Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, feminist Molly Haskell, drawing on her experience as film critic for the Village Voice, traces the depiction of women in films from the 1920’s to the 1970’s. The first chapter, “The Big Lie,” provides an overview of the book and establishes Haskell’s recurring theme: Women are the pawns of a male-dominated motion-picture industry and are used in films to perpetuate images of female inferiority, serving as scapegoats for men’s problems and as vessels for the projection of male fantasy. Further, women are degraded and denigrated in such stereotypes as virgins, whores, sex objects, Earth Mothers, and dumb blondes because males, in a constant state of insecurity and anxiety, need to assert their superiority and independence. Haskell contends that some heroic directors and actresses have managed to subvert these proclivities, but these images come from the past. Her analysis of women’s roles in a historical context reveals a steady deterioration of positive images, culminating in the most demeaning portrayals in the films of the 1970’s, when this work was written.

The remaining chapters are organized in a roughly chronological pattern, examining the ways in which these themes are played out or subverted in five eras: the 1920’s, 1930’s, 1940’s, 1950’s, and in “The Last Decade,” the 1960’s and 1970’s. Although the chapters focus on the...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

From Reverence to Rape was published at a time when the treatment of women in films, especially in a historical context, was virtually ignored by mainstream film critics. As such, Haskell produced an important work in film criticism. Her book has been widely praised for its timeliness and was cited at the time of publication as a valuable contribution to understanding tension between the sexes in real life as well as in films. Readers sympathetic to her views extolled the scholarship and expansiveness of the work. Yet From Reverence to Rape had its detractors, who believed that Haskell focuses only on major stars and ignores character actresses and grade “B” films. Others, in contrast to those who found the prose witty and readable, criticized the writing as impenetrable and the structure as convoluted. Some took a more balanced view, commending the intelligence and perceptiveness of the work on the one hand while criticizing its emotionality on the other.

The early 1970’s produced two other books on the same subject: Marjorie Rosen’s Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies, and the American Dream (1973) and Joan Mellen’s Women and Their Sexuality in the New Films (1973); comparisons were inevitable. Many reviews incorporated all three books in one critique, comparing and contrasting strengths and weaknesses. In general, Haskell’s work was considered superior overall to the other two texts. Regardless of its reception at the time, From Reverence to Rape is a seminal work, and few of the many studies that followed in subsequent years fail to reference it.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Baker, Joyce M. Images of Women in Film: The War Years, 1941-1945. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1980. Criticizes both Haskell’s and Marjorie Rosen’s works as superficial, while nevertheless noting their importance in “pressing for a broader dialogue.” Discusses B-films and specific issues portrayed in films, such as the education of women, women in the military, and women as patriots.

Basinger, Jeanine. A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. At more than five hundred pages, this work analyzes hundreds of films from a feminist perspective. Includes relatively unknown but politically significant films.

Erens, Patricia, ed. Sexual Stratagems: The World of Women in Film. New York: Horizon Press, 1979. Anthologizes a number of writers, including Haskell and Marjorie Rosen. Discusses images of women and compares male and female directors.

Fischer, Lucy. Shot/Countershot: Film Tradition and Women’s Cinema. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1989. A comprehensive and scholarly work which incorporates new feminist criticism. In keeping with its academic perspective, an appendix is included which suggests teaching models.

Higashi, Sumiko. Virgins, Vamps, and Flappers: The American Silent Movie Heroine. St. Albans, Vt.: Eden Press Women’s Publications, 1978. An interesting commentary analyzing the role of women in films of the 1920’s. Contains photographs and a filmography.

Kay, Karyn, and Gerald Peary, eds. Women and the Cinema: A Critical Anthology. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1977. Includes two essays by Haskell and a number of other scholarly works in a similar vein.

Kuhn, Annette, ed. Women in Film: An International Guide. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1991. An encyclopedia devoted to the contributions of women to films, both mainstream and independent. Hundreds of cross-references are included.

Stoddard, Karen. Saints and Shrews: Women and Aging in Popular Film. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983. Claims that Marjorie Rosen “manipulates facts to fit theory” and that Haskell oversimplifies. Stoddard offers many scholarly notes and draws from a variety of academic sources to make her point.

Williams, Carol Traynor. The Dream Beside Me: The Movies and Children of the Forties. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1980. Williams discusses the effects of films of the 1940’s, including B-films, on women of her generation. Cites Haskell frequently—sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing. Contains an extensive bibliography and an appendix by subject.