (1965)
- E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
- The Ten Commandments (1956)
- Titanic (1997)
- Jaws (1975)
- Doctor Zhivago (1965)
- The Exorcist (1973)
- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
The 1930s were noteworthy in the history of women’s pictures for several reasons. It was the dawn of the talkie and women’s pictures became known for featuring a lot of dialogue, another characteristic viewed as inherently anti-cinematic and more appropriate to books. In the first half of the decade, before the application of the Hayes code, studios could get away with more than they even do today. Bette Davis in particular enjoyed a string of successes as women of questionable character in films like Dance Fools Dance, Ladies of Leisure, Night Nurse, Illicit, Forbidden, Shopworn and Ladies They Talk About. Barbara Stanwyck, Greta Garbo, Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich often appeared as either gleefully-immoral or in traditionally male positions to great success.
The musical was also made possible with the adoption of sound. Although almost never described as a subgenre of women’s pictures, there’s little doubt about who is the target audience, Musicals often send up and feminize traditionally male-oriented genres. In the face of the Great Depression, a lighter variation on the wicked woman archetype was the comedic, sympathetic goldigger, as featured in a series of backstage musicals and non-musicals like Red Headed Woman.
In Italy, a series of films were made that, in imitation of Hollywood, portrayed wealthy, conservative families living glamorous, happy lives in their posh homes. The neo-realist crowd called them “Telefoni Bianchi” (White Telephones), after that technological symbol of upper-class frivolity.
The 1940s saw several developments in the women’s picture, many seemingly fueled by the realities of World War II, which resulted in many women entering the workplace for the first time, filling jobs traditionally performed by men. At the same time, many men were shipped off to the battlefront, often never to return. Women’s pictures such as Random Harvest and Waterloo Bridge milked war for all its considerable, tragic emotional worth. In England, however, where the battle came to them, the tendency toward escapism was stronger and what came to be known as Gainsborough Melodramas were hastily cranked out, beginning with The Man in Grey and continuing with Madonna of the Seven Moons, Fanny by Gaslight, The Wicked Lady and Caravan. They were mostly based on adaptations from recent books and all were set in the distant past and provided momentary distraction with fancy costumes and considerable scandal. The years following the war saw an absolute proliferation of women’s pictures. The then newly-common supersaturated Technicolor process was perfect for the heightened emotional state aimed for by genre auteurs like Douglas Sirk.
Production of women’s pictures seems to have reached a low in the 1960s and ‘70s, viewed at the time as conservative, inartistic and passe. Films like Sweet November, Love Story and Looking For Mr. Goodbar all attempted to make some acknowledgment of women’s liberation. Looking for Mr. Goodbar, especially, seems like a cautionary tale to women everywhere who are too liberated for their own good.
The 1980s saw the dawn of the term “chick flick.” I can only assume that it has something to do with the then-popular Andrew “Dice” Clay. Throughout the decade and into the 1990s, Hollywood grew increasingly conservative and there weren’t really any significant developments in the women’s picture in the 1990s, just new faces like Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan. If anything, the women’s picture was stripped of any sense of irony or satire and reduced to a nostalgic echo of a supposedly simpler time.
With the complete proliferation of cell phones in the 2000s, film conversations are now liberated from the confines of land lines and people can talk and talk in any situation. Elizabethtown was the first film to feature every line of dialogue spoken over phones. Still relying heavily on books as their sources, the decade saw so-called chick lit, which had enjoyed incredible popularity in the ‘90s, influencing the women’s picture. It’s surely why the proliferation of films about busy, professional women exploded.
As I noted earlier, there’s a lot more variation to the women’s picture than is usually recognized. And yet, part of the fun is recognizing how often time-worn conventions appear with little change. Most women’s pictures incorporate several conventions in varying combinations, albeit usually with similar aims, including realization of fantasies about the characters who are experiencing significant life changes that revolve, almost invariably, around the central importance of men, which is part of the reason they’re often viewed as socially conservative. But, as earlier noted, there’s often an satirical note and more than a bit of exploitation in the bulk hiding behind the tidy moralizations at the end. I would argue that adherence to formula frees up the viewer to focus their attention on the performer and is the primary way that action, martial arts, porn, westerns and women’s pictures are viewed. Audiences nearly always attribute their failure to enjoy a film to either predictability or bad acting and tend to enjoy films actually offering genuine surprises. Instead, with genre pictures, the enjoyment is derived primarily from the minor tweaks in formula or, more often, the joy derived from witnessing a particular performer travelling down a familiar path, knowing fully what’s coming next. For all of film’s history, women’s pictures have favored not only revisiting similar themes, but frequently relying on the same actors like the vulnerable-but-tough Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Glenn Close, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Julia Roberts, Lillian Gish, Marlene Dietrich, Mary Pickford, Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet, Kiera Knightly, Jane Fonda and Sandra Bullock. The men are similarly tough-but-vulnerable, often English and pretty but not girly, sexually unthreatening fellows. Consider Colin Firth, Hugh Grant, Kevin Costner, Tom Hanks, Rock Hudson, John Corbett, Harry Connick Jr, Matthew McConaughey and Richard Gere.
Variations on a theme with examples:
The Cinderella Story – The fantasy of an apparent everywoman being recognized and transported to a comfy life by Prince Charming is as old as time. The male equivalent is the dork being recognized for his skills (Dark City, The Matrix). Examples include: Woman’s Face, The Bride Wore Red, Low Birth and The Gorgeous Hussy.
I’m Rich, Bitch! – A perhaps more realistic, grown-up variation on The Cinderella Story, these characters are born rich and usually stay rich. Having given up on Prince Charming, the viewer resigns themself to merely peeking voyeuristically at the fabulous outfits of their betters. Often based on real characters, the antebellum south was often formerly the romanticized locale. Now, in more PC times, the more distant past is favored. Of course, the sting of other people’s wealth is lessened if their lives are still miserable. Consider: The Other Boylen Girl, Duchess, Jezebel, Gone With the Wind and The Shining Hour.
The Lovable Obsesssive – Another decidedly child-like cinematic fairy tale, the male characters in real life would terrify the objects of their affection. In these films, death, space-time, the fact that their lust is based entirely on stalking or physical appearance is supposed to be romantic — e.g. Bed of Roses, Forever Young, Ghost, Somewhere in Time and While You Were Sleeping.
Dying Young – Whether it’s the protagonist or their love interest, perfect love is ended when fate cruelly intervenes in a story at least as old as Romeo & Juliet. Sometimes, the victim isn’t even lucky enough to be in a relationship — e.g. Beaches, City of Angels, Dark Victory, Dying Young, In My Life, Love Story, Steel Magnolias, Stepmom, Terms of Endearment and Titanic.
Operation: change-a-bro — Whether taming the bad boy (usually a rich, cocky womanizer) or saving the suffering widower, these films offer the hope of molding a misshapen lump of man into something the woman likes as in An Affair to Remember, Autumn Leaves, Maid in Manhattan, An Officer and a Gentleman, Sabrina or Sleepless in Seattle.
Weddings – Many women’s pictures’ raison d’etre is focused on holy matrimony, as in 27 Dresses, Runaway Bride, My Best Friend’s Wedding, Bride Wars, The Wedding Planner, Rachel Getting Married, The Wedding Date, Made of Honor and My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
The Suffering Mother – These films focus on mothers being terrorized by traumatic events involving their children and play up the old paranoia or maternal sacrifice, sometimes to cover for awful, unappreciative brats. See Cry in the Dark, Madame X, Mildred Pierce, Not Without My Daughter, The Sin of Madelon Claudet, Sophie’s Choice, Stella Dallas and To Each His Own.
Bird in a Gilded Cage – In these films, kept women are content to serve their useless husbands, sometimes reluctantly but selflessly taking part in the scumbag’s schemes and even taking the rap for their illegal activities. Or maybe he’s an alcoholic and she’s the talent. See Hold Your Man, Lost Weekend, Riff Raff or Mannequin.
Mr. Wrong – Everything seems so perfect in these fairytale romances… until the husbands/boyfriends quickly reveal their true colors. Or, they’re already creepy, but the women find themselves trapped. Gaslight, The Net, Sleeping with the Enemy, Sudden Fear and Waitress.
The Romance of Adultery – Sometimes these women are trapped in loveless marriages with galoots, often with mistresses or alchoholic and impotent, but other times, a fling with a handsome stranger reignites the flames in the woman’s heart that her well-meaning husband can’t. Examples include Bridges of Madison County, Brief Encounter, Now Voyager, The Piano, Ruby Gentry and Waitress.
Not Enough Time — Whether single mom’s slaving away at a greasy spoon or as a journalist/author/professional assistant, romance just doesn’t fit into these women’s goals… and yet it nonetheless inevitably finds a way. Check out Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Confessions of a Shopaholic, Devil Wears Prada, How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, My Brilliant Career, The Turning Point, Sex & the City or You’ve Got Mail.
Princess Charming — In the reverse of the Cinderella, the princess, usually urban and sophisticated, somehow falls for a lowly manual laborer, often whilst spending an extnded amount of time in the county. Examples: BUtterfield 8, Kitty Foyle, New In Town and Sweet Home Alabama.
Bouncing Back -– Fresh out of a disintegrated relationship, these films revolve around romantically-wronged women picking themselves up, dusting themselves off, and finding some hot, young manflesh to make everything right, as in Hope Floats, How Stella Got Her Groove Back or An Unmarried Woman.
Cutting Loose -– Not yet ready to date again, these women burn their bodices and find (temporary) solace letting their hair down in the company of women, e.g. The Banger Sisters, Thelma & Louise or Fried Green Tomatoes.
This Woman’s Work — These films show strong women (often queens) who often treat men as indifferently as the worst men do women, thereby showing that two wrongs do make right. These characters usually have more to do with the ice queen archetype than femme fatales. See Elizabeth, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle and Queen Christina.
Manhunt -– These frantic, frazzled, female protagonists won’t be whole until they capture a man. The race is on! See Bridget Jones’s Diary or He’s Just Not that Into You.
The Tramp’s Progress –- Who doesn’t love seeing women sloot around and act like vain, catty, conniving bitches? Especially if they are felled by their sins. Check Beyond the Forest, Cabin in the Cotton, The Letter, Marked Woman, Mr. Skeffington, Of Human Bondage or Old Acquaintance.
Hooker with a Heart of Gold — Basically the Tramp’s Progress crossed with Cinderalla plus Not Enough Time. Or the characters resort to the oldest profession out of necessity, destitute and having given up on love, as seen in Anna Christie, Pretty Woman, Rain, Red Dust, Street Angel or Waterloo Bridge.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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