Hollywood Divas, Indie Queens, & TV Heroines: Contemporary Screen Images of Women (review)
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Reviewed by
Susanne Kord and Elisabeth Krimmer. Hollywood Divas, Indie Queens, & TV Heroines: Contemporary Screen Images of Women. Rowman & Littlefield, 2005. 185 pages, $24.95.

The images are glamorous and unforgettable. Greta Garbo walks around a room, absorbing every detail (Queen Christina, 1933). Marlene Dietrich warbles a cabaret song and thereby enslaves the obsessed Emil [End Page 99] Jannings (The Blue Angel, 1930). Marilyn Monroe raises her skirts over a subway vent in The Seven Year Itch (1955). The great days of these Hollywood female stars may be over, but there is still much to discover about women in modern commercial films. Susanne Kord and Elisabeth Krimmer, who call themselves "recovering Hollywood addicts", have plunged into the pool of films from the 1990s and the first decade of this century to uncover the secrets of the modern representation of women on screen. The result is illuminating, contradictory, a little depressing and, in the hands of these two talented writers, often very funny. It is rare to find an academic book that is prepared to make such unashamed value judgments and to imply that, as far as women are concerned, Hollywood commercial film is at best ambiguous and, at worst, pernicious.

The authors dedicate their first section to an analysis of particular female stars and their screen images. For Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock, Meg Ryan and Renée Zellweger, most of their films are reworkings of a particular star image and of the contradictions inherent in that image. For example, the authors claim that Roberts's most popular films concern a woman in search of her own identity: "[t] he Julia Roberts type is a hodgepodge of vulnerability and innocence on the one hand and omnipotence fantasies on the other." This means that films like Pretty Woman (1990) are like a delusionary fairy-tale in which the prostitute played by Roberts is both rescued by the millionaire Richard Gere and at the same time bought by him. By contrast, Meg Ryan has no problem with her identity at all. Her screen persona is one of sunny, old-fashioned charm, which "embodies the promise of reconciliation with patriarchal structures".

The authors argue that the images of these stars are contradictory, because Hollywood itself is uncertain about its own attitudes. On the one hand, film-makers present strong women revelling in their freedom. At the same time, they "ridicule, denigrate, deny what real women have long achieved, and replace it with spectres from the past." The problem is that Hollywood films since the 1990s have become such a multi-million dollar investment that producers cannot afford to alienate any sector of the mass audience. This may change, the writers argue, as the studios consider tailoring some of their products to a niche market. Nevertheless, as things stand, Hollywood films "take away with one hand what they give with the other". This may explain why, for this reviewer at any rate, the films of the last fifteen years or so have often had a curious, cloying quality, as if the viewer were being force-fed a large spoonful of sugar in order to disguise the underlying bitterness of the whole dish.

Things are different in television. Because the medium is perceived to be a more woman-friendly form, and because its multi-episode structure allows more extended character development, the portrayal of women on the small screen can be more subtle and more complex. Kord and Krimmer cite Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dana Scully of The X-Files as two cases in point. Buffy is not only self-assertive and superhumanly powerful, but also balances family and career without being a bedsit pin-up or an isolated career woman. By contrast, Dana Scully has to negotiate her way through the patriarchal structures of the FBI. She does so with a strong sense of justice and emotional maturity. [End Page 100]

This book is full of valuable insights. The authors look at alternative images of women in the form of Frances McDormand, Kathy Bates and Dame Judi Dench. They have a clear eye for nonsense; two of the best chapters perform a very efficient demolition job on the inane Charlie's Angels...