Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942)

A longer version of this article originally appeared in Hecate (Jan 2001).

* * *


Every now and again – generally during the question time of a conference or seminar – I feel like an extra in a 1940s melodrama. Dashing men combat dastardly (and generally dead) theorists. Vixens give good leg while Doris Days and Deborah Kerrs keep honour and integrity intact by seething, not speaking. Last year, I delivered a seminar with three of my postgraduates, which discussed the relationship between female staff and students in a supervisory situation. I expected – and received – a solid female audience. It was an unusual meeting of supervisor and postgraduates: all four of us were aged between twenty-four and thirty. I knew that this situation would not return, and wanted to recognise its oddity and specialness, while ensuring that my students were thinking actively about age, feminism and teaching.

During the question time for this paper, the assembled audience expressed extreme anger. Unfortunately, it was directed at me. One questioner had her arms crossed, voice raised and defences up. She accused me of creating “clones” of myself and over-emphasising the continual patriarchal ideologies within the supervisory structure. After all, she had a male supervisor, “and he was a darling.” Thanks for sharing. Unfortunately, the vixen was only winding up, rather than down. Experience can be a brutal weapon when viciously wielded by the wounded. She explained that I had no knowledge of children or childcare, and would therefore discriminate against women who made a decision during their candidature to suspend for a time to “create a family.” She told the assembled gathering that her male supervisor had been so understanding of her pregnancy, while a friend of hers (there is always a friend, eh?) had been supervised by a (recoiling horror) childless woman who had shown no empathy for her plight. As a result, the friend later withdrew from the Doctoral programme. After the denouement of this tale, much sighing and tittering tumbled from the mouths of the assembled gathering. Single women without children are dangerous: even men are better women than those dried up drag queens.

I remained silent, having no desire to justify my life choices. It has never been my political or theoretical position to be anti-children or against families. My mistake was not to mention childcare and relationships during the seminar. There was a reason for this absence. None of the female speakers, including myself, have children or a husband. We are single and childless, and that was a problem for the audience. I did not realise that – no matter what the context – women must always mention progeny and partners. Instead, I had discussed the workplace and the challenges of balancing teaching and research. Obviously, we now live in an age where all women must – always – possess not only a womb with a view, but also a womb on view.

My thoughts tumbled – awkwardly and incoherently. At this seminar – and for the first time in my life – I felt ashamed at being ‘alone.’ I was a social failure, left on the shelf. Cinematic scenes cascaded before me: Orlando running through the maze – a spinster and alone – as she hurtled from the Georgian to the Victorian era. She was so rash that she actually had sex with Billy Zane – the very definition of desperation. Then I realised, no – I do not feel like Tilda Swinton. I have not got the hair. I am Captain Kathryn Janeway, of Star Trek Voyager, boldly going where no spinster had gone before. No, that is not right either. I do not have the voice, nor the power to mistress a mighty starship. Then, the pain of realisation hit me.

I am Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942): the maiden aunt, the dutiful daughter, the social failure and the sexual incompetent. And I did not smoke, which ruined the whole effect of her seduction. Without the nicotine emerging from two smoking barrels, I was doomed to be alone – forever.

I’d luv to kiss ya, but I just washed my hair (1)

Raised in Boston’s industrial city of Lowell, Massachusetts, Bette Davis was born in the shadow of one war, and worked through the next. She achieved ten academy award nominations through her life, won two, and performed for six decades, through 112 films. Her roles moved from ingenue to slut, and from spinster to “the first lady of fright.” (2) Her career and life survived four husbands (3), a child with mental challenges, a financially demanding mother and sister, breast cancer, a radical mastectomy, a disloyal daughter and a stroke. (4) Despite these social dislocations, she is ranked among the ten greatest stars of all time. (5)

Bette Davis, although possessing moments of glamour and great beauty, played roles that required sensible shoes. Her face and body were padded and rouged: her costumes were neck-to-knee nightmares. Moving from the ageing Queen Elizabeth to the eyebrow challenged Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager and to the vain Mrs Skeffington, her 1940s films presented marriage as a state to be avoided, a complicated entanglement of emotions. She took enormous risks on film, including shaving her head and plastering her face with powder. When asked at an award ceremony if she regretted not being a coveted and adored movie star, she replied, “wouldn’t it be a rather meagre ambition if that was all one strived for?” (6) Her body became a tool to be deployed. She possessed the most recognisable eyes of the century, (7) being carried by a rhythmic walk and enhanced by wet nail polish gestures. Her remarkable vocal projection was necessary for a Hollywood that needed recordable voices for the new talking pictures. Bette Davis was loud: she had character and stamina.

On the screen, Robert Wagner described her performances as doing “things that people didn’t even begin to imagine.” (8) Her first (9) remarkable role was Mildred Rogers, in the 1934 RKO production Of Human Bondage (John Cromwell). It was the rawest, most brutal performance yet recorded on film. It was also one of a small number of filmic texts of the time devoid of any romance. Playing a woman with few redeemable characteristics, she utters – in a manic spin – the greatest filmic putdown:

Me? I disgust you? You’re too fine. You cad. You dirty swine! I never cared for you, not once . It made me sick to have to kiss ya. I only did it because you begged me. You hounded me! You drove me crazy! And afterwards, I wiped my mouth. Wiped my mouth. (10)

This was the first of many roles where Bette Davis enlarged the parameters of acceptable female behaviour. As she aged, she found it difficult to obtain work, but never ‘retired.’ As Roddy McDowall reminded,

She was a highly driven working woman, in a time when that sort of force doesn’t have the same currency as it does today. She had to fight for everything. (11)

To make her fight even more difficult, her private life was a mess. Beaten by all four of her husbands, it is no surprise that Bette Davis, when reviewing her life, believed it would have been easier to remain single. Her first husband, during divorce proceedings, proved mental cruelty because of Davis’s attention to her career.

Attorney Flannagan: In what respect was your wife cruel to you?

Nelson: I expect it was as a result of her career . She thought her career more important than marriage.

Flannagan: Did she tell you that?

Nelson: Yes, she did. (12)

The divorce was granted. While Ingrid lost Bogey on the foggy tarmac, Bette Davis managed cinematic loss for five years. As she admitted to her dominating mother in Now, Voyager, “I am not afraid.” She was prepared to be independent (13) and to manage with less. Beyond 1945 and the war effort, Davis provided clear challenges for contemporary women, and feminism.

I was thinking of my mother (14)

I am over, the discussion of second and third wave feminism. (15) I am embarrassed to be the same age as the whining, petulant latter, and bored by the rigid proselytising of the former. (16) I become angry when re-reading the much-valued texts of the 1970s. I recently returned to Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch after plodding through The Whole Woman. I was not inspired, but exasperated at her treatment of post-suffragette feminisms.

After the ecstasy of direct action, the militant ladies of two generations ago settled down to work of consolidation in hosts of small organisations, while the main force of their energy filtered away in post-war retrenchments and the revival of frills, corsets and femininity after the permissive twenties, through the sexual sell of the fifties, ever dwindling, ever more respectable. Evangelism withered into eccentricity. The new emphasis is different. Then genteel middle-class ladies clamoured for reform, now ungenteel middle-class women are calling for revolution. (17)

While I respect the polemic, I despise the pomposity. She has discredited and denied the experiences and struggles of thousands of women, including our mothers and grandmothers. They were frequently not interested in reform, but survival. Greer’s portrayal of these women’s lives is hardly recognisable.

The working girl who marries, works for a period after her marriage and retires to breed, is hardly equipped for the isolation of the nuclear household. Regardless of whether she enjoyed the menial work of typing or selling or waitressing or clerking, she at least had freedom of movement to a degree. Her horizon shrinks to the house, the shopping centre and the telly. (18)

Whatever the value of Greer’s vitriol, there is no need to ridicule a group of women born during the Great Depression, who survived appeasement and grew up through the war. Just for the record, Germaine Greer is nine years younger than my mother and thirty years older than me. Such awkward generational positioning confirms Marilyn Lake’s realisation of the major misconception that “there have been but two waves of feminism with a long lull in between.” (19) To reduce the intelligence and consciousness of remarkable women to ‘the house, the shopping centre and the telly’ is unforgivable, even for the purpose of inflaming the women’s liberation movement. The class-based bias is breath taking, and does not become acceptable after the passing of thirty years. To discover another reading of these women’s lives, Bette Davis’ films can provide a corrective database. Greer has never worked well with films or popular culture. This (increasingly) problematic absence can explain her lack of empathy and understanding of working women’s lives through the twentieth century. Hollywood films have not only sold celluloid: they have advertised a social and economic system. Indeed, it is difficult to assess our current age without a consideration of these pervasive, punctuating images.

Critical attention placed on Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn or even Amelia Earhart may be dismissed as teabag-weak, liberal feminism. However, I do not write in celebration of individual success and autonomy. What interests me is that these women affirmed work as the integral definer of their identity. Their honest articulation of an inability to manage family and career seems refreshing and powerful. (20) We live in an era of John Gray’s Mars/Venus books and other self-help nightmares like Supercouple Syndrome: How Overworked Couples Can Beat Stress Together (21) and Are you tired of being tired? (22) Feminism, at its most potent and gutsy, offers alternatives, consciousness and options. To term the actions of difficult women as liberal feminism is demeaning. As Jane De Hart suggests,

Whether personification of a nontraditional lifestyle and female achievement on the part of self-conscious individualists constitutes liberal feminism and whether that particular variant as practiced by popular heroines of the 1920s was sufficient to keep feminism alive in the postsuffrage decades . remain open questions. (23)

The place of these nontraditional constructions in feminine consciousness is difficult to assess. However, effective feminist analysis must open out these (filmic) paradoxes. (24)

A great irony of this supposedly postfeminist era is that there were actually more roles for older women in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s than in the current age. The normalised pairings of Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt, Pierce Brosnan with Denise Richards, or Sean Connery with any woman with a pulse under thirty, leaves few representational opportunities for women in their forties and fifties. Bette Davis kept working by moving into television and back to the stage. Bette Davis was never ‘beautiful,’ even in her thirties. There remains though, a fear of the ageing, experienced woman, who will not be silenced or erased because she does not fulfill masculine notions of attractiveness. The role and place of Margo Channing, Norma Desmond and Mrs Robinson in filmic memories have constructed an archetype of inter-generational relationships. However, contemporary films have not built upon, or critiqued this earlier legacy. (25) Therefore, some feminists have moved back in time.

Judith Mayne recoiled from a desire to victimise the representation of femininity in the cinema. She realised that,

Given classical cinema’s obsession with sexual hierarchy, feminist film critics could choose the somewhat obvious task of amassing more and more evidence of women’s exclusion and victimisation, or they could undertake the more complex and challenging project of examining the contradictions in classical films, that is, what is repressed or unresolved, and potentially threatening to the patriarchal status quo. (26)

For Mayne, Bette Davis films are particularly notable in this regard. Now, Voyager offers spaces between patriarchal directives and feminine investments in the narrative. While the text can be read as a medicalisation of feminine aberrance, with a male doctor leading the woman to emotional contentment, there are other readings. Lean Jacobs, for example, focussed on “Charlotte’s pleasure as a source and endpoint of the narrative processes and which is based on her desire, like our own, to experience narrative.” (27) The strength of Davis’ films, and also those of Crawford and Hepburn, is that they value experience and personal transformation. The key is to assess how feminist theory and politics can mobilise these changes.

Fasten your seatbelts (28)

We live in an era that valorises a particular mode of motherhood. The women who ‘have it all’ – husbands, children and careers – are the feminist heroes of the era. (29) Bette Davis never managed this pot pourri of women’s identity. She juggled (and dropped) the balls of men, children, career, ageing, weight, fashion, sex and celibacy. For some, Davis is the great warning beacon for women who over-emphasise a career – “she got what she wanted and paid for it: four stormy marriages of her own, an estranged daughter, a lonely life.” (30) It is important that journalists are not allowed to re-write her historical significance through the ‘loneliness’ of her later years. Bette Davis was the first, and finest, presentation of an independent woman on celluloid. Watching these old films with a feminist eye is a highly rewarding and disturbing experience. (31) It is remarkable to view women creating new visual languages, and dodging patriarchal codings.

Feminist waves have accompanied much of cinematic history. Writing about women on film is always contingent and subjective. If early American cinema has a unifying trope, it is an exploration of women, and how their sexuality could be controlled. As Janet Staiger revealed, “Woman and woman’s sexuality were not taboo as topics but were a focal point for understanding a changing social order.” (32) What I find intriguing about the biographical treatment of Bette Davis is the preponderance of camp and queer readings. While not suggesting that these modalities are inappropriate or incorrect, (33) I am interested in their rationale. As Daniel Harris disclosed,

For me and for other gay men growing up before the gay-rights movement, our love of Hollywood was an expression not of flamboyant effeminacy but, in a very literal sense, of swaggering machismo . Quite by accident the diva provided the psychological model of gay militancy. (34)

Gay politics seems able to use flamboyant excess and paradoxical performances in a way that is not needed within contemporary feminism. By leaving these feminine performances un(der)considered, journalists have been able to ask “are they strong women or just macho guys in drag?” (35) and state that “nobody ever called Bette Davis a sissy.” (36) Also, the poor quality of her biographies, almost invariably written by men who possessed a minor acquaintance with her, expressed naïve and dangerous political frameworks.

Bette was sometimes accused of being a fag hag, particularly by her husband Gary Merrill. The problem was that because she was such a strong and dominating personality, she often made heterosexual men feel threatened. Gay men posed no threat to her, and were quite willing to let her think she dominated them. It was also interesting that she was so attractive to strong women. When we were discussing the subject of lesbianism once she thought about it for a while and said; “If I woke up to find two big boobs in bed beside me, I would die.” (37)

The conflation of strength and lesbianism, weakness and fag haggery, is highly destructive to feminist theory and politics. Masculine labelling of feminine behaviour often results in awkward contradictions, and bizarre couplings of sexuality and identity. While gay men who identify with female stars have generated important work, feminist theorists have offerings to this debate that do not enfold into the tropes of queerness.

Misogyny is founded on the separation of femininity and masculinity, and the marginalisation and ridicule of women. Therefore the women who have been framed as a threat in our culture – like the Sirens, Cleopatra, Mae West and Sharon Stone – are used by misogynists to patrol the distinctions in the gender order. While homophobia and misogyny foreground and naturalise heterosexuality, it cannot be inferred that homosexuality and misogyny are mutually exclusive. The worship and desire for the bevelled diva, the ageing cinema star, also convey a mocking humour for the lapsed glamour of the ageing woman. The key now is to reclaim the woman from the diva, and to investigate the feminism that does not speak its name.

Slow Curtain, or the epistemology of the shelf

All Aabout Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950) is one of the very few pictures that becomes more disturbing as the viewer ages. A horror film without a bloodied hook for a hand or Freddy Krugger fingernails, it tells the tale of the ambitious understudy trying to destroy the life and career of a forty year old actress. It has been described as “a movie about ambition and backbiting.” (38) The role of Margo Channing is, arguably, Bette Davis’s finest performance. Margo’s war is not with the evil Eve. Instead it is with wrinkles, the corset and clock. Her vulnerability has maintained a cult following for the film. (39)

It is odd that feminist theorists are rarely drawn to All About Eve. Exploring a woman confronting the costs of her career and the price of personal happiness, All About Eve presents a highly volatile exploration of femininity, away from domesticity and compliant motherhood.

Funny business, a woman’s career. The things you drop on the way up the ladder so that you can move faster. You forget that you’ll need them again when you go back to being a woman. There is one career all females have in common whether we like it or not: it’s being a woman. Sooner or later we’ve got to work at it. No matter how many other careers we’ve had or wanted. And in the last analysis, nothing’s any good unless you can look up just before dinner or turn around in bed and there he is. Without that, you’re not a woman. You’re something with a French Provincial Office or a book full of clippings. But you’re not a woman. Slow curtain. The end. (40)

Margo’s remarkable monologue – which presents the awkward confluences of female, woman, femininity and sexuality – reminded 1950s viewers and contemporary theorists that it takes work to be a woman. What is remarkable is so few writers recognise the importance of this speech – and its ending. Suzanne Fields asks us to “compare Ally’s [McBeal] sexual sensibility to that of Bette Davis as Margo Channing in the movie All About Eve, whose great insight is that a career woman is nothing without a man.” (41) Perhaps such a reading of the major speech is possible, while completely ignoring ‘Slow curtain. The end.’ The narrative being outlined is tough, demoralising but – in the end – profoundly ironic. Margo is Hamlet’s mother, encased in a fur coat, and guzzling a large martini. Compare this complexity to an Ally McBeal comment from the first episode:

All I ever wanted was to be rich and to be successful and to have three kids and a husband who was waiting at home for me at night to tickle my feet. (42)

Ally’s unproblematic acceptance of husband and children and career is a poor shadow of Margo. This tough woman, reliant on the martini marinade, is a corsetted Judith Butler, embodying the danger of the feminine subject being the only concern of feminist politics. It is “women’s common subjugated experience,” not being a woman, that actually demands attention. (43) What makes Davis so significant to this alternative story is that she does not wallow in her sacrifice. Instead, she gains consciousness, confidence and the capacity to change. All About Eve revels in the difficulties of being an ageing woman. Margo Channing’s corset is a metonym for Bette Davis’s performance of femininity. She simply does not fit within the laced up confines of the 1950s.

Quite importantly, the legacy of All About Eve has survived. There is more than a trace of Margo in Jules, the lying, desperate marriage wreaker of My Best Friend’s Wedding (PJ Hogan, 1997). Julia Roberts placed herself in an elite and small list of actresses satisfied to perform the role of difficult women and bitches, rather than victims or selfless mothers. (44) At the end of the film, much like Charlotte Vale nearly fifty years earlier, Jules did not get her man. Instead, she ends up dancing – in a lavender gown no less – with a gay man, her ‘new’ best friend.

You think, what the hell. Life goes on. Maybe there won’t be marriage. Maybe there won’t be sex. But, by God, there will be dancing. (45)

This was no Hallmark moment. While, sixty years ago, the cinema was filled with Crawfords, Hepburns, Johnsons and Stanwycks, we live in an era of the action movie. The First Wives Club (Hugh Wilson, 1996) – and any film with Sharon Stone (46) – are caveats to the contract, but we have lost “the ladies who lunge.” (47) While female stars had similar drawing power to men through the 1930s and 1940s, the Rambo decade has sated our lives with masculine iconography. This era was described by Morris as “placing increasing pressure on that solitary individual, the middle-aged single woman.” (48) These solitary figures are placed in a conflictual representational field. As dangerous women, moving outside of the responsibilities of families and husbands, they are, within both conservative and new labour ideologies, not serving the national interest.

A 1992 parliamentary report surmised that 20-30% of Australian women will never have children. Similarly, the marriage rate in 1996 was the lowest since 1900, with a predicted 22% of women remaining unmarried at the age of 35. This last figure, the highest level in Australia’s history, indicates that the number of men and women who will never marry has doubled over the past twenty-five years. (49) Single women are therefore quietly changing and challenging the face of contemporary feminism. Perhaps such women are part of Greer’s “reaction . not revolution.” (50) Perhaps such women are what Greer described as “like the white man’s black man, the professional nigger.” (51) Perhaps single, childless women moving through patriarchal structures have found a path both more distinct and difficult than Greer imagined.

Women in my family have always worked outside the home, and have always been dragged into motherhood. My great grandmother built a house and shot kangaroos for food. My grandmother was a real-life Minnie Bannister: although nearly blind, she weathered the stares, prejudice and ridicule to serve in a corner shop through the war. My mother Doris managed tough jobs through tough times – in tough places – throughout Western Australia. All these women had children, but they were not terribly keen on the prospect. They appreciated the end results of reproduction, but not the inconvenience.

My mother has always hated women who talk about children and lose themselves in their progeny. Married in 1950, she waited four years for the first child, and another fifteen for the second. My mother remained rake thin during her first pregnancy. When I asked her why an eight-month expectant woman was allowed to fly from Broome to Perth on an old DC3, my father replied, “No one noticed she was pregnant. She just looked like she’d eaten a slice of pizza.” Similarly, my mother desperately tried to keep as slender as possible during her second pregnancy. In 1969, married women were still seen to be a risky employee, because they would (obviously) become pregnant. My mother, at forty, was seen to be ‘past it’ and therefore ‘safe.’ So when the shock of her late pregnancy eased, Doris was desperate to hide it from her boss. She did not want to jeopardise other married women’s chance to gain a job and promotion. (52) At the end of the second trimester, my mother was still wearing size ten skirts and high-heeled shoes.

Not having children seems a mark of respect to the women in my family. Dodging pregnancy is not a sacrifice, but a logical response to the context of contemporary women. It is tough to be alone. It is tough to be single. I am savvy enough to know that no political movement can be representative of all its factions. To naturalise motherhood, childbirth and child rearing is to reinforce and replay patriarchal truths. Replacing the 1950s housewife with the 1990s superwoman is not a social revolution. We must monitor ourselves at every opportunity to ensure that we do not restate John Gray’s mantra of Venusian/women as nurturing, caring and loving. This pseudo-sexual revolution is a hegemonic masking device to prevent women from seeing alternative lives and opportunities.

Intriguingly, when Marilyn Lake listed the five feminist reforms instigated by the activism of second-wavers, three of these relate to children and childcare. (53) Yet, with great clarity, she realised that there are profound and long-term political problems with the feminist commitment to childcare. Firstly, it (implicitly) terms children a hindrance to attaining equality with men. (54) Most importantly, she recognised that while “childcare came to be seen by the women’s movement as the working woman’s basic right . the rising voice of economic rationalism supported it as the means to move women off welfare benefits.” (55) Therefore, the full-time workplace has only minimally altered its organisation to the feminine rhythms of domestic responsibilities. In other words, childcare facilities are a social bandaid that has not triggered more wide-ranging structural changes in the workplace. At the conclusion of her book, Lake realised that

One symptom of the contradictions involved for women seeking freedom in a man-made world is the rapidly declining birth-rate; it has been estimated that around one third of women now in their twenties will not bear children. (56)

Ironically, she has performed this contradiction through her text. While there is a new, emergent social challenge to motherhood and reproduction through the bodies of young women, the body of Lake’s text is spent dealing with the legislation encircling motherhood.

The issue of motherhood does not allow for a restatement of the banal division between second and third wavers, or the interests of heterosexual women versus lesbians. Instead, I argue that it is pivotal that the contemporary women’s movement – both inside and outside universities – disengages the commonsensical relationship of motherhood, childcare and feminism. If the movement is mainly about maternal motivations, then it will continue to exclude some of its most visible, stoic, vulnerable and complicated representatives. Also, there will be a long-term and destructive impact on the movement if these changing societal structures are not considered. Quentin Bryce, for example, compared her life to that of her family. While she had five children by the age of thirty, her daughters are yet to become pregnant. Unfortunately, she argued that “I think that young women and young men are on pretty much of an equal footing as they embark on their careers now. It’s when maternity intervenes that the picture changes.” (57) The consequences of her statement are worrying. Is motherhood the only structure that has blocked women from power? (58) If that was the case, then the signifier ‘spinster,’ and the attendant adjective of ‘barren’ would be terms of celebration, rather than abuse. Unless feminists recognise and mark the other sites of oppression under patriarchy, then the movement will be threatened.

I have not – and will not – have children. I have been told, like most little girls, that I will inevitably give birth. My protestations against the unavoidability of this action are now being treated more seriously. As an unmarried thirty-year-old, the lavender scent of spinsterhood is settling around my shoulders. It suits me well. However it places me in a generationally awkward position. As all my female colleagues – literally every woman on my floor of the building – have children, I cannot share their baby stories. I have no photographs or mementos in my handbag. I shop and cook for one. I hold my remote control and – yes – I can programme my video recorder. There is not a Metallica compact disc in the house. Yoghurt, rather than VB, reclines on my refrigerator shelves. It is a peaceful, solitary and subtle existence. In comparison to Adrienne Rich’s memories of “anxiety, physical weariness, anger, self-blame, boredom, and division within myself,” (59) I may have denied my sacred calling, but I have discovered much happiness. It has not been a sacrifice. It has not been a “cruel choice.” (60)

Certainly, all women share an experience of motherhood. We are, as Adrienne Rich articulated, of women born. (61) Woodward has recognised the way in which “motherhood is taken for granted as an identity for women, and as such is constructed within naturalistic discourse as a biological role where motherhood is seen as the distinguishing female characteristic.” (62) While contemporary feminist theorists focus on the space between the institution of motherhood and women’s experience of it, there is still an assumption of reproduction. Popular culture has frequently reinforced this ideology of femininity. (63) Ponder this comment from a contemporary women’s magazine: “Having a baby is a life stage that everyone goes through sooner or later.” (64) This editorial comment, derived from February 2000 rather than February 1900, is placed in Women’s Health as an affirmation of fit femininity. The antagonistic treatment of childless women and couples is even more overt in the core magazine of conservative femininity, Family Circle.

These are the couples who make the decision not to have kids, not now, not ever. Their reasons on the surface seem incredibly selfish – they want a better lifestyle, they don’t want their careers to suffer, they want to spend more time with each other, travelling, reading and enjoying life . Most parents are outraged when they hear of this group . I know I was. I got quite worked up about it for a few days . I just couldn’t understand how you couldn’t want children – don’t they have any idea of what they are missing out on? (65)

This editorial allows no space for alternative renderings of femininity. Such an ostrich-head-sand attitude ignores women’s disquiet and resistance towards the narratives of a happy family life. Such ‘outrage’ only adds to the difficulties facing women living varying models of femininity.

It is not surprising, in a desperate search for women operating outside of marriage and motherhood, that there is a retraction to classic cinema. By transforming “the fat lady with the heavy brows and all the hair,” (66) into an articulate woman able to make choices, Now, Voyager is justifiably a classic of cinema. As Stanley Cavell has realised,

Here is this woman retracing the reigning concepts of her life – what a mother is, what a child, a home, a husband are, what happiness is – and yet this man stupefyingly asks her whether she will be happy. (67)

What questions would the contemporary women’s movement ask of Charlotte Vale? Re-evaluating texts such as this serve to inscribe, rewrite and interpret a feminist history. We need to return to Bette Davis, and her films. A new theory of femininity can emerge when we look at – and through – those eyes.

On not asking for the moon

As self-style ‘young feminists’ are wont to say, they must refurbish the house of feminism to suit themselves. (68)

Marilyn Lake

What a dump. (69)

Bette Davis

At the conclusion of Now Voyager, Charlotte Vale does not ask for the moon, but remains satisfied with the stars. Contemporary feminism needs a Bette Davis, firebrand women who are tough, resolute and passionate. She worked hard, thought deeply, and spoke out while post-war masculinity congealed around her. Shadows of men were cast in relief through her light. Leaming has missed the point of both Bette Davis’s life, and post-war feminism, when she asserts that “whereas [Orson] Welles was always fighting for something, Davis only knew how to fight against – and therein lay all the difference.” (70) Feminism, at its best, fights against patriarchy, against colonialism, against ageism, against economic rationalism. Only by waging the good fight against the powerful, can feminism and contemporary resistive politics combat for social justice.

My words have followed Bette Davis through her bumpy night. Such biographies of the self are integrated into the project of building a sexualised body. This paper though, is also fighting for something. While feminism must be socially responsible and contextually appropriate, it must also have political goals to make others uncomfortable. Through this discomfort, consciousness is generated, and perhaps change activated. However, too much of contemporary feminist politics is assuming motherhood as the natural state of women, because of the economic threats to childcare. I am well aware that a Bette Davis will not provide a solution to the problems confronting women. Collective troubles require collective solutions. Kathy Bail was incorrect to describe feminism as “about individual practice and taking on personal challenges.” (71) My goals cannot be contained in self-help manuals or nine steps to success. (72) Women share something: that something is not children, husbands or family values. It is a shared subjugation within patriarchal structures. These inequalities manifest themselves differently, dependent on race, class and age. Perhaps feminism teaches us that, like Charlotte Vale, we need not accept the crumbs off the table, an empty bottle of perfume or even a crumbling Camellia. Indeed, we may even learn to light our own, metaphoric, cigarette.


  1. Line by Madge, played by Bette Davis from Cabin in the Cotton, (Warner Brothers, Michael Curtiz: 1932)
  2. J. Vermilye, Bette Davis, (New York: Galahad, 1973), p. 118
  3. Her four husbands were Harmon Nelson, Arthur Farnsworth, William Grant Sherry and Gary Merrill.
  4. Bette Davis actually linked the pain she felt from the publication of her daughter’s ‘tell all’ book and her stroke. She stated, “I will never recover as completely from B.D.’s book as I have from the stroke. They were both shattering experiences,” from B. Davis and M. Hershowitz, This ‘n’ that, (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1987), p. 10
  5. G. Hunt, “The 100 Greatest Stars of all time,” America, Vol. 178, No. 1, January 3, 1998, p. 2
  6. B. Davis, cited in Davis and Hershowitz, p. 40
  7. The fame of her eyes only increased when Kim Carnes released the successful single “Bette Davis Eyes.” At one of her award ceremonies, Carnes was reported as singing the song “to the woman who has the originals,” from “A fete honouring Cling, Julio and Bette Davis turns into a blast form the past,” People Weekly, January 23, 1989, Vol. 31, No. 3, [full-text].
  8. R. Wagner, Bette Davis: Biography, produced by Stephanie Haffner, (A&E Television Network, 1994)
  9. Before Of Human Bondage, Bette Davis made fourteen films in three years for Warner Brothers. It is important to recognise that Warner’s was the ‘tough guy’ studio at this time, with James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart the most obvious names. It is not surprising that Bette Davis became known as the female Cagney.
  10. Mildred Rogers, played by Bette Davis, Of Human Bondage, (RKO 1932)
  11. R. McDowall, from Bette Davis: Biography
  12. Ham Nelson and James Flannagan, cited in B. Leaming, Bette Davis, (London: Orion, 1999), p. 149
  13. A Newsweek article stated that “men couldn’t help liking her, and for women she was the first viable example of female independence to come out of Hollywood,” in ” Bette Davis of Human Bondage,” Newsweek, Vol. 131, no. 25, Summer 1998, p. 64
  14. Charlotte Vale, performed by Bette Davis, Now, Voyager, (Warner Brothers, 1942).
  15. Chilla Bulbeck wrote a remarkable critique of the second/third wave division in “Simone de Beauvoir and Generations of Feminists,” Hecate, Vol. XXV, Issue 2, 1999, pp. 5-21.
  16. For example, in Sarah Gamble (ed.) Icon Critical Dictionary of Feminism and Postfeminism, (Cambridge: Icon Books, 1999), two of the chapters were titled “Second Wave Feminism,” and “Postfeminism.” The latter was actually the analytical shell for a discussion of third wave feminism.
  17. G. Greer, The Female Eunuch, (London: Paladin, 1971), p. 11.
  18. Ibid., p. 224
  19. M. Lake, Getting Equal: The history of Australian feminism, (St Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 1999), p. 9
  20. Katharine Hepburn articulated this paradox with great clarity: “It was matter of becoming the best actress I could be or becoming a mother. But not both; I don’t think I could do justice to both,” cited in J. Sherron De Hart, “Still missing: Amelia Earhart and the search for modern feminism,” Reviews in American History, Vol. 23, No. 1, March 1995, [full-text].
  21. W. Sotile and M. Sotile, Supercouple Syndrome, (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1998)
  22. L. McIntosh, Are you tired of being tired?, (Rydalmere: Hodder, 1995)
  23. De Hart, op. cit., [full-text].
  24. Sarah Gamble described “the primary difference between third wave and second wave feminism is that third wave feminists feel at ease with contradiction,” from “Postfeminism,” in S. Gamble, The Icon Critical Dictionary of Feminism and Postfeminism, (Cambridge: Icon Books, 1999), p. 52
  25. The major film that did change the way in which older women are portrayed is How Stella got her groove back. Starring Angela Basset and Whoopi Goldberg, the narrative critiqued the ‘problem’ of the older woman.
  26. J. Mayne, “Feminist film theory and criticism,” in D. Carson, L. Dittmar, J. Welsch (ed.), Multiple voices in feminist film criticism, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), p. 51
  27. L. Jacobs, “Now, Voyager: Some problems of enunciation and sexual difference,” Camera Obscura, No. 7, 1981, p. 95
  28. Line from Margo Channing, played by Bette Davis, All About Eve, (Twentieth Century Fox, 1950).
  29. To observe a recent example of this tendency, please refer to Jenny Cullen’s “Mothers and Daughters,” Women’s Weekly, May 2000, pp. 2-7. Throughout the text, the mothers are validated as managing both careers and family.
  30. R. Corliss, “She did it the hard way,” Time, Vol. 134, No. 16, October 16, 1989, p. 49
  31. Kenneth MacKinnon described “the act of entering old texts with new critical perspectives is termed ‘re-vision’, sometimes ‘infidelity,'” from Misogyny in the movies, (Cranbury: Associated University Presses, 1990), p. 24.
  32. J. Staiger, Bad Women: regulating sexuality in early American Cinema, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995), p. 16
  33. As C. Creekmur and A. Doty have stated, “historically . gays and lesbians have . related to mass culture differently,” from “Introduction,” Out in Culture, (Durham: Duke UP, 1995), p. 1
  34. D. Harris, “The diva in decline,” Harper’s Magazine, Vol. 294, No. 1, January 1997, p. 25
  35. R. Corliss, “Why can’t a woman be a man,” Time, Vol. 138, No. 5, August 5, 1991, p. 5
  36. “Fade-out for a feisty legend,” Newsweek, Vol. 114, No. 16, October 16, 1989, p. 1
  37. R. Mosely, Bette Davis: An Intimate Memoir, (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1989), p. 73
  38. J. Plymale, “All about ‘All about Eve’: The complete behind-the-scenes story of the bitchiest film ever made, Library Journal, Vol. 125, Issue 2, February 1, 2000, p. 88
  39. As Davis discovered, “there was a theatre in Greenwich Village that kept bringing it back, and you could never hear one word I said because the people in the audience knew every one of my lines and would say them out loud along with me, ” from Davis and Hershowitz, p. 181
  40. Margo Channing, All About Eve
  41. Fields, op. cit., p. 48
  42. Ally McBeal dialogue, cited in Fields, ibid.
  43. J. Butler, Gender Trouble, (New York: Routledge, 1990), p. 4
  44. Andrew Sarris wrote an eloquent article on My Best Friend’s Wedding, praising both Roberts and the scripts complex construction of femininity. See “Sighs of a summer movie maven,” Film Comment, Vol. 33, No. 6, November-December 1997, [full-text].
  45. Line from George, played by Rupert Everett, My Best Friend’s Wedding, 1997
  46. An ironic point of trivia is that Sharon Stone describes Bette Davis as her idol, and actually named her cat Miss Davis. See Michel Comte, “The last great broad,” Esquire, Vol. 125, No. 2, August 1996, [full-text].
  47. R. Corliss, “The ladies who lunge,” Time, Vol. 148, No. 17, October 7, 1996, [full-text]
  48. M. Morris, Too soon too late: history in popular culture, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), p. xix
  49. These statistics are derived from Kevin Andrews and Michelle Curtis, Changing Australia: Social, Cultural and Economic Trends shaping the nation, (Annandale: The Federation Press, 1998), p. 42
  50. Greer, p. 315
  51. ibid. To ensure that I do not appear to misrepresent Greer, she described women in positions of power in ‘a man’s world’ as “the exceptional creature who is as good as a man and much more decorative. The men capitulate.”
  52. This threat was quite real. Jan Bowen, in her “Introduction,” to Feminist Fatale, stated that “Whenever she worked, if a woman became pregnant she was expected to resign or there was a high probability that she would be sacked,” Feminist Fatale, (Sydney: Harper Collins, 1998), p. xii-xiii
  53. These five feminist reforms were 1. A requirement of husbands to share a family wage, 2. Dual ownership of family savings, 3. Motherhood endowment, 4. Public provision of childcare, 5. Equal pay. These reforms were listed in Marilyn Lake’s Getting Equal: The history of Australian feminism, (St Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 1999), p. 5
  54. ibid., p.256
  55. ibid., p. 257
  56. ibid., p. 279
  57. Quentin Bryce, in Bowen, p. 207
  58. R.W. Connell reported that men’s average income in Australia is twice that of women’s average income. Obviously this statistic takes into account all modes of both full-time and part-time work. This statistic was derived from “Men, masculinities and feminism,” Social Alternatives, Vol. 16, No. 3, July 1997, p. 7
  59. Rich, Of Women Born, p. 15
  60. Helen Coonan, from J. Bowen’s Feminist fatale, (Sydney: Harper Collins, 1998), p. 184. Helen Coonan went further, believing that “you can’t aim for the top and also have the sort of family responsibilities and commitments that are going to distract you and take you away from that single-minded pursuit. It is extremely competitive and if you have four children and you want to be the prime minister, that is going to be a very difficult mix to achieve,” p. 191
  61. A. Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, (London: Virago, 1986: 1977)
  62. K. Woodward, “Motherhood: identities, meanings and myths,” in K. Woodward (ed.), Identity and Difference, (London: SAGE, 1997), p. 242
  63. Woodward believed that “Motherhood is part of the composition of this successful new woman, used to signify changing times and a new articulation of femininity in reaction to previous formulations,” ibid., p. 263
  64. M. Sheedy, “Editor’s letter,” Women’s Health, Issue 13, February 2000, p. 8
  65. Wendyl Nissen, “Hello! From the Editor,” Family Circle, October 2000, p. 9
  66. This was the description that J.D. used of Charlotte Vale in Now, Voyager.
  67. S. Cavell, Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), p. 131
  68. Lake, p. 276
  69. Line from Rosa Moline, Beyond the Forest
  70. Leaming, p. 336
  71. K. Bail, “Introduction,” in K. Bail, (ed.), DIY Feminism, (St. Leonards: Allen and Unwin, 1996), p. 16
  72. K. White, 9 secrets of women who get everything they want, (New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998)

About The Author

Tara Brabazon is an Associate Professor in Media, Communication and Culture at Murdoch University and Director of the Popular Culture Collective. She has published three books, Tracking the Jack: A Retracing of the Antipodes, Ladies who Lunge: Celebrating Difficult Women and Digital Hemlock: Internet Education and the Poisoning of Teaching. A fourth book, Liverpool of the South Seas: Perth and its Popular Music, is being published by the University of Western Australia Press in October, with a fifth book From Revolution to Revelation: Generation X, Popular Memory and Cultural Studies released by Ashgate in November.

Related Posts