The Women: Why's It Gotta Be About Men?

Recently I watched the classic 1939 film The Women. I'd heard so much about it - the cast, the fashion, the quotability - so I was really excited to finally see the film. Fair warning, there are spoilers ahead.

I have a few thoughts about the movie, but for starters, the fashion really is something. The film famously includes a technicolor fashion show, where you get to see just what was going on in style in 1939 in beautiful detail. (Not my favorite era, to be honest - the big shoulders and straight hips don't do anything for me - but the sequence itself is absolutely surreal.) Also, just the fact that the film is populated entirely by women - literally, I don't think there are any speaking roles for men - is kind of amazing, then or now.

But, despite the fact that men aren't physically present in the movie, the tagline "It's All About Men!" looms large. The two central characters are Mary, played by Norma Shearer, and Crystal, played by Joan Crawford. Mary is the good wife, devoted to her husband and daughter, a real paragon of womanhood. Her happiness is shattered when she finds out that her husband has begun an affair with the tawdry shop girl, Crystal, much to the malicious delight of Mary's frenemy, Sylvia. 

When I initially watched the film, I had somewhat mixed feelings about the characters. The women are almost universally conniving and gossiping, and their worlds are tightly circumscribed to include little more than shopping and homemaking. From the modern perspective, it can feel very frustrating. Mary kind of bugged me as well - she stands her ground and divorces her husband when he won't break off his affair, which to me felt like a pretty sensible thing to do. The climax of the movie, though, is when she decides to say "screw dignity" and rushes back into his arms at the end of the film. It seems clear cut - the good girl/wife/homemaker wins, and the cheating harlot gets sent packing, losing all the wealth and status her machinations had won her.

The more that I've thought about it, though, the more I've come around to admiring it. For one thing, it's not quite as cut and dry about cheating and husband stealing as it originally seemed to me. Sure, Crystal loses out in the end, but Sylvia, who is a total asshole, also loses her husband to his mistress, and you get the sense that the film thinks that's exactly what she deserves.

Rosalind Russell as Sylvia. 

Rosalind Russell as Sylvia. 

And while much of what motivates Mary comes from her love for her husband, her prime concern is her daughter, Little Mary. She forces the confrontation with her husband that leads to her divorce because her husband has been letting Crystal spend time with Little Mary, which is Big Mary's last straw, and Little Mary is also a major factor in her decision to play the kind of manipulative games she'd previously scorned in order to win her husband back. (Was that last sentence confusing enough for you? Like, couldn't they have named her Sarah instead of Little Mary?) I also think Joan Crawford's Crystal doesn't come off that badly either. Of course, people might have booed and hissed when she came up on the screen in 1939, but from a modern perspective, she's cool as hell. She doesn't have a lot of options when it comes to making her way in the world, so she does what she can do - she snags a man dumb enough to fall for her and takes whatever she can get. When the ride is over, she just shrugs and keeps moving forward. She's a very cold character, but she's also a deeply fascinating one. I would love to see a movie about a character like her, one without an obligatory tragic ending.

The film is a product of its time, and that's something that I'm learning to take into account when I engage with older media. There are some things, of course, that I don't excuse, like racism (I can't watch Breakfast at Tiffany's or Gone With the Wind), but the limited scope of a woman's world was, for a lot of people, just how things were. A woman was expected to get marry, have children, make a home. Many of them were undoubtedly happy doing just that. To judge a film because it doesn't live up to my personal standards of feminism seems a bit unfair.

Who else has seen The Women? What did you think of it?