Placing Yourself in the Movies: Alexander Doty and “The Women”

Auteur theory and the nature of authorship have been topics dogging film theorists and critics for decades now: the former refers to how any given film, despite being a product of collaboration between actors, artists, and technicians, could be attributed to an auteur, or a singular voice or author. Yet there are different conceptions of what constitutes authorship in the cinema, and Alexander Doty examines these through the lenses of queer spectators and queer theory as one of many topics in his Making Things Perfectly Queer: Interpreting Mass Culture. It is specifically in his chapter “Whose Text Is It Anyway? Queer Cultures, Queer Auteurs, and Queer Authorship” where Doty examines how the studio films of directors like George Cukor and Dorothy Arzner and the stars within them (Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo, to name but two) were claimed and interpreted through queer perspectives by queer filmgoers.

Doty explains in this chapter his understanding of auterism and how it is situated in the discussion of authorship generally. He writes, “Auteurs and auteurism might be said to specifically concern the production context of mass culture … while ‘authors’ and ‘authorship’ can be employed to discuss circumstances of production, exhibition (including promotion), or reception.” As he notes, interpretations of auteurism and authorship lay on “contested ground,” noting theorists like Roland Barthes who argued that readers of any given text share in the authorship of the text’s meaning. In the context of the work of directors like Cukor and Arzner, Doty argues that queer spectators have worked “to discover (and create) queer history in order to make it more visible (including the strategy of ‘outing’),” and that long before audiences for these films were aware of their directors’ sexual orientation, the women within them were being claimed as queer. Over time, however, the analyses of of these films shifted from not only interpreting the stars as queer, but to seeing within these films subtle nods and winks towards queerness even as they generally existed comfortably in an industry dominated by heterosexuality. As the queerness of the directors involved in these films’ creation became more readily known by audiences, the queer subtext that may be seen in these films became more and more explicit. Unlike feminist readings of films, Doty notes that queerness is generally not a visible element in many earlier films, and that one must rely on biographical information about those involved in the production of a given film in order to launch into a queer interpretation of it. Thus, because Hollywood is as Doty puts it “hypervisible and pervasive straight culture,” these queer elements manifest “within conventional production and narrative models.” Specific characters, lines, and actions can become infused with queer subtext when one takes an informed look at the film, subtly tearing into the patriarchal, heterosexual norms that dominate the industry. Doty also takes note that in Arzner’s Christopher Strong, Hepburn’s character at one point dons an aviatrix uniform and invests it with “fetishistic power” in scenes where she plays chicken with a male motorcyclist or tells a room of “rich, frivolous, fancy-dress revellers [sic]” that she has never had a lover, or been married, but only because of her devotion to flying. Elsewhere, the film’s protagonist, Christopher, could be interpreted along queer lines for his affair with Hepburn, after being established as the rare example of a husband faithful to his wife throughout their entire marriage. What is critiqued here, Doty suggests, is traditional straight marriages and the “myths of sexual monogamy.”

If such a reading could be applied to a film like Christopher Strong, then one could just as readily apply it to another film which Doty references but does not go into more explicit detail on in this chapter. George Cukor’s The Women is notable for its exclusively female casting — over 130 speaking roles occupied only by women — in an industry dominated by men. These women still discuss extensively the men in their lives, but these men are notably absent in the way these women interact with one another. The film’s plot deals primarily with how Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) and her daughter Little Mary (Virginia Weidler) come to realize that their husband and father Stephen has been having an affair with a perfume counter girl named Crystal (Joan Crawford). What is interesting here is not only the parallel that could be drawn between this film and Arzner’s Christopher Strong in an implicit criticism of monogamous straight marriage, but also how the existences of these women constitute a separate life from their lives with men, and how Mary comes to learn about her husband’s infidelity through gossip mongering and rumor. By infusing these incidents with a queer perspective, one could come to see a subtext of closeted living and of “coming out” or, perhaps more appropriately, of being “outed.” The fact of Stephen’s affair among the women is an open secret, with only Mary and Little Mary remaining unawares until Mary first hears the gossip surrounding her husband. The various characters refer to Mary as living “the fool’s dream” of a contented married life, a kind of closeted existence which their gossiping, much like the gossiping that surrounded directors like Cukor, seeks to expose. Besides this central incident and the dramatic effects it has on Mary’s life, there is also a good deal of dialog which one can provide a queer reading of. One exchange is notable early on which suggests one woman’s lesbianism in particular:

Nancy Blake: You just can’t bear Mary’s happiness, can you, Sylvia? It gets you down.

Sylvia Fowler: How ridiculous! Why should it?

Nancy Blake: Because she’s contented. Contented to be what she is.

Sylvia Fowler: Which is what?

Nancy Blake: A woman.

Sylvia Fowler: Ah! And what are we?

Nancy Blake: Females.

Sylvia Fowler: Really. And what are you, pet?

Nancy Blake: What nature abhors: I’m an old maid, a frozen asset.

Besides such nods to a queer-savvy audience, one could also argue that The Women offers an implicit argument against the centrality of marriage and monogamy in relationships and romance. Joan Crawford, as Crystal, is a perfume counter girl who courts multiple men regardless of their marriage status, and she does so knowing that society will favor men in their ability to have affairs. Crystal is not one for committed monogamy, however, and so even in marriage she continues to hold affairs with other men to fulfill her needs. Queer audiences can see themselves in both sides of this relationship, if one wishes to apply Doty’s form of analysis to this film, as a “homewrecker” and perhaps also as the married man whose needs cannot be met in the home. Neither comfortably fit within the confines of heterosexual monogamous marriage, and while characters like Crystal and Mary’s husband do exist in the confines of a film that ultimately is meant to shore up traditional notions of relationships and romance, they can also be taken as yet another sly nod to the lives of queer audiences.

While I myself do not know if I can claim films like The Women as ostensibly queer cinema, I can at least get behind Doty’s take on it with regards to the pleasures that queer readings of such films can provide. This kind of reading can allow for older, more traditionally oriented films to find new and unexpected audiences, and serve as a form of comfort to those living in less tolerant times and places — that there are others out there who understand what they are going through. Perhaps, also, Doty is right in that this kind of reading of films unearths implicit and subversive criticisms of heterosexual and monogamous practices.