In its time, the Hollywood woman's picture was deliberately targeted at female audiences, and not just in terms of the films' "female-centered" subject matter and address. In fact, as Maria LaPlace contends, the textual attributes of the woman's picture draw on a wider women's culture, linking women's consumption of commodities with the commodification inherent in the star system. This, she argues, created a symbolic system in which women could try to make sense of their lives and perhaps even create imaginative space for resistance."
Thinking about the woman's picture as a genre, in other words, calls for conceptualizing films—texts—as nodes in a whole network of cultural phenomena that may include, for example, women's popular fiction, Hollywood studios' production practices (such as, say, scriptwriting), and the Hollywood star system, through to broader cultures of consumerism and femininity. The distinctive features of the woman's picture as a Hollywood genre of a certain period are shaped through its combination of historically-specific textual, intertextual and contextual attributes.
LaPlace tests this approach in a study of Now, Voyager (1942), a film based on the best-selling 1941 novel of the same name by Olive Higgins Prouty and starring Bette Davis as an embittered, unattractive woman who eventually breaks free of the thrall of a domineering mother and finds a man she can love, settling finally for something less than the conventional happy ending. Drawing on a range of nonfilmic source materials, including studio pressbooks, fan magazines, film posters, and studio production files, LaPlace shows how, in the 1940s, this film participated in, and contributed to, cultures of femininity and consumerism. Through its particular intertexts of production and consumption, the woman's picture constructs cultures of femininity and consumerism.
This kind of study of the genre can be productively extended to take in the films' reception by real-life audiences as well—an approach that may demand attention to an even wider range of phenomena and source materials. A crude measure of a film's popularity can be readily obtained from box-office statistics, while the tone of critical and film industry responses can be gauged from contemporary reviews. So, for example, in a study of the production context and intertexts of Mildred Pierce , Albert LaValley notes that, while the film was a huge financial success on its release, it was far from being a hit with critics, who dubbed it a "tortured drama" and "another tear-sodden story of Mother Love" (pp. 50–51). The gulf between critics and box office neatly sums up the conundrum of the woman's picture: denigrated for its overemotional (that is, feminine) preoccupations and tone, it is also an immense draw for filmgoers.
How did contemporary audiences experience and relate to the woman's picture? The answer to this question remains something of an enigma. From the content and address of the films, from the ways they were marketed and promoted, from reviews, and even from boxoffice statistics, conjectures can readily be advanced. But even so, the actual experience of female audience members at the time is elusive. Sources of data are often patchy, inaccessible, difficult to interpret, unreliable, or simply nonexistent. Consequently, there are few in-depth accounts of historical audiences' responses to particular films or genres, while the creation of new data in this area is beset by numerous methodological, conceptual, and practical pitfalls.
Nonetheless, a few attempts in this direction have been made, including Jackie Stacey's Star Gazing (1994), a study conducted in the 1990s of British women's memories of cinemagoing in the 1940s and 1950s, and Helen Taylor's Scarlett's Women (1989), based on ethnographic research with fans of Gone With the Wind , in both novel (1936) and film (1939) forms. However, neither takes the woman's picture as its focus: Stacey is concerned more broadly with the female social audience, Taylor with a highly distinctive variant of audience involvement—fandom—and with a film that, by any version of the accepted definition, cannot be regarded as a woman's picture. Therefore, we know very little in any depth about the audience for woman's pictures at the time; consequently, there is ample scope for research in this area.
At the same time, however, social and cultural historians have achieved rather greater success in understanding the woman's picture as a form of popular culture and in assessing it in the context of women's history. The 1940s, the heyday of the woman's picture, was a crucial decade for women, in the United States as in many other parts of the world. In relation to the United States, for example, Andrea Walsh (1984) notes that in 1942 eleven million men left for war, the women they left behind took up new and challenging roles at home and at work. When they came back, the GIs found America was a transformed country. Its women had matured and expanded their horizons; and Hollywood was part of this female story of residual and emergent cultural currents.
Against this background, we can see how the 1940s woman's picture, in a key moment in women's twentieth-century history, enacts and constructs a struggle between female independence on the one hand and desire for security in home and family on the other. It is illuminating to note, for instance, that Mildred Pierce was released in the autumn of 1945, just as soldiers were returning home from war, at a time when a large number of working women felt guilty and confused regarding their new roles. As Walsh notes, Mildred's ambiguous reunion with her husband "might be seen as a parallel to that of the war wife and her GI mate" (p.131).
Studies in cultural history such as Walsh's aspire to be sensitive to the historical realities of the moment in which the woman's picture flourished as well as to the situation of its original audience, without lapsing into simplistic notions about films reflecting reality. In conjunction with work on texts, spectatorship, intertexts, and audiences, this sort of approach sheds light on the wider social and cultural factors involved in the rise of the woman's picture, and indeed in its demise, and lends depth to our understanding of the continuing transformation and hybridization of this important film genre.
Cook, Pam. "Duplicity in Mildred Pierce . " In Women in Film Noir , edited by E. Ann Kaplan, 68–82. Revised ed. London: British Film Institute, 1998.
——. "Melodrama and the Women's Picture." In Gainsborough Melodrama , edited by Sue Aspinall and Robert Murphy, 14–28. London: British Film Institute, 1983.
Doane, Mary Ann. The Desire to Desire: The Woman's Film of the 1940s . Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1987.
Harper, Sue, and Vincent Porter. "Moved to Tears: Weeping in the Cinema in Postwar Britain." Screen 37, no. 2 (1996): 152–173.
Kuhn, Annette. "The Stella Dallas Debate." In Women's Pictures: Feminism and Cinema , 209–214. 2nd edition. New York, London: Verso, 1994.
LaPlace, Maria. "Producing and Consuming the Woman's Film: Discursive Struggle in Now, Voyager . " In Home Is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman's Film , edited by Christine Gledhill, 138–166. London: British Film Institute, 1987.
LaValley, Albert J. Mildred Pierce . Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1980.
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Stacey, Jackie. Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship . New York, London: Routledge, 1994.
Taylor, Helen. Scarlett's Women: "Gone with the Wind" and Its Female Fans . London: Virago Press, 1989; New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989.
Walsh, Andrea S. Women's Film and Female Experience, 1940–1950 . New York: Praeger, 1984.