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Real Feminists Dance in Their Underwear
You probably have a halfway decent mental image of feminism in ’70s pop culture. The Stepford Wives depicting the housewife-hell of suburbia, Gloria Steinem in her badass tinted aviators, and Mary Tyler Moore making it after all. The Feminine Mystique and the National Organization for Women were freshly etched onto the background of the American narrative, and Paul Newman could say he was “sexually liberated” in Slapshot with reasonable certainty that most people would get the joke.
Hardcore cinephiles talk a lot about the feminist arthouse films of this period, like My Brilliant Career and the ostentatiously titled Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. More casual viewers think of Rhoda and Maude and probably Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman (who still holds up, by the way). But somewhere in the middle, there are a few accessible and 100 percent kickass feminist forces from the 1970s screen that seem to be eclipsing from public memory.
Chief among them is Jill Clayburgh. Effervescent, funny, and crazy talented, Clayburgh hit her stride in the ’70s and ’80s playing everything from Golden Age movie stars to Hell’s Bedroom sex workers. Most memorably, though, Clayburgh had an uncanny habit of bewitching even staunchly nonpolitical audiences by playing relatable characters who didn’t proclaim they were feminists — they just happened to be grappling firsthand with fundamental feminist issues. A great example of this is a delightful 1978 film written and directed by Paul Mazursky that’s well-liked but should be way better known: An Unmarried Woman.
It’s a simple story about a lady trying to get her shit together after her husband blindsides her with a divorce, but it’s told in that awesomely ’70s style that’s more concerned with characters, mood, and themes than with the granular machinations of plot. By way of this artistic mode, the movie leverages its well-trod premise into an inroad for mainstream audiences to see feminism in action, focusing intently and exclusively on the female experience. The divorcee Clayburgh plays is an Upper East Side Manhattanite named Erica who enjoys jogging along the East River with her husband, Martin (Michael Murphy), working part-time at a SoHo art gallery, and parenting her teenage daughter, Patti (Lisa Lucas), with only a smidge of the unnerving “do your own thing” freedom that characterizes parenthood in most ’70s movies.
Sounds basic, I know; it’s not an art film, and it’s not trying to be. But what An Unmarried Woman is trying to be (quite successfully) is a hugely enjoyable movie that hits each mark in its unpretentious storyline through a constant stream of realistic observations about what it’s like to be a woman in 1978, suddenly forced to figure out how the brand-spanking-new ideals of this whole feminism thing apply to you — in real time.
It may feel like well-worn territory when Erica’s stockbroker husband up and leaves her for a younger woman, but the film balances its cliched tropes with the details that actually matter. Like when Erica goes to therapy (with real-life psychotherapist and feminist Penelope Russianoff) and something randomly makes her recall how she felt about getting her first period. Or when she’s talking to her schlubby, unassuming doctor just minutes after a my-husband-just-walked-out-am-I-dying? physical, and he doesn’t worry it’ll fuck up their entire doctor-patient relationship to ask her out for drinks. (She calmly but incisively calls him out and it’s totally gratifying.) Hell, even the simple fact that Erica sleeps in a T-shirt and her underwear instead of a fancy nightgown sets the movie apart from almost every other movie of its era.
There are zero concessions to men — either in the film or in the audience, proceeding under the dictum that any dudes in the theater who can’t handle that can go next door and watch Animal House again. If you wanna get snobby about it, you could probably argue that as a result of this approach, Erica’s ex, Martin, is a bit one-dimensional; he’s basically a selfish, indefensible babyman whose own perspective is never implied to be worth exploring. He starts self-pityingly bawling in the middle of the street as he tells her he’s leaving, while she ducks around a corner and barfs.
And hey, as long as we’re discussing the film’s imperfections, I might as well mention that if society hasn’t fully woken up to intersectionality in 2017, you can bet it wasn’t front and center in 1978. Erica’s straight whiteness, not to mention her bonkers economic status, are fair points to criticize. I mean, she doesn’t quite live in a prewar Central Park West condo out of Eyes Wide Shut, but even in 1978, when normal people could still afford to live in Manhattan, paying for an Upper East Side apartment for sure meant you were upper class. (Or I guess maybe “upper-middle class”? If there’s a difference?)
But it has to be said that some of these elements are actually what make the movie so brilliant. Mazursky chose not to come at you with all the discomfort of a gritty drama or an arthouse film, because he wasn’t aiming for the niche audience of cinephiles who seek that stuff out. That crowd could go see Coming Home — they’re usually already socially conscious anyway. Mazursky was aiming his film at mainstream viewers who go to the movies to be entertained. And by presenting Erica’s pain, confusion, and struggle to know herself within the apartment-porn fantasyscape of a Hollywood movie, he makes the feminist ideas perfectly palatable. Nobody thinks they’re being preached to; the main character is as unsure about what feminism is and what it means to her as anybody watching might be. Erica’s battle to free herself from the patriarchal decree that her identity is defined by her place in a family unit is compelling on its own merit, without the actual word “feminism” even needing to be uttered out loud. Audiences sympathizing or empathizing with that battle are internalizing feminist ideals whether they know it or not.
There were undoubtedly plenty of women in the ’70s who had already been neatly packaged into their roles as wives and mothers when the women’s liberation movement first hit in the ’60s and were happy to assume it didn’t apply to them, only to find themselves wondering later, when their own hearts or circumstances changed, if perhaps they’d missed something crucial. For that matter, there are new people out there every day, living through an experience and hearing about situations that make all these abstract concepts suddenly become so personal that a cartoon light bulb appears above their head as they mutter, “Oh shit, is this what feminism is about?”
Erica and her tight squad of girlfriends (who she confesses to love probably more than her husband, beating Sex and the City by two decades) don’t sit around debating about the intentionality of the patriarchy and reading Anne Koedt essays. They just talk about the stuff people talk about. They ponder why modern actors never seem to match the star power of divas like Bette Davis and Katherine Hepburn; they describe their desires, their emotions, their sexual appetites; they trade experiences with various self-help systems and consider checking out the “new swami in town” (gotta love the ’70s). And just like with much of the movie, most of what they’re dealing with are, in fact, feminist issues — stuff pertaining to the female pursuit of happiness and fulfillment without gender-specific barriers holding them back. It’s brilliantly simple and beautifully subtle, almost subtle enough to escape notice. Almost.