Film Genres | Woman's Film
The concept of a "woman's film" as a separate category of art, implying a generically shared world of misery and masochism the individual work is designed to indulge, does not exist in Europe.
As a term of critical opprobrium, "woman's film" carries the implication that women, and therefore women's emotional problems,
are of minor significance.
A film that focuses on male relationships is not preparatively dubbed a "man's film" but a psychological drama.
In the "woman's film", the woman is at the center of the universe.
Best friends and suitors live only for her pleasure, talk about her constantly, and cease to exists when she dies.
In the rare case where a man's point of view creeps in, it is generally reconciled with the woman's point of view.
That love is woman's stuff is hoary Anglo-Saxon idea, devolving from the American tough guy and
the British public school etiquette that to show emotion is bad form, a sign of effeminacy, and
that being tender in love is the equivalent of doing the dishes. The association takes.
For the housewife, betrayed by her romantic ideals, the path of love leads to, becomes, the dead end of household drudgery.
The domestic and the romantic are entwined, one redeeming the other, in the theme of self-sacrifice, which is the mainstay
and oceanic force, high tide and low ebb, of the woman's film
Central to the woman's film is the notion of the middle-class-ness, not just as an economic status, but as a state of mind
and a relatively rigid moral code. The circumscribed world of the housewife corresponds to the state of woman in general,
confronted by a range of options so limited she might as well inhabit a cell.
The persistent irony is that she is dependent for her well-being and "fulfillment" on institutions - marriage, motherhood - that
by translating the word "woman" into "wife" and "mother" end her independent identity.
She then feels bound to adhere to a morality which demands that she stifle her own "illicit" creative or sexually urges
in support of a social code that tolerates considerably more deviation on the part of her husband.
She is encouraged to follow the lead of her romantic dreams, but when they expire she is stuck.
Because the woman's film was designed for and tailored to a certain market, its recurrent themes represent the closest thing
to an expression of the collective drives, conscious and unconscious, of American women,
of their avowed obligations and their unconscious resistance.
Children are an obsession in American movies - sacrifice of and for children, the use of children as justification for all manner
of sacrifice - in marked contrast to European films about love and romantic intrigue, where children rarely appear at all
and are almost never the instrument of judgement they are in American films.
The sacrifice of and for children - two sides of the same coin - is a disease passing for national virtue, and
a constant theme in films that preach one thing, and, for anyone who is listening, say another.
The woman's film underwent a change between the thirties and forties, affecting and affected by,
the change in the image of women themselves.
The 1940's were more emotional and neurotic, alternating between the self-denying passivity of the waiting war wife
and the brittle aggressiveness of heroines like Davis and Crawford.
1930's heroines were spunkier and more stoical than their 1940's sisters, the difference between a stiff and a quivering upper lip. 1930's films unfolded against a normal society, whose set of standards the heroine automatically accepted.
The social stricture wavered in the 1940's, with women moving up the employment ladder and down from the pedestal,
paying for one with their fall from the other.
There is, as a result, a constant ambivalence in 1940's films, a sensibility that is alternately hard and squishy scathing and sentimental.
The woman's film reaches its apotheosis under Max Ophuls and Douglas Sirk in the late 1940s and 1950s,
at a time when the genre was losing its mass audience to television soap opera.
Eventually women-oriented films disappeared from the cultural scene.
The derisive attitude of the eastern critical establishment won the day and drove them out of business.
Even these films were one of the most profitable of film genres for the major studios in their most golden era,
these films were consistently disparaged by critics as trivial, sentimental, tear-jerkers.
The conflicts familiar to this genre protagonists - the choice between marriage and love, marriage and career,
sexual love and maternal love, the inevitability of compromise and sacrifice - make the genre both embodiment
of the era's social stereotyping of woman's role and a revealing indication of the limited number
of "choices that American woman could make."