Sunday, January 25, 2009

Something Else Besides a Mother: Reexamining a Feminist Classic

This semester, I'm teaching a graduate seminar in film theory that will examine three different film genres/types: melodramas, crime films, and horror films. In fact, we'll be discussing many representations that are ripe for feminist analysis: sacrificial mothers in the 1930s "woman's film;" manic lesbians in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures and Jean-Pierre Denis's Murderous Maids; castrating women in Mitchell Lichtenstein's Teeth and Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct; both female victims and valiant "final girls" in 1980s slasher films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween. The films selected for the course, and the accompanying readings, certainly betray my interest in genre films and their often contradictory and inflammatory representations of the female subject. Since I thought all of this might be of interest to Fourth Wave readers, I'm planning to share highlights from each week's seminar in the hopes that readers might find these films interesting, perhaps even weighing in on the debates that crop up in my classroom each Tuesday night. So I'll start with a film that is likely familiar to anyone who's spent any time reading feminist film theory: Stella Dallas.

King Vidor's 1937 film has been debated almost to the point of exhaustion in the 70-odd years since its release. Yet, Stella Dallas's central questions--What, precisely, does it mean to be a good mother? What, if anything, should a mother sacrifice in order to ensure her children's happiness--still feel strikingly modern and ripe for debate. My students certainly expressed a wide range of opinions about Stella's struggles. The film focuses largely on its titular character, a feisty working-class woman, Stella Martin (Barbara Stanwyck), who seduces and marries a man seemingly far outside of her league, Stephen Dallas (John Boles). In this clip from early in the film, we see the method by which Stella attracts the attention of the eligible, handsome, and rich bachelor.

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With Stella's mother prominently displayed in the background looking haggard and unhappy, this scene makes it clear that Stella's decision to woo Stephen is motivated by a desire to avoid becoming a tired "mill hen" like Mrs. Martin. Unlike her brother, she believes in being ambitious in searching for a spouse. So what's so interesting about that, you might ask? Hollywood constantly depicts women who use their sexuality to escape poverty via marriage, who hood-wink men into marrying them by recasting themselves as picture-perfect examples of wifely compliance. However, Stella Dallas's story becomes increasingly complex and inspires a debate about whether women want, or should want, "to be something more than a mother."

I'll summarize the narrative so that readers may have some insight into why this film has attracted the attention of so many feminist film theorists: shortly after the above scene Stella manages to win the hand of Stephen Dallas, much to the surprise of both the upper- and working-class citizens of the mill town. In one particularly telling scene, the couple go to a movie after which Stella expresses her desire to become just as refined as the women she sees on screen. Although he counters that Stella should remain 'just they way she is,' Stella's proclamation clearly impresses Stephen. Though it later proves to be an empty statement, one can't help but admire Stephen's insistence that Stella is far more interesting than the cookie-cutter women he sees in their town or on the silver screen.

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Following a brief courtship, the couple marry and, after the passage of an indeterminate amount of time, have a daughter, Laurel, whom they both adore. In fact, even though Stella used to make fun of the other mill women who were so eager to have children, she is surprised to discover that she loves being a mother. In fact, when her friend Ed Munn asks why she doesn't get out much anymore the former party girl proclaims, "I don't seem to get any fun out of a good time anymore. All the time I'm out I'm thinking of [Laurel] and what she's doing and how soon I can get back to her." To my mind, Stella's comments speak to both her particular situation and to today's debates about motherhood. Certainly, I'm troubled by Stella's house-bound state, her willingness to give up all her social activities, every time I watch that scene. I wonder what happened to the woman who enjoyed parties and meeting new people. What happened to Stella's plans of going to school so she could obtain a job. Why must she only sew clothes for little Laurel when Stella can design clothes that look like they belong in an up-scale boutique. On the other hand, I also must acknowledge that Stella seems to truly enjoy the role of devoted mother. She is doing precisely what seems to make her happy.

Yet, despite her obvious devotion to her daughter, many members of Stella's community--including her husband--deem her too crass to be a good mother to Laurel, and her husband decides that moving away from Stella's working-class roots will allow them to "start fresh" and encourage Stella to become a more refined, upper-class wife and mother. However, Stella longs to remain in the community she has always called home and refuses to join Stephen in New York. With Stephen making only occasional visits home, the couple's relationship becomes increasingly dysfunctional. To make matters worse, while in New York, Stephen runs into his first love, Helen Morrison (Barbara O'Neil) while purchasing a gift for Laurel's upcoming birthday. Many years before, just prior to his first meeting with Stella over sandwiches in fact, Barbara left the mill town to marry, leaving Stephen broken-hearted--not that one would have guessed given Stephen's eager romancing of Stella. Stephen sees in Barbara, the picture-perfect mother of three picture-perfect boys, the kind of wife and mother he thought Stella could become with a little coaching. And, as luck would have it, Barbara, with down-cast eyes, informs Stephen that she is now a widow, which allows Stephen and Barbara to renew their relationship posthaste, with Laurel paying frequent visits to the Morrison's lavish Long Island home.

Though she obviously loves her mother dearly, Laurel quickly become enamored with both the Morrison's high-class lifestyle and Barbara's particular brand of femininity.

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Eventually, Stephen tries to persuade Stella to grant him a divorce, but she steadfastly refuses--until she learns that her own working-class roots are preventing Laurel from fully integrating into the upper-class world that Stella had long dreamed of accessing. Laurel falls in love with the wealthy Richard Grosvenor III (Tim Holt) during one of her trips to New York to visit her father, but now she is in danger of being ostracized due to her mother's flamboyant attire and crude behavior. In the following scene, one can see how Stella's unique attitude and style of dress may hamper Laurel's ability to move up the social ladder and win Richard's hand. Though she has the money to grant her entry into the country club frequented by the Morrisons and the Grosvernors, Stella cannot project an image of feminine beauty that will satisfy this crowd. In fact, Stella embodies a vision of womanhood, and motherhood, that turns her into an object of ridicule within this button-down, country-club community, one that will likely cause Laurel to lose the affection of Dick Grosvernor.

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Or is there another way to read Stella's feminine self-presentation? Are her attire and her crassness signs of naivete and failed imitation? Or is Stella expressing an admirable devil-may-care attitude that exposes the absurdity of this upper-crust imagery? I'm not sure Stella cares one bit whether those country club snobs approve of her sartorial style--that is, until that sartorial style begins to have a negative impact on Laurel's life.

Shortly after the above scene, Stella decides that perhaps her critics were right: she's bad for Laurel. Stella becomes convinced that a complete severing of the mother-daughter relationship is the only way for Laurel to achieve the full transition to the upper-class that has eluded her mother. As a result, Stella tells Laurel that she has fallen in love with loud-mouth, drunkard Ed Munn, a friend whom Laurel has always loathed. Stella emphasizes that she cannot pursue this relationship with Laurel hanging around and explains that she wants to "be something else besides a mother" at this point in her life. The viewer knows this proclamation is all a lie, but Laurel runs back to New York, completely heartbroken.

An ellipses follows this wrenching scene between mother and daughter and the film immediately moves to the day of Laurel's marriage to Dick Grosvenor. And it is this final wedding scene that often inspires the most heated debates among viewers and critics. I know my students certainly disagreed about how one is to interpret the film's final moments: Laurel mourning her mother's absence on her wedding day while Stella stands out in the rain, stealing a glance at her daughter's wedding before walking away with both a wide smile and tears clearly visible on her face.
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What happens to Stella after that moment is anyone's guess. And there's the rub. Viewers often debate about whether this final moment is a sign of Stella's victory--she has happily assured her daughter's success--or a sign that Stella has simply become complicit in her own demise. Stella has been convinced to give up the thing she desires above all else--her child--because being a good mother means making that ultimate sacrifice. I wonder where Fourth Wave readers might fall in this debate. Whether you've watched the entire film or only the clips I've posted here, I'd enjoy hearing how our readers might interpret that final scene of Vidor's much-discussed film. Until next week, when I'll bring you the highlights of some feminist-minded aspect of our discussion of two classic Douglas Sirk melodramas: All That Heaven Allows and Written on the Wind. Hopefully, this series will encourage me to become a more regular contributor to FourthWave as I've certainly been lax in posting!

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