There may be no more indelible image of the prison of housewifery than the old Ajax ads: American womanhood cowered in the kitchen before a white tornado, which, in its scouring fury, beggared her puny attempts to keep the place clean, then magnanimously offered succor and partnership. Such images are long gone, but American movies today have appropriated the twister -- with a twist. In both "Places in the Heart" and "Country," American women confront actual tornadoes with jaws locked and foursquare shoulders. Disasters, natural and man-made, are part of the family diet, and it is the women, not the men, who have the strength to stand up to them. This is feminism of a sort, but what kind of feminism is it?
Robert Benton's "Places in the Heart" tells the story of Edna Spaulding, a 1930s Texas housewife who, when her husband is shot, must turn to cotton farming in order to save The Land. A black field hand provides the technical savvy, a blind boarder (in a brand of role reversal) helps out in the kitchen and with the kids, but it is Mrs. Spaulding who provides the will to survive -- who faces down the foreclosing bank, the chiseling cotton dealer, and, of course, the tornado.
In "Country," which was directed by Richard Pearce but is as much Jessica Lange's movie as anyone's, Jewell Ivy, a modern-day Iowa housewife, is similarly alone. Her husband disintegrates and deserts her at the first whiff of trouble. It is her strength, keeping the family together and organizing the neighbors against yet another foreclosing bank, the government and other wielders of the bottom line, that, once again, saves The Land.
Strength, though, comes at the cost of everything that might make these women individual; they're so full of grit, there's hardly room for anything else. Lange plays Jewell Ivy with a resolute blankness; Sally Field, as Edna Spaulding, presents a uniform mask of suffering. What to make of these cheekbones? Neither jokes, or shows feeling; and Lange, at least, rarely betrays her doubts or weaknesses, even in a private moment, as Diane Keaton did so effectively in "Shoot the Moon." (Field makes one tearful admission that she wishes her husband were alive.)
The men in these movies, on the other hand, are full of feeling -- they break down, they show tenderness. Although Lange and Field are two of the most appealing actresses in movies today, for the most part they are alone, and the men leave them that way, and they seem to like that fine. The most ordinary human desires, it seems, would betray weakness. They are, like The Land they struggle for, not characters but symbols. And, like The Land, inscrutable on a human level.
That Hollywood would come up with two formulas so uncannily alike indicates not a dearth of imagination, but rather how much like a seismograph the movie industry is toward shifts in popular mores and attitudes. Movies end up looking alike because several moviemakers search, at the same time, for the same audience. So the strong woman is the woman chosen for the '80s. What "Places in the Heart" and "Country" reveal is what has been gained, and what remains, from the feminist revolution.
Edna Spaulding and Jewell Ivy are creatures of a hygienic, humanistic brand of feminism, equal to men because strength is strength, a quantity independent of personality. Women in these films are equal to men in the way that one empty house looks the same as another. Certainly, the movies have been too full of weak women -- what Pauline Kael has called the "Be careful, Matt" school of filmmaking -- but the films of the '30s and '40s occasionally gave us strong women who had some zing and zong besides. For every Jean Harlow or Constance Bennett, there was a Katharine Hepburn, a character exemplifying female independence; the new strong woman, however, is an altogether different type. When Spencer Tracy crows "Vive la difference!" and drags Hepburn into the sack at the end of "Adam's Rib," it's not a sign of defeat, and it's not incongruous, either, as it would be for, say, Edna Spaulding. What's left of feminism in these putatively feminist movies is an equality accorded to the ruled on the ruler's terms: these films stand simply for the proposition that women in the movies can be as stolid and boring as men. Big deal.
Running parallel is the treatment of feminism in "The Bostonians," based on the Henry James novel recounting the early days of the women's movement. Director James Ivory and screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala seem to have essayed an endorsement of feminism (the ending of the movie indicates as much), but the movie they ended up creating suggests the opposite. As in the novel, the drawing-room feminists are drawn to Verena Terrant, a young, seemingly divinely inspired orator; but Ivory has cast Madeleine Potter as Verena, an insipid ingenue as plain as a doughnut, with the rhetorical style of show and tell. Only the craziest ideologues could be moved by this banal chatter; when the crowds go gaga, the effect is one of freakishness, which is only aggravated by including such strikingly unusual presences as Wallace Shawn and Linda Hunt (a wonderful actress who is hopelessly miscast) among them.
Olive Chancellor, a wealthy old suffragette, is among those mesmerized by Verena, although her motives turn out to be more sinister. She constantly paws at the poor girl, stares at her neck like the Countess Dracula; this is lesbianism 19th-century style, a kind of disease that has left Olive, as played by Vanessa Redgrave, arid and neurasthenic. Lesbianism, of course, loses out to the more conventional sexual appeal of Basil Ransom, played by Christopher Reeve, who, with his slight, tapered nose, whiskers and long shag of black hair, offers an animal amiability -- he's a big, smirking chipmunk. Feminism in "The Bostonians" is nothing but an elaborate canard disguising sexual deviancy, the feminists themselves a gaggle of the bizarre, who have kidnaped this giggly sprite from her ultimate destiny: marriage, kids and a politely brutish hubber. What is this but a redneck's idea of feminism?
The approach of other movies is no more appealing. Earl Mac Rauch and W.D. "Rick" Richter wrap the perils of "Buckaroo Banzai" around a latter-day Pauline. Penny Priddy is Buckaroo's love interest, although the love is founded on nothing deeper than a resemblance to Buckaroo's old flame. Penny is captured by the baddies and must be rescued; the woman here is reduced to a prop, dragged in at convenient points in a tattered pink party dress to provide a naughty glimpse of flesh and move the plot along. It's the same role Kate Capshaw played in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," and the built-in excuse is the same. The role is a quote from the old movies. The usage is ironic. Tongue is riveted to cheek. Indeed, in "Buckaroo Banzai," Rauch and Richter have underscored this by casting against type -- Ellen Barkin, a skilled actress, has a prizefighter's blunt nose, slitted eyes and chunky carriage, so the prurience feels utterly incongruous.
Such parodic knowingness is just a way of painting over the filmmaker's inability to move beyond convention. In the same way, the new strong woman doesn't venture beyond the movies' old sexual dilemma. These movies give us women without qualities, but the choices, the sense of imaginative possibility, are the same. You're either a man (or a woman as man) or a bimbo. The appearance of strong women in "Places in the Heart" and "Country" only confirms the suspicion that we are still not comfortable with the idea of strong women -- their vision is not altogether foreign to the old-fashioned, locker-room line on the career woman: humdrum, humorless, asexual. Perhaps as filmmakers like Amy Heckerling (whose woman's perspective enriched and enlivened the teen-sex genre in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High") or Susan Seidelman (whose "Smithereens" was a vivid portrait of a young woman's frustrations) break into Hollywood, they will provide us with strong women of some texture. Movies, after all, shouldn't just hold the mirror up to life -- they should, in some small way, inspire us.