This past semester we have experienced and analyzed four classic science fiction and politically relevant novels: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, George Orwell’s 1984, Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes, and Jack London’s The Iron Heel. All that deal with questioning, rebellious male protagonists, that have to fight back equally male, testosterone-filled counterparts; written in a very male lead era with big important men. Keyword: men. Now, in the period which all these were written (roughly the 1950s and ‘60s), this would not be a big notice, or even realized. Then of course in 1968, we would get a piece of something called ‘female empowerment,’ and boycotting and bra burning would commence, and the alpha dog status would be tested quite a bit.
I don’t want to come off as one of those hardcore, ‘crazy’ feminists with this piece, but it did occur to me more than a few times while reading the four stories over the semester. Not to say that there aren’t any females featured at all in the books/movies. All of them feature love interests and/or motherly types for the protagonists, and are given traits and purposes to help develop and emotionalize the lead character’s traits and decisions throughout the story. (Interestingly enough, most of the female characters the males are attached to end up getting a rather tragic ending.)
Let’s take Fahrenheit 451 for a first example. The two women who are most important to the protagonist Guy Montag are his wife, Mildred (altered to Linda for the film adaptation)--who has become dependent on the government and pills--and Clarisse McClellan, an outgoing teenager who encourages Guy to look beyond what the government calls, and what he really feels about the world he lives in. (Both female roles would be played by Julie Christie in Francois Truffaut’s 1966 film version.) The element of youth seems to fit in with this story (as well as the others) quite a lot. Mildred/Linda is introduced to us with a suicide attempt from over-dosing on sleeping pills. While all right physically in the end, mentally the woman still revolves her life around the television set in her living room and what the people on it have to tell her. She fears books like the contemporaries around her and her friends are just as ‘prejudice’ and reluctant to read the words inside of them.
Meanwhile, young school girl Clarisse is attracted to the stories written on and is a nuisance to most of her teachers at school. Guy meets her after moving in next door to him during the beginning of the story, and is almost instantly bewildered by her candid use of questioning things around (instead of just automatically accepting them like most citizens). Replacing the word ‘how’ with ‘why’ for most questions. He finds that he is not the only one in this world that is suspicious of the actions the government is enforcing. Unfortunately for Guy, Clarisse is tragically hit by a car and killed near the middle of the novel, and leaves him on his own to test the system. By the end of the novel, it’s assumed Mildred has died also, and Guy is on his own to ‘save the world.’ Both of Bradbury’s women portray different and intriguing qualities for Montag, but in the end it is the man of the story who solves the issue and ends the story.
A similar tactic is used with 1984, with the male protagonist being a contemplative, out of the box thinker, who is lead by his female counterpart to ‘fight the power.’ While the world of 1984 is just as brainwashed and censored as the one in Fahrenheit 451, the living conditions and style seem a lot more bleak and depressing atmosphere. Winston Smith grows up troubled and traumatized in a totalitarian, oligarchy world of complete protection from ‘Big Brother,’ and is introduced rather bizarrely to a young woman named Julia (who randomly gives him a note saying ‘I love you’). His first impression of her before he unofficially meets her is that she has been reformed by ‘Big Brother’ to renounce sexual intercourse and support the Junior Anti-Sex League, because of her choice to wear a red sash often (the same color as the league), and must dislike her. But almost instantly after receiving the odd note, he changes his mind and loosens up.
They then quickly begin a love affair, that they think is secret (and very risky), but are then discovered by Big Brother and must do what they must to save their lives. Unfortunately, this includes ending their relationship, backstabbing each other by turning each other in to the government and both surrendering to ‘Big Brother’s love.’ There was no real love between the couple, only from Big Brother and the citizens, as they are brainwashed. A rather more pessimistic climax compared to Bradbury’s characters, but still another example of how the female role is let off the hook in a rash and harsh manner in Orwell’s world. To be fair, the male does get just as bad of an ending as well, but the fact remains that the lady is not more than a love interest or damsel on distress.
In another of our dystopian, science fiction tales, Planet of the Apes, there are also two important female roles: Zira, the chimpanzee scientist who is arguably the most logical thinker on the planet (played by Kim Hunter in the 1968 film version) and Nova (as played fittingly by supermodel Linda Harrison), the mute young (beautiful) human that the main protagonist—Ulysses (or Taylor, as his name is changed to in the film)--falls for and becomes attached to sexually and personally. Both female characters are most likely my favorite and most intriguing of all the ones featured in the print covered this semester.
Zira and Nova are both completely far apart in terms of similarities to each other, but are still equally important and needed for Ulysses/Taylor throughout the story. Zira is a non-human, yet in this world, the humans are the ‘animals,’ this is not uncommon or strange on the planet. She is the one who defends and aids Ulysses when he is captured and treated like a slave, and is just generally interested in his way of living as a human. Ulysses accepts her as a friend and accomplice. Whereas Nova has no common sense and can barely speak anything coherent, has been raised (or more trained) by the ape government to not be intelligent or have her own sense of opinion. She may not be as ‘brilliant’ as Zira, but she is ‘beautiful’ (a trait that women are usually given credit for stereotypically in this time period given for story and release of date of the novel and film), and that is why Ulysses is drawn to her at first.
By the end of the story, Nova can speak and is even carrying Ulysses’ child inside her, to be ‘almost’ happily ever after (a surprise turn of events will end the story). The one that seemed to pop up and cross my mind often while reading and watching the Ape story, is how misogynistic some of Ulysses’ thoughts are that he is given by Boulle. I do realize, like I’ve mentioned already, that 50-40 years ago was a different era and people’s opinions and state of mind were not entirely on point with most people from today, but it is still a bit obvious for the modern reader. It comes off at one point that Ulysses is only interested in Nova for her body and to prove that he is not different physically than the ‘primitive’ humans and thinks he is the smarter of the two of them. (Of course, by the end, he feels more personally for her though).
Zira is also not entirely independent, she has a fiancé named Cornelius who also helps Ulysses adapt to the new world he is in, but she can and does work on her own with her own ideas and opinions. She can even step up to the leaders of the land (as seen in the film adaptation) and hold her own, and shows that—even as an ‘animal’—she can be in just the same league as Ulysses and Cornelius.
I think that, though many may not realize, the way women are represented in the public is still not exactly as ‘equal’ as we may think, want or have been trying for the last four decades. Recently my roommate mentioned to me that Christina Applegate’s television series “Samantha Who” was cancelled so soon after it was discovered she had breast cancer. Applegate fortunately beat the cancer, but the series was cancelled after the fact and rumor was because her chest was not the same as before. Hmmm. Really? I doubt if the male star of some hit series were to be struck with prostate cancer, would the show really get anything more than a season hiatus.
Now, there have been some respectable images of women in media over the years. Oprah Winfrey, Martha Stewart and Diane Sawyer are always the token ladies that are noted when people discuss successful women. As well as many iconic, fictional female characters in pop culture: from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars to Charlie’s Angels and Laverne & Shirley to even cult personas like Barbarella and Foxy Brown saving the day. So it’s not like there isn’t any lead female action going on in the industry and in front of the camera, but the ratio between men and women is still pretty high.
Let’s trace back to when the media began to breakthrough in its own medium: the early 20th century. When the debut of cinema and ‘motion pictures’ would officially break into the world in 1914, Brit Charlie Chaplin would be the face everyone knows and goes to see in movie theaters. But at the same time, side by side of him would be a cutesy, young Canadian girl everyone knew as ‘The Girl with the Golden Curls’ (or formally, Mary Pickford). Within a few years, the movie studio United Artists would be owned and run by Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., AND Pickford. Probably the most controversial, yet prolific and influential filmmakers (let alone women) of the Old Hollywood age is Leni Riefenstahl. A pioneer in the art of documentary filmmaking in the 1930s-40s, German actress and model Riefenstahl would make the shocking decision to accept Adolf Hitler’s request for her to make films about the dictator’s life and accomplishments in Germany. While complete propaganda and Nazi leant, the work, effort and technique Riefenstahl created would go on to influence the way future documentaries were filmed (particularly the film The Triumph of the Will(1935)).
In 1939, comedienne Carole Lombard was the most paid film star of the year with $150,000 (plus percentage of gross) per film and the first woman actress to be ahead of a male actor at this point in time. And in 1949, glamorous actress Ida Lupino would decide to take a stab at directing her next film feature, Outrage(1950) rather than play the love interest. Lupino would go on to direct eight more features in her career before her death in 1995. Lupino would be the first of many popular film actresses to experiment with behind the camera work, such as Emma Thompson, Jodie Foster and Sarah Polley for the more contemporary credits.
In the mid 1960s, before the feminist movement would go full force and high fashion and art were all the rage, Helen Gurley Brown and Jacqueline Susann would be some of the most successful women in terms of best-selling lists are concerned for their now cult classics Sex and the Single Girl (1962) and Valley of the Dolls (1966). Brown would go on to become the editor-in-chief for the now infamous women geared magazine ‘Cosmopolitan’, switching the main focus from fashion and beauty, to ‘love, sex and money’ (subjects, of course, taboo for the last couple of decades for ladies). Susann’s novel would get mixed reviews from most critics for her ‘lack of writing talent,’ but women all over the country would rave over it and it’s melodramatic portrayal of life in Hollywood and stardom (almost like the birth of the ‘guilty pleasure’).
Susann’s novel created a fast cult following that still grows today. Valley of the Dolls was for a time the biggest selling book ever (with 30 million copies sold), before the decade would be over have a film adaptation of its own campy variety and cult following in 1967. (Sex and the Single Girl would also go on to be used as the basis for a romantic comedy with the same title in 1964.) More recently, female authors J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer have been doing pretty well for the last decade with their fantasy series Harry Potter and Twilight.
Also in the 1960s would be the peak of Rock & Roll in music, with testosterone filled British heartthrobs fronting bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to millions of listeners all over the world. But in 1967, a more psychedelic sound and look would come through with its own fad, and two of the biggest spokespeople for the genre were Janis Joplin and Grace Slick (of Jefferson Airplane). Known for their prolific and original vocals and stage presences, Joplin and Slick would also get notoriety for their own shenanigans and partying just as much as the boys in the band--proving that girls can rock out hardcore too.
In the ‘70s, Carole King would release the best selling album of 1971, Tapestry; and after many line-up changes over ten years, the band Fleetwood Mac would find their key players with Christine McVie and Stevie Nicks at the pinnacle of their career in 1975. Madonna would be named the ‘Queen of Pop’ in the late ‘80s and Shirley Manson and Gwen Stefani would continue being two of the voices for the top 40 hits with their bands Garbage and No Doubt in the ‘90s. In 2005, the hip hop group Destiny’s Child were declared the best selling girl group of all time, and their lead singer, Beyonce Knowles was just recently named the most successful female music artist of the decade.
As a female trying to go into an industry that is still very male dominated (film), I know it’s not going to be something that just changes over night or people care about first off, but I’m also not going to sit around and complain like someone should pity me. So what if there might be 10 guys to ever girl working in movies or music, the point is that we ‘ladies’ can and still are working in almost every job out there that men are because we can. And maybe one day (even soon, if we’re that lucky), we have a complete level of equality between sexes, but until then, we are still getting there and won’t stop. Yes, the four novels covered in class this year were very male oriented and come off chauvinist at times, but they were written by men themselves, and in a time were the, for lack of a better word, ‘alpha dog.’ But that was then, and this is now. There is no ‘alpha dog’ and each sex can be just as successful in whatever medium they’re tackling.