“I have been memorizing this room. In the future, in my memory, I shall live a great deal in this room.”
The passionate yet tender way Greta Garbo pronounces the word “room” in the above quoted scene from Queen Christina, scene which was rehearsed and acted with the precision of a metronome, may cause some viewers a reaction varying from simple outbursts of admiration to fully fledged obsessions, satisfied only by locking oneself up in a room with a full Garbo boxset. I envy those discovering Garbo’s films for the first time.
Film scholar and all-around superstar Molly Haskell defines two types of the Hollywood woman: the superfemale and the superwoman. The superfemale, as exemplified by Norma Shearer, Joan Blondell, Jean Harlow, Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck, manages to survive, and sometimes thrive, in a society ruled by men while keeping her ‘womanly’ attributes, i.e. her femininity. The superfemale has a higher than average intelligence, often more so than that of her male counterparts and she isn’t afraid to use it to her advantage. The superwoman, while also highly intelligent, discards her femininity altogether or merely toys with its conventions, often turning them on their head. She adopts male attributes in order to gain respect in a man’s world. Examples of the superwoman are Katharine Hepburn in Christopher Strong, Ruth Chatterton in Female (although she will eventually have to play being a superfemale in order to win over her man who wants just a woman, not a superwoman) and Greta Garbo in Queen Christina.
Greta Garbo embodies the superwoman par excellence. In a male dominated world, there are few examples of the superwoman character that illustrate Haskell’s definition more perfectly. Before the Hepburn’s flaunting of the conventions of femininity there was the Garbo embodiment of androgyny in its splendour. Although she is dazzlingly beautiful in the classical sense, Garbo has an extra quality that transcends sexual labels of femininity going so far as to define gender fluidity in a pre-feminist cinematic era. Her Queen Christina can rule like a man, act like a man to the point where she is mistaken for a man. She can love both like a man and a woman. She also loves both a man and a woman with almost the same intensity (Pre-Code at its finest). In Queen Christina, Garbo’s character can also live like a man, a privilege very few other Pre-Code female characters can boast. Her strength allows her to love whoever she wants, regardless of the consequences. The end of the film sees her defiant and triumphant, taking her destiny into her own hands. True, her lover lies dead and she has had to abdicate the throne, but in the end, she has won her independence. Loss of love for Queen Christina does not translate into loss of identity. Unlike many films of the 1930s and 1940s, including the unconventional Pre-Code ones, Queen Christina shows defiance in the face of defeat, ensuring it is temporary and that even the loss of love will not deter a strong woman from her original plans.
However, despite the promise of feminism that came with the freedom and occasional sexual adventure of the early 1930s, the new woman didn’t arrive. She was merely ogled at, previewed, modelled then taken off production. Even with the female form and substance in high profile as she was during what were the ‘women’s pictures’, her multifaceted persona didn’t allow for a full flourish, for the soil wasn’t ready. It would take another great war, decades of kitchen drudgery and hundreds of “women’s pictures” in which the heroines had to be femme fatales, wives, mothers, whores, but mostly asexual goddesses fetishized not only by a public, who felt ‘stuck’ with too many screen sirens and not enough American heroes, since they were off to fight the war, but also by their on-screen partners.
Molly Haskell also makes a case against the “women’s pictures” label. She is right in claiming that the denomination of “woman’s pictures” was detrimental to a film’s being taken seriously by both audiences and critics.
Having a film labelled as such made it unworthy of full praise or less of a contender to be seen as not only proper art, but even proper entertainment. There has always been a stigma that accompanied labels such as “woman’s picture”, “like a woman”, “girly”, “like a girl”, implying that there was something inherently wrong with said film, feeling, mode of expression. We are finally starting to realise the shortcomings of our language, which has been inherently patriarchal. For instance, film scholars have regularly avoided the term “actress” because they felt there was something demeaning about it, denoting cheapness, or a statute lesser than that of an actor.
In the English language there’s also been the word “starlet”, suggesting a lesser star, but only to define and denote a woman. We’ve never heard of male starlet, indicating that the occurrence was too rare to earn a name. If a male actor was not an A lister, he would be referred to as a B picture actor, but never a starlet. Thus, we are biased against gender from the get-go. In a post #metoo era, perhaps it’s time to invent a more inclusive vocabulary too!