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Mildred Pierce and the changing nature of gender roles in 1940s America

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The fourth decade of the nineteenth century started on the battlefield, in the middle of a clash for power. The armed conflict strengthened the ideological and political differences between nations, which had been subtly expressed until this point through culture and civilisation. One of the most poignant approaches of revealing or irreversibly distorting the reality of war was through the use of celluloid. Films, apart from being visually arresting, are also capable of framing and sculpting a low-relief of a country’s specific.

Cinema encloses distinguishable traits which illustrate the social fresco, describing the changing nature of genres within film history and of genders within historical backgrounds. One of the targeted countries during the conflagration was USA, which was influenced by the the aftermath of the war in an unexpected way. The particularities of the American status, which recommended its citizens as cinephiles, sovereignty enthusiasts and aficionados of the idea of “self” were moulded by the unforeseen demands of the war.

Besides the crisis which emerged in the emotional sphere, as the ferocious war amputated parts of the family apparatus, the revolution of the female rank both at home and in the society became a confusing situation. The women who until that turning point religiously “performed their gender” according to an unwritten dogma commonly started to refine their beliefs. The circumstances constrained them to assume a gender bivalence and accomplish chores which were regarded as “masculine”.

However, Americans’ love for films was not affected by war. On the contrary, the movies started to portray the dark new reality, including the mutation of gender roles. One of the films which gets to the chore of this voguish topic is Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945), building the central female character according to the revolutionary premises and dealing with matters like divorce, relationship between mother and daughter, betrayal and crime in 1940s America.

Mildred Pierce was made in the imbalanced era when film noir appeared as a prolonged atmospherical symphony of the war. Introducing neorealist low budgets and a ruthlessness never seen on the screen before, the noir, argued to be either genre, either movement, established its own rules of aesthetics and sound. Introducing innovative techniques of telling stories, from circularity to voice over and flashbacks, noir cinema uses dysfunctional relationships to create content and various greys of shadows to tailor it.

There is a trivialisation of the human interior and exterior conflicts in these films, mostly because of their source of inspiration: the psychosis induced by the war to both its contemporaries and their progenies, who grew up in a medium propitious for Freudian slips and traumas. The asserted genre also reflects upon matters of lust, unveiling itself as a sample of the cinema of obsession and erotic fixation: stylised visuals of sexuality replace the discrete sensuality that used to transgress on the silver nitrate’s texture in the past.

Instead of suggesting the adhesion between the enamoured couple, in film noir the audience is faced with a carnival of ardor and addiction that has cavernous roots. The cult of sin is highlighted and heavily punished but characters can attain forgiveness and inner peace through confession. Although aware that confessing as an ultimate resort does not save their lives, the protagonists tend to succumb to the principles of psychoanalysis soothing their torment by regretfully divulging their morally unaccepted acts to people who symbolise righteousness and authority.

The inclination towards doctors, policemen or priests is motivated by the need of the subconscious to be heard and scolded by a paterfamilias figure, as a parallel to childhood. The American situation after the Second World War was shocking and regarded as uncanny by most men and by even some of the traditionalist women who did not perceive the feminine emancipation as a serious process, but as an extinguishable charade. The newness in women’s actions was represented by their filling of the jobs considered to be ‘of men’, as well as heading their families and supporting them and themselves.

Men oscillated between teasing their intentions and finding their new discovered sexuality problematic, elements that have been highly analysed and portrayed in the decade’s cinematic productions. Film noir, “extraordinarily successful as a term”, centred on the masculine scenario of men struggling with other men and being lured by fatal women. In Mildred Pierce, the woman is struggling with men and moreover, from equal positions. Unfortunately, Mildred’s desires are penalised for coinciding with what were considered to be ‘manly targets’.

In spite of the progressivism of having a woman as a protagonist in a noir film where she plays both the investigator and the suspect, Mildred Pierce is not the first film to have exploited unconventional feminine characters. In Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak, 1944), the male protagonist is the victim who is helped by his secretary, who plays the role of the detective. In The Dark Corner (Henry Hathaway, 1946), the investigator is saved by the killer’s wife and in both The High Wall (Curtis Bernhardt, 1947) and Woman on the Run (Norman Foster, 1950), the women are the investigators.

In some films the women were victims, which contrasts to well-known representation of the fetishised femme fatale: in Murder Is My Beat (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1955) and The Accused (William Dieterle, 1949), the woman is falsely convicted by the police. Initially, Mildred Pierce constituted a phenomenon as a connection between ‘Woman’s Picture’ and ‘Man’s Film’ – a clash of the two ‘voices’, female and male. “Hybrid between the investigative thriller and the ‘women’s-picture’ melodrama”, the fact that the motion picture crosses genres restates the duplicity which transpires throughout the film.

Moreover, this distribution of the melodrama discourse and the purity of the film noir character in Mildred’s flashbacks reinforce the idea of confusion and fluctuation of elements. The ambivalence of the narrated story mirrors the same nature for the characters’ attributes and for their gender identity, assertion supported by Pam Cook in “Duplicity in Mildred Pierce”. The duplicitous pattern is visually suggested through the use of contrasting lights and shadows whereas the director’s intentions to lead the audience to the belief that Mildred is the murderer are clear from the film’s debut.

The first shot throws the public in the middle of the action by presenting a murder filmed in a stylised manner but excluding the reverse shot. However, Curtiz follows Mildred’s actions and focuses on close-ups of her guilty expression, transforming her into the main suspect in the eyes of the viewer. Although her innocence is disclosed at the end and Mildred is absolved of the murder by the Law, the rehabilitation does not produce in the eyes of the watcher.

In films noirs it is very common for a woman character “to be set up as an additional mystery demanding solution”, but it is very rare for the female protagonist to narrate her flashbacks, as it might suggest that the film’s narrative voice is hers. Even so, the truth cannot be told by anyone else but the detective who is questioning her, reaffirming the society’s reliance in the convention of genders. The word gender refers to “the social, historical and cultural roles that we think of as being associated with either the male or female sex”, both of them being defined by patriarchy.

Whereas masculinity is thought to be loud and active, femininity is seen as small, emotional and dependent. Judith Butler supports this viewpoint, claiming that “gender is the cultural interpretation of sex” or that “gender is culturally constructed” and quoting Simone de Beauvoir, who has written in The Second Sex that “One is not born a woman, but, rather, becomes one”. In these circumstances, the image of the independent woman with masculine traits, of whose “change in her appearance defines her moral transformation” does not seem to be forced anymore, but strongly motivated by the mankind’s progressive demands.

The women depicted in Mildred Pierce are in positions of “unprecedented power and authority” but this modernity is negatively influenced by the echoes of the gender dogma still lingering in the 1940s, which makes it imperative for the film to punish its women for their bravado, ending with “its heroine’s renunciation of ambitions in favour of a static domesticity”. As a response to the limitations of the gender ideology, Mildred “rebels against the strictures of convention” but is “severely castigated for her ‘deviant’ desires”.

After ending her marriage with Bert and, together with that, her alacrity towards romance, her wishes start to be based on men exclusion. She develops an unhealthy, almost incestuous relationship with her daughter Veda. Flesh of her flesh, Mildred sees Veda as an extension of her own body and psychologically, as a superior self. Together, Mildred and Veda are one single entity, both the phallus and the womb, re-enacting the image of the primordial woman, the symbol of the matriarchy and the plenitude.

Despite the potentiality of this setting, any sexual exaggeration is eventually killed in Mildred Pierce, similarly to the connection between the mother and the daughter. The interruption of their symbiotic bond, which was based on reciprocation in satisfying emotionally and pecuniarily needs between the maternal body and the filial one, mutilates Mildred. The leading female character loses the motivation which caused her to apply the gender role change in the beginning and the hierarchy of discourse is established, “suppressing the female discourse in favour of the male”.

Nonetheless, breaking every mutual structure in the end, Curtiz segregates the confusing and unorthodox liaisons, shining a light on the reiteration of the primeval couple, Bert and Mildred, a remote idea of Adam and Eve, rejoined after the capital sin, in the Oedipal family of patriarchal order. As a conclusion, I consider that Mildred Pierce’s popularity and relevance in the course of the past two centuries is a direct result of its approach of dealing with questions of eros and the mantle of gender.

The roots of the plot are unquestionably factual and the staging of the paternalistic play, in which the man is emasculated and the woman is virile shows a need of reconstructing the family on new coordinates. The film reconsiders the elements present in James M. Cain’s novel, keeping the overall lack of love and the character’s will to control people, but intellectualising the simple plot, which can be reduced to the following sentence: “Mildred’s place is in the kitchen and the bedroom with her husband”. 22] The film’s organisation of the narratives according to advanced techniques and the existence of the female’s voice over does support the feminist movement, but not entirely. In the end, the truth cannot be revealed by the womanly entity, but by the paternalistic detective.

The blinds are opened and the light comes in, which does not only symbolise truth, but masculinity as well, therefore the defeat of the matriarchy. 23] This concept is reinforced by the final shots in which the building’s cleaning-women are on their knees scrubbing the floor. Mildred Pierce is indeed a step forward both cinematically and politically, but it represents only the first flame of the conflict which build around problems of gender equality. Mildred, like any American woman of the 1940s, succeeds in asserting her independence but she is silenced to validate the noir specific, not allowing her to disrupt or displace the values of the puritan family.

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