My husband, Carl, and I enjoy watching old movies, even as far back as the silent film era. It’s interesting to observe the correlation between films and the culture that exists in America when the films are produced.
Last week I returned from an errand to find Carl watching the 1929 version of The Mysterious Island, a mostly silent sci-fi movie based on a Jules Verne’s novel. It featured Lionel Barrymore and female actress, Jacqueline Gadsden. “Watch this,” Carl said. “It’s a chase scene, so, of course the woman will fall down.” I’m not much of a sci-fi buff, but he and I have often shared a laugh about this predictable phenomenon: women falling down in movies. Sure enough, Jacqueline Gadsden’s character took a tumble and had to be helped to her feet by the strong, capable men in her company. By the way, she was not wearing high-heeled shoes. Rather she was dressed in the same space suit the men wore.
So, what’s really going on here? Since its beginning, the film industry has been dominated by men and has reflected a male-dominated society. The woman-falling-down syndrome is but one subtle example of female suppression in a society that considered wives to be the property of their husbands and women, in general, too weak to take care of themselves, too unintelligent to succeed in business or vote in elections, and constantly in need of rescuing. Men fall down in movies, too, but it never seems to be about demeaning them.
I’m not talking about the hilarious slapstick of comedic geniuses like Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, and more recently, Melissa McCarthy, and Sandra Bullock. Rather than feeding into gender inequality, these brave women have broken through it with their athletic pratfalls. I’m referring to sci-fi, Western, horror, mystery, romance or any other dramatic genre in film and TV. It happens again and again. Women swoon and fall, often twisting an ankle and needing to be carried to safety by the strong, macho leading man. I grew up watching movies like this, and so did millions of women of my generation.
When I started writing at the age of sixty, I had experienced my fill of gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and bullying by men who assumed they were entitled to control women because of their supposed innate superiority. I decided to write about strong women.
In my novel, Unrevealed, Alison is a twenty-seven-year-old president of an international conglomerate. My novel, The Dark Room, features Edith, a widow who owns a café and seeks to empower her employee, Stella, a victim of domestic violence. Abigail, the protagonist of my newest novel, I Want to Go Home, is only seventeen when she runs away with her younger brothers to protect them.
My female protagonists are strong, independent, and resilient. Does that make them masculine? No. Does it make them man-bashers? No. Each one ends up in a relationship with a good man who respects her as an equal. Each one exhibits a healthy dose of vulnerability and tenderness. But just as those qualities in men don’t make them weak or ineffectual, the same qualities in women don’t require them to fall down and wait to be rescued by a man.
Cindy L. Freeman is the author of two award-winning short stories and three published novels: Unrevealed, The Dark Room and I Want to Go Home. Website: www.cindylfreeman.com; Facebook page: Cindy Loomis Freeman. Her books are available from amazon.com or hightidepublications.com