Female Film Stars and the Dominant Ideologies of 1950s America

Eras Journal – Freame, J.,: Female Film Stars and the Dominant Ideologies of 1950s America

Female Film Stars and the Dominant Ideologies of 1950s America

Jessica Freame

(University of Melbourne)

In a 1959 review of the film Some Like It Hot, [1] The New York Times declared Marilyn Monroe to be, ‘not only superb as a comedienne but also the answer to any red-blooded American boy’s dream’.[2]While this ostensibly reflected recognition of Monroe’s acting ability and her appeal to a male audience, it also invoked notions of nationhood by aligning an attraction to Monroe with being a ‘red-blooded American’. In the context of 1950s America, this statement in a leading newspaper carried subtle but strong implications. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union had dominated global politics for more than a decade. On a domestic level, this incorporated a sense of suspicion and paranoia that resulted in the idealisation of conservative ideologies centred on the nuclear family and the role of women. As cinema provided a popular form of mass entertainment, Hollywood played an important role in the expression of these dominant ideologies. In particular, film stars, representing one of the few direct links between the industry and its audience, often evoked the ideologies that the films intended to promote and audiences responded to. This article will explore the extent to which female film stars embodied specific types of acceptable womanhood in the 1950s by focussing on the very different yet equally successful star images of Marilyn Monroe and Doris Day. Through this investigation, an understanding of why Monroe should have been ‘the answer to any red-blooded American boy’s dream’ will reveal the intrinsic relationship between Hollywood film stars, their social and political context, and the dominant ideologies of their time.

The critical analysis of concepts relating to culture has generated extensive debate in recent years. Literary theory has emerged as an umbrella term for what Julian Wolfreys has described as, ‘a range of disparate critical practices and approaches which are used by members of the humanities in the exploration of literary texts, films and aspects of contemporary and past cultures’.[3] For the purposes of this article, emphasis will be placed on the theoretical developments relating to ideology and stardom that inform this investigation. The function of ideology within any society is complex and difficult to determine. In Questions of Cinema , an exploration of film in relation to ideology, Stephen Heath proposes that ideology is generally regarded as representing ‘the imaginary relation of individuals to the real relations under which they live’.[4] However, drawing on both Marx and Freud, he emphasises that at the same time,

This imaginary relation in ideology is itself real, which means not simply that the individuals live it as such…but that it is effectively, practically, the reality of their concrete existence, the term of their subject positions, the basis of their activity, in a given social order. What is held in ideology, what it forms, is the unity of the real relations and the imaginary relations between men and women and the real conditions of their existence.[5]

This is clearly vital in attempting to analyse the relationship between Hollywood film stars and the idealised values of American society during the specific historical context of the 1950s. Rather than simply looking for any notion of a ‘truth’ beneath the layers of ideology, it is necessary to analyse the ideologies themselves and the ‘social reality’ they created through media such as film.

American society during the 1950s has often been glorified as a decade of ‘political simplicity, moral innocence (and) sexual naiveté’[6] between the social upheaval of World War Two and the social upheaval of the 1960s. Yet, this reality was accompanied and complicated by the Cold War climate of paranoia and fear. The emergence of McCarthyism popularised anti-communism to such an extent that, as Ellen Schrecker argues, it ‘transformed domestic communism from a matter of political opinion to one of national security’.[7] Suspicion of communism became suspicion of anything unknown or different as anxiety about invasion from within was perpetuated. This paranoia was compounded by the widespread fear of nuclear warfare. When the Soviet Union detonated its first nuclear device in 1949, atomic weapons became each nation’s primary defence against the threat posed by the other. Thus, while the United States was ostensibly living in a peaceful time, it was simultaneously anticipating another war. Margot Henriksen describes this as, ‘a world in which preparation for peace became indistinguishable from preparation for war, a world in which atomic bombs were considered ‘weapons for peace”.[8] Both McCarthyism and the threat of atomic warfare indicate that the simple and naïve veneer of 1950s American society was complicated by the fear and paranoia that accompanied the insecurities of the future.

Within this uncertain context, the ideologies that dominated American society functioned to create a coherent sense of national identity and purpose in relation to the Cold War. This aligns with the understanding of the multiple and mythical nature of dominant ideologies that has developed within cultural studies. While they appear universal and timeless, in reality dominant ideologies are complex and pluralistic, representing the interests of those groups with the most power within a given society. In 1950s America, the various proponents of the Cold War assumed the most power and, as the examples of McCarthyism and the nuclear arms race suggest, the resultant fear and paranoia shaped American society. The dominant ideologies that emerged within this context subsequently functioned to justify the Cold War and to unite the nation in its common cause.

One of the most dominant ideologies in 1950s America was the idealisation of the nuclear family as a defence against the threat posed by the outside world. Following World War Two, couples were getting married and starting families earlier and more often than they had for over one hundred years.[9] The nuclear family and the home were promoted throughout American culture as a safe and secure haven. A 1953 House and Garden article, for example, detailed the family-oriented lifestyles of young, middle-class couples, and declared the family to be, ‘as American as apple pie’.[10] This direct correlation between the dominant ideology of the nuclear family and the identity of the nation was further enhanced by the renewed distinction between gender roles for men and women. Following the marked increase of female participation in the labour force during World War Two, women were encouraged to return to the home while their husbands resumed the role of breadwinner. Sara Evans describes this as, ‘the dominant domestic ideology…which defined women almost exclusively in terms of wife and mother, function(ing) smoothly both to shape changes in women’s roles and to deny their disruptive power’.[11] This emphasis on traditional gender roles within the idealised nuclear family was constructed as the best means to ensure the security of all Americans.

The ideological dominance of the nuclear family was complimented by the dramatic suburbanisation that took place in 1950s America. Owning a home became linked to the ‘American Dream’ as millions left the city for a quarter-acre block in suburbia, which was promoted as a haven for white, middle-class families.[12] Aligned with this idealisation of the home was the consumer culture that emerged, as America’s post-war prosperity became a Cold War symbol of the virtues of capitalism. There was a significant emphasis on family-centred spending as advertisers promoted household items that were essential to the American way of life. As May argues, ‘the commodities that people bought were intended to reinforce home life and uphold traditional gender roles’.[13] This indicates that the consumerism of the 1950s was directly related to the Cold War idealisation of the nuclear family, which was safely ensconced in the ideal suburban home.

With the fear and paranoia of the Cold War permeating American society, the family evidently functioned as a defence against the insecurities of the future and was complimented by the ideological emphasis on traditional gender roles, suburbanisation and consumerism. The Hollywood film industry played a complex role in the idealisation and naturalisation of these dominant ideologies. While the studio system ensured that the eight major studios had complete control over the content of Hollywood films, their representation of dominant ideologies was necessarily ambiguous and multifaceted. Few aspects of the film industry provide a clearer example of the nature of the relationship between Hollywood and ideology than stardom. There was little scholarly analysis of stardom prior to Richard Dyer’s 1979 text Stars .[14] The sociological point of view regarded the star as a remarkable social phenomenon but dismissed films as,’only of significance in so far as they have stars in them’, while the semiotic viewpoint saw stars as, ‘only of significance because they are in films and therefore are part of the way films signify’.[15] Dyer argues that both approaches are necessary in that the sociological approach should be informed by an understanding of the signification of stars as media texts and the semiotic concern must take account of stars as social products. This formative approach is summarised by Jeremy Butler when he states that Dyer, ‘askswhy and how stars generate meaning and pleasure for spectators in a specific society, as well aswhat meanings and pleasures are communicated’.[16] Using this approach, an analysis of film stars in 1950s America can provide valuable insight into the relationship between Hollywood, stardom and the ideologies that dominated American society.

I have chosen to focus specifically on female film stars because women are often used to symbolise the nation and its ideologies.[17] According to Nira Yuval-Davis, ‘it is women…who reproduce nations, biologically, culturally and symbolically’.[18] The rhetoric of the Cold War in the United States used women as symbols of the democracy and freedom that needed protection from outside forces such as communism. Women who did not fit this ideology were perceived as a dangerous threat. Kathleen Rowe clarifies this link with politics when she contends that, ‘the threat of communism and the atom bomb became linked with the threat of women out of control, and taming women was seen as an essential element in taming the dangers of the atomic age’. [19] The importance of women to the political ideology of 1950s America therefore provided images of female film stars with a strong link to the dominant ideologies of the nation.

There was an immense diversity amongst female star images in 1950s Hollywood. Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell were highly sexualised, while Debbie Reynolds and Doris Day were wholesome girls-next-door. Bette Davis was a star of the 1940s that adapted to 1950s sensibilities, while Audrey Hepburn characterized a new breed of sophistication. Despite these differences, each star image was entwined with the idealised values of the period. In order to illustrate this, I have chosen two stars that represented opposing versions of womanhood. Marilyn Monroe was the most popular star of the decade whose vulnerable sexuality and child-like innocence made her both dangerous and in need of protection. In contrast, Doris Day evoked traditional notions of wholesome femininity as she was consistently transformed from the ideal daughter into the ideal wife. Yet, Monroe and Day were each shaped by the social and political context of the decade and were intrinsically related to the dominant ideologies of 1950s America.

Marilyn Monroe became a Hollywood star in the early 1950s after a successful modelling career. Her image largely revolved around her overt sexuality, which was so central to her stardom that her name became synonymous with it. As Dyer explains, ‘Monroe = sexuality is a message that ran all the way from what the media made of her in the pin-ups and movies to how her image became a reference point for sexuality in the coinage of everyday speech’.[20] The sexual element of Monroe’s image was cultivated from the very beginning, when 20th Century Fox transformed Norma Jeane, the twenty-year-old model, into Marilyn Monroe. As she was thought to look too ‘girl-next-doorish’, she had to learn to ‘smile with her upper lip drawn down in order to minimize the length of her nose and to hide her gumline’.[21] In addition, ‘her hair had to be cut short, straightened, bleached honey blonde, and styled in a sophisticated upsweep’.[22] The breathy voice she adopted was described in a 1953 New York Times article as, ‘a cross between a British accent and baby-talk’. [23] These alterations were clearly designed to transform Monroe into the glamorous blonde bombshell desired by the studio. Following this initial construction, sexuality remained central to Monroe’s stardom. She was consistently described in the press by phrases including, ‘the world’s most desirable female’ and ‘America’s most honoured heat wave,’ and that image was perpetuated in all of her films and publicity.[24] This emphasis on sexuality seemingly contradicted dominant 1950s understandings of femininity and the role of women in American society. However, further analysis illustrates that Monroe’s overt sexuality represented an important layer within the complex ideological landscape of the period.

In contrast to the powerful sexuality displayed by earlier stars such as Mae West, Monroe’s sexuality was based on a vulnerability and weakness that functioned effectively within the particular context of 1950s American society. This version of female sexuality was embodied by Monroe both onscreen and off. Richard deCordova argues that, ‘the star is characterised by a fairly thoroughgoing articulation of the paradigm professional life/private life’. [25] This required consistency amongst the characters portrayed onscreen, public appearances and details of the star’s private life. In Monroe’s case, public knowledge of her orphaned childhood and her marriage and divorce at the age of seventeen informed her representation of vulnerable sexuality onscreen, making her more appealing to her audience. A 1957 article explained that, ‘as the circumstances of her birth, her youthful trials and her early marriage were revealed, Marilyn Monroe became all the more provocative as a sexual symbol’.[26] This image of vulnerable sexuality was central to Monroe’s popularity during the 1950s, as she became the ultimate female figure in need of protection.

Monroe’s private link with dominant notions of female sexuality was enhanced by her portrayal of vulnerable sexuality onscreen. In the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Monroe and Jane Russell played nightclub singers who embarked on an ocean voyage to France in their quest for wealth and romance. [27] Lorelei (Monroe) has agreed to marry the infantile but wealthy Gus because, to Lorelei, the protection of a man and his money was the only way to be happy. She berated Dorothy (Russell) for looking for love, explaining that, ‘if a girl’s spending all of her time worrying about the money she doesn’t have, how’s she going to have any time for being in love?’ Thus, consumerism was linked with vulnerable female sexuality, so that the purpose of Lorelei’s overt sexuality was to gain financial protection from a man she referred to as ‘Daddy’. This reinforced the appeal of Monroe as a vulnerable woman and the weakness associated with 1950s female sexuality. As Rowe contends, ‘weakness reinforces the ideology of traditional heterosexuality, which eroticises an imbalance of power based on feminine submissiveness and masculine dominance’. [28] This suggests that Monroe’s onscreen portrayal of vulnerable sexuality effectively reinforced the 1950s emphasis on the containment and protection of female sexuality.

This subtle relationship between Monroe’s sexuality and the complex ideological landscape of 1950s America was also evident in the fate of her characters on the rare occasions when they were not vulnerable. In the 1952 film Niagara , Monroe’s character Rose was dangerous because her overt sexuality was not vulnerable but aggressive. [29] The trailer for Niagara deliberately invoked images of Monroe as the untamed woman. Over images juxtaposing the highly sexualised figure of Monroe and the powerful force of Niagara Falls, the narrator declared:

Marilyn Monroe skyrocketing to new dramatic heights.
When a man took her loveliness in his arms, he took his life in his hands…
She could never be his, or any man’s completely, and that thought whipped him into a frenzy that makes the screen thunder with unparalleled suspense.[30]

The implication is clear that a woman who could not be ‘any man’s completely’ was a threat, creating suspense in anticipation of how she would be handled. This further highlights the strong relationship between the star image of Monroe and vulnerable female sexuality. On the few occasions that she was aggressive, Monroe’s character was discarded or killed. When she was vulnerable and seeking protection she lived happily ever after. Rowe argues that during the 1950s the independent heroine of earlier films was ‘stripped of her intelligence, often reduced to a purely sexual figure, and either domesticated or made a source of fear’.[31] This message was embodied in the highly sexualised image of Monroe, reinforcing the dangers inherent in aggressive female sexuality during the Cold War.

The ideological acceptability of Monroe’s overt but vulnerable sexuality was enhanced by her innocent, child-like femininity. She often portrayed endearing simpletons whom the audience was invited to laugh at or pity. This was evident in her supporting role in Monkey Business alongside a happily married couple played by Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers. [32] As a beautiful but dumb secretary, Monroe helped Grant’s scientist live out his fantasies when he discovered the formula for reversing the ageing process. When the adults discovered that their youth was not as they remembered, Monroe’s innocent and naïve femininity was emphasised. She was never affected by the drug, and remained in the state of juvenile stupidity the other characters were so glad to leave. Once again, aspects of Monroe’s private life enhanced this version of femininity, including her childish voice and her consistent relationships with older men. This innocent femininity, both onscreen and off, further detracted from the dangers of her overt sexuality. Rather than posing a threat to American society, Monroe was constructed as an ideal image in need of protection from the corrupting dangers of communism.

Within the context of 1950s America, the best means of protecting an image such as Monroe’s was through marriage, and her films often concluded with this motif.[33] However, marriage was not always based primarily on love but on financial security. Thus, consumerism added another layer to the complex ideological reality embodied in Monroe. The relationship between money, love and marriage was explicitly explored in both Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and How To Marry A Millionaire, which followed the attempts of Monroe and her friends to ‘capture’ wealthy men in their marriage trap.[34] In both films financial security was prioritised over love, which would develop after the advantageous marriage was settled. Marriage was thus constructed as a secure haven as well as a means to experience the consumerism that was equally valued in American society. The dual values of consumerism and marriage were most explicit in Monroe’s performance of ‘Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend’ in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. [35] With lyrics including ‘men grow cold, as girls grow old, and we all lose our charms in the end,’ the cynical song suggested that women seek financial security in their marriage because their beauty will not last. It celebrated the delights that money can buy in ‘Tiffany’s! Cartiers! Black Star!’ and the lavish production performed by Monroe in a satin pink dress and adorned with diamonds was an emblem of the glamour of both consumerism and Monroe’s stardom. As Rollyson asserts, ‘”Diamonds” is a scene that in every possible way has been arranged for Monroe, so that by the end of the number she has moved in every direction and filled in every corner of the movie frame…the frame is transformed into her vehicle of self-incorporation’.[36] This performance illustrates the way in which Monroe’s star image successfully incorporated America’s emerging consumer culture, as she symbolised the value of wealth, glamour and spending money.

The examples of sexuality, femininity, marriage and consumerism clearly suggest that the star image of Monroe was intrinsically entwined with the complex ideological landscape of 1950s America. Her overt sexuality was rendered acceptable by her vulnerability and innocent femininity, which made Monroe the ideal image of a beautiful woman in need of protection. In addition, marriage consistently offered her a secure future through which she could enjoy the fruits of the emerging consumer culture. Despite this strong relationship with the dominant ideologies of the nation, the nuclear family and the related move to the suburbs were alluded to but did not fit into Monroe’s highly sexualised image. They were however, central to other star images of the 1950s such as Doris Day. The wholesome, sexless image of Day was as divergent from Monroe’s as was possible. Yet, it was also shaped by the social and political context of the time and incorporated the ideologies of the nation.

Doris Day became a star early in the decade when Warner Brothers cast her in a series of romantic musicals that followed the same basic plot. From the idealistic heiress of Tea For Two, to the title character in Calamity Jane, and Marjorie Winfield in On Moonlight Bay and By The Light of the Silvery Moon, Day consistently portrayed tomboys who were transformed by love into feminine beauties.[37]Warner Brothers cultivated this image of Day both on-screen and off. Like Monroe, aspects of Day’s private life were considered unsavoury, particularly her two divorces prior to her emergence as a star. However, in 1951 she married her manager who became the ‘right man’ to help Day flourish. Her previous career as a big band singer was also incorporated into her image, authenticating her onscreen performances. This continuity between Day’s public and private life enabled her to be promoted as the sweet, virginal star that she remained throughout the decade.

Complimented by these aspects of her private life, Day’s star image was primarily constructed onscreen. The characters she portrayed reveal an explicit link with the more traditional ideologies of 1950s America that contrasts with the complex image of Monroe. This was largely made possible by the setting of her romantic musicals in the past, ranging from the Wild West of Calamity Jane to the World War One setting of On Moonlight Bay to the Depression backdrop of Tea For Two. This gave the values Day invoked a nostalgic validity, glorifying the past as a desirable America that needed to be recaptured to counteract the uncertainty of the 1950s. Although the glorified times were not in reality all fun and romance, it was an effective tool through which the dominant ideologies of the 1950s could be displaced onto an idealised America of the past.

Day became a symbol of extreme femininity and the ideologies incorporated into her romantic musicals centered largely on the role of women in society. The function that Day played in reinforcing traditional gender roles was most evident in her portrayal of Calamity Jane, a tomboy whose struggle to be ‘one of the boys’ caused her to forget her female qualities.[38] When a showgirl arrived in town, drawing attention away from Calamity, she was forced to discover her ‘femininity’ in order to regain the favour of the men. The turning point of the film was the performance by the two women of ‘Women’s Work’, which was defined as domestic chores, maintaining a cheerful household and keeping up a traditionally feminine appearance. They transformed Calamity’s messy hut into a clean, brightly coloured domestic space. The double wedding that concluded the film validated these changes imposed upon Calamity. Throughout her early career, Day’s characters consistently went through this transformation into an idealised version of femininity leading to marriage. Within the uncertain context of the 1950s, this clearly functioned to reinforce what was traditionally considered to be the proper place of women in American society.

Aligned with this promotion of traditional gender roles and marriage, Day’s star image incorporated conservative notions of the nuclear family. In contrast to Monroe’s often family-less characters, Day regularly portrayed the ideal daughter before she became the ideal wife. The value placed on the family was most explicit in the 1951 feature film On Moonlight Bay, which was so popular that a sequel, By The Light of the Silvery Moon, was made the following year. [39] Both films focussed on the Winfield’s, an ideal American family complete with a working father, housewife mother, two children, housekeeper and dog. Day’s character, Marjorie, was again transformed from a tomboy into a feminine beauty when she found love with next-door neighbour William (Gordon MacRae). As William kept changing his mind about getting married, the Winfield family provided Marjorie with solid moral support. Mr Winfield explained to his wife, ‘being a responsible father, I happen to be old-fashioned enough to want to see our grown daughter take her rightful position in the institution of marriage’.[40] Such traditional values were upheld and celebrated by the Winfield family, and were reinforced by the eventual marriage of Marjorie and William. Thus, the nuclear family was idealised as the appropriate nurturing environment for Day’s characters because it guided her to her own marriage and family. This served to emphasise the proper place of women as it was understood in the ideological context of 1950s America.

The association of Day with the nuclear family also incorporated an unequivocal idealisation of suburbia and consumerism. In On Moonlight Bay, Mr Winfield moved the family to a comfortable suburban home. Initially, the family complained that the house was too big and they had left their friends behind. However they gradually came to appreciate their new suburban lifestyle. Consumerism was stressed as the Winfield’s purchased new goods to fill their large house. George justified his decision to move by explaining to his wife, ‘I’m doing this for the children. I thought if we moved to a refined neighborhood some of it might rub off on them…I’d like my daughter to become a wife, not a second baseman’. He proved himself right, as the film finished with the engagement of Marjorie to William, and in the sequel they are married. Suburbanisation and consumerism were, therefore, equated through Day’s image with the safe and secure version of marriage and the nuclear family that dominated 1950s American society.

It is evident that Day’s early star image explicitly incorporated the values of traditional gender roles, marriage, the nuclear family, suburbia and consumerism. These values functioned within the ideological context of the 1950s to allay the anxieties associated with the Cold War. When Day reached her thirties and could no longer portray the daughter, her image was adjusted slightly but she maintained her strong relationship with the dominant ideologies of the decade. Starring with Rock Hudson in a series of sex comedies that included Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back, Day portrayed the puritanical virgin battling with Hudson’s more promiscuous characters.[41] Although she was now in an adult world without familial protection, Day remained sweet and wholesome as she continued to embody an idealised version of femininity, marriage and family. These values were celebrated through Day’s image, so that although Jerry (Hudson) described her in Lover Come Back as ‘undersexed’, her commitment to traditional ideologies was validated by their eventual marriage. Through these sex comedies, despite changes in setting, plot and age, Day upheld the dominant 1950s understandings of femininity, marriage and the family that she had always symbolised.

The star image of Doris Day was clearly related to the ideological context of 1950s America. She represented an ideal version of womanhood, often associated with the safety and security attributed to the past, and functioning to offset the fear, paranoia and uncertainty that accompanied the Cold War. However, Day’s relationship to these ideologies was not always simple and straightforward. As Horte and MacKenzie argue in their recent analysis of the relationship between film and national identity, films ‘do not simply represent or express the stable features of a national culture, but are themselves one of the loci of debates about a nation’s governing principles, goals, heritage and history’. [42] This notion of debate or contest within film and the ideologies it invokes can be extended to include the star system. Stars did not simply represent dominant ideologies. They were sites upon which ideological debates took place, thereby giving audiences space to ascribe their own meanings to the images projected by their favourite stars. Richard Dyer explains that ‘audiences cannot make media images mean anything they want to, but they can select from the complexity of the image the meanings and feelings, the variations, inflections and contradictions, that work for them’. [43] While the films themselves remained within the restricted boundaries of 1950s Hollywood, stars offered scope for elements of subversion that provide further insight into the ideological landscape of the 1950s. Rather than simply embodying an idealised image, female film stars reflected the complexities of American society that pointed towards the transition ahead for women in the following decade. More in-depth analysis of Day’s image reveals ambiguities that enabled the subtle subversion of the ideologies she was ostensibly promoting.

This subtle subversion is illustrated by what Quart and Auster describe as Day’s ‘drive, ambition and spunkiness’.[44] In the early romantic comedies, this involved her portrayal of tomboys who were strong, capable young women. Although they were always domesticated, the fact that such women appeared onscreen was significant in the context of 1950s America. In turn, Day gave these characters an independence that enhanced their appeal. A clear example of this was Marjorie’s proud display of mechanical abilities in By the Light of the Silvery Moon. [45] When their car broke down at the end of a date, William could not fix it so Marjorie crawled under the car. As she emerged dirty but triumphant, William was visibly agitated at this affront to his masculinity. Marjorie had proven that women were indeed capable of more than domestic duties. Although this scene functioned within the plot to justify Marjorie’s subsequent domestication, such images of female independence offered audiences an alternative version of womanhood that provided scope for the critique rather than reinforcement of dominant 1950s ideologies.

Alfred Hitchcock explicitly invoked the darker aspects of the ideologies Day embodied in the 1956 suspense The Man Who Knew Too Much. [46] The plot concerned a married couple (Day and James Stewart) whose son was kidnapped while the family was on vacation in Morocco. Day’s role as a mother was compatible with her star image, reinforcing her association with the nuclear family. Under Hitchcock’s direction, however, Day was able to explore the complex reality of being a wife and mother. She portrayed a young woman who was forced to give up her career and take on the role of housewife when she married Stewart’s doctor. As the kidnapping unravelled, the implication emerged that her husband was responsible for her frustrations in their marriage and her obsession with her son that required drug taking to control. Day’s image as a wife and mother was, therefore, maintained, but it was complicated by Hitchcock’s more in-depth exploration of the sacrifices such women had to make.

Further elements of subversion appeared within Day’s wholesome star image through her portrayal of women with professional jobs in the later sex comedies. Day was among the few female stars of the 1950s given roles where they worked for a living and enjoyed it, thereby undermining her representation of idealised femininity. As Quart and Auster explain ‘despite Day’s girl-next-door looks and behavior, her characters often had jobs and projected a tougher, more independent persona than other major female stars’. [47] This independence was evident in roles where her expertise in her profession was constantly reinforced, including an advertising executive in Lover Come Back and an interior designer in Pillow Talk. [48] Such films which demonstrated female capabilities in the professional arena complicated Day’s otherwise idealised representation of femininity and a woman’s place. Towards the end of the decade her star image incorporated an alternative to the dominant ideologies she embodied and hinted at the complex reality of 1950s American society.

Day’s image also shared elements of subversion with other female stars, including Marilyn Monroe. An important aspect of female stardom throughout the history of the film industry was the fact that such women were so popular in the first place. Within the context of 1950s America, it was clearly significant that women like Day and Monroe occupied public space that was generally reserved for men: they appeared on the big screen, providing a source of public interest and gracing the cover ofTime magazine. This undermined the onscreen domestication of female characters and the constant reinforcement of dominant ideologies. Many female stars were so popular that they were either billed before male stars on the promotional material for their films, or did not need a male star at all to attract an audience. Monroe and Russell were the star attractions on the posters for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, while Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis were secondary to Monroe on the posters forSome Like It Hot. The subversive element of the popularity of female film stars was further enhanced by their ability as actresses, singers and comedians. The immense talents of Day and Monroe, who could both carry a film alone, clearly extended well beyond the domestic realm. Their presence as capable women holding their own in the public sphere of the 1950s provided their audience with scope for the subtle subversion of the ideologies they were apparently promoting.

Monroe and the makers of her films often explicitly invoked her star image, popularity and acting ability to undermine her embodiment of the dominant ideologies of the decade. The success of Monroe’s films was at least partially based on her talent as a comedian, a talent that extended from her films to her public persona. It was never clear when Monroe stopped acting, giving the impression that her innocence was part of her act. This complicated her portrayal of the vulnerable woman and reflected the uncertainties underlying 1950s womanhood. For example in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Monroe infused Lorelei with an ambiguity that suggested her dumbness was part of a role she always played.[49] Towards the end of the film, Lorelei indicated she was the subject, not the object, of the joke by getting what she wanted through the exploitation of men’s foolishness. As she explained to Gus’s father, ‘I can be smart when it’s important, but most men don’t like it’. This indicated that Lorelei’s dumb blonde persona and vulnerable sexuality were an act to get the rich husband she desired. Through this aspect of the character, Monroe suggested an alternative reason for her vulnerability that contradicted dominant understandings of female sexuality and femininity. This ambiguity in her stardom indicates the complex and often contradictory nature of ideology in 1950s American society.

Particular genres provided further scope for the subversion of the ideologies incorporated into Monroe’s image. The musical comedy in particular provided an element of spectacle that could be employed for the exposure rather than reinforcement of dominant ideologies. As Patricia Mellencamp argues, musicals ‘are set apart from other genres by the coded presence of spectacles, enclosed units within the larger narrative, set off by a system of visual and aural elements’.[50] Moments of spectacle in Monroe’s musicals, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Some Like It Hot, subtly critiqued those ideologies the central narrative promoted.[51] The big numbers in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes took place on stages, where Lorelei and Dorothy were performing to an onscreen audience so that the spectator was positioned as an observer of, rather than a participator in, voyeurism. Thus, the spectator was not invited to objectify Monroe and Russell, but to critically observe how the audience in the film was encouraged to objectify female bodies. Similarly, the musical numbers inSome Like It Hot were performed by an all-girl band featuring Jerry (Lemmon) and Joe (Curtis) disguised as women, in effect, undermining the sexual element of the performances. Rather than objectifying the members of the band, including Monroe, the spectator shared the joke being played on the onscreen audience who were objectifying both men and women in disguise. These examples suggest that the musical genre provided space for the exposure rather than reinforcement of Monroe’s vulnerable sexuality, thereby indicating once again the ideological complexities of the 1950s.

The images of both Monroe and Day evidently contained elements of ambiguity that subtly subverted the dominant ideologies of 1950s America. These moments of subversion further illustrate the intrinsic relationship between Hollywood stars and the dominant ideologies of the American nation. The meticulously constructed star images of Monroe and Day reflected the social and political context of the 1950s. During a time of suspicion and paranoia they were among the most popular images of the American woman, different versions of ‘the answer to any red-blooded American boy’s dream’. Whether representing vulnerable sexuality in need of protection or wholesome femininity destined for domesticity, both star images were entwined in the idealisation of the nuclear family and its related ideologies. However, like American society as a whole during the 1950s, this relationship was not as simple and straightforward as it seemed. Elements of subversion were incorporated into their images, offering subtle alternatives to the ideologies they ostensibly promoted, providing an indication of the upheaval that was to follow in the next decade. Thus, Monroe and Day, in their capacity as popular Hollywood film stars, embodied both the dominant ideologies of the 1950s and the complex, ambiguous reality of American society during the Cold War.

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[1] Some Like It Hot, directed by Billy Wilder, United Artists, 1959. Back

[2] Review of Some Like It Hot, in The New York Times, Sunday April 5, 1959, II, p. 1.Back

[3] Julian Wolfreys (ed.),Introducing Literary Theories: A Guide and Glossary, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2001, p. 2. Back

[4] Stephen Heath, Questions of Cinema, Macmillan Press, London, 1981, p. 4. Back

[5] Stephen Heath, Questions of Cinema, p. 5. Back

[6] Jeremy Butler, Star Texts: Image and Performance in Film and Television, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1991, p. 254. Back

[7] Ellen Schrecker, The Age of McCarthyism: A Brief History with Documents, Bedford Books, Boston, 1994, p. 16. Back

[8] Margot A. Henriksen, Dr. Strangelove’s America: Society and Culture in the Atomic Age , University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997, pp. 15-16. Back

[9] For example, the median age for first marriage dropped to 22.5 years for men and 20.1 years for women in the mid-1950s while the birth rate remained above 25 per 1000 throughout the decade. These and other relevant statistics can be found in Elaine Tyler May,Homeward Bound: American Families in the Post-War Era, Basic Books, New York, 1988, pp. 6-7. Back

[10] ‘Three Young Marrieds and How They Live’, House and Garden , Vol. 103, May 1953, pp. 132-3.Back

[11] Sara M. Evans, Born For Liberty: A History of Women in America, Free Press Paperbacks, New York, 1997, p. 246. Back

[12] In 1955 it was estimated that four thousand families moved to the suburbs each day, and across the decade the number of homeowners increased by over nine million to reach 32.8 million by 1960. Eugenia Kaledin, Mothers and More: American Women in the 1950s, Twayne Publishers, Boston, 1984, p. 11. Back

[13] Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound, p. 166. Back

[14] Richard Dyer, Stars, BFI Publishing, London, 1979. Back

[15] Richard Dyer, Stars, p. 1. Back

[16] Jeremy Butler, Star Texts, p. 8. Back

[17] See, for example, the emergence of republican motherhood in the nineteenth century discussed in Sara M. Evans,Born For LibertyBack

[18] Nira Yuval-Davis, Gender and Nation, Sage, London, 1997, p. 2. Back

[19] Kathleen Rowe, The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1995, p. 170. Back

[20]Richard Dyer, Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society, Macmillan, Hampshire, 1987, p. 20. Back

[21] Carl E. Rollyson Jr., Marilyn Monroe: A Life of the Actress , Souvenir Press, London, 1987, p. 20.Back

[22] Carl E. Rollyson Jr., Marilyn Monroe, p. 20. Back

[23] Barbara Beech Jamison, ‘Body and Soul: A Portrait of Marilyn Monroe Showing Why Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’, in The New York Times , July 12, 1953, p. 5. Back

[24] Jamison, ‘Body and Soul: A Portrait of Marilyn Monroe Showing Why Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’, in The New York Times , July 12, 1953, p. 5; Seymour Peck, ‘Marilyn a la Mack Sennett’, in The New York Times, February 22, 1959, VI, pp. 16-17.Back

[25] Richard deCordova, ‘The Emergence of the Star System in America’, in Christine Gledhill (ed.),Stardom: Industry of Desire , Routledge, New York, 1991, p. 26. Back

[26] Thomas Harris, ‘The Building of Popular Images: Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe’, in Christine Gledhill (ed.),Stardom: Industry of Desire, p. 43. Back

[27] Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, directed by Howard Hawks, 20th Century Fox, 1953. Back

[28] Kathleen Rowe, The Unruly Woman, p. 180. Back

[29] Niagara , directed by Henry Hathaway, 20th Century Fox, 1952. Back

[30] Trailer for Niagara, 1952. Back

[31] Kathleen Rowe, The Unruly Woman, p. 170. Back

[32] Monkey Business, directed by Howard Hawks, 20th Century Fox, 1952. Back

[33 ]For example, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953; How To Marry A Millionaire, directed by Jean Negulesco, 20th Century Fox, 1953; River Of No Return, directed by Otto Preminger, 20th Century Fox, 1954; Bus Stop, directed by Josh Logan, 20th Century Fox, 1956. Back

[34] Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953; How To Marry A Millionaire, 1953. Back

[35] Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953. Back

[36] Carl E. Rollyson, Marilyn Monroe, p. 65. Back

[37] Tea For Two, directed by David Butler, Warner Brothers, 1950; Calamity Jane, directed by David Butler, Warner Brothers, 1953; On Moonlight Bay, directed by Roy Del Ruth, Warner Brothers, 1951;By The Light of the Silvery Moon, directed by David Butler, Warner Brothers, 1952. Back

[38] Calamity Jane, 1953.Back

[39] On Moonlight Bay, 1951;By the Light of the Silvery Moon, 1952. Back

[40] By The Light of the Silvery Moon, 1952. Back

[41] Pillow Talk, directed by Michael Gordon, Universal, 1959; Lover Come Back, directed by Delbert Mann, Universal/International, 1961. Back

[42] Mette Hjort & Scott MacKenzie (eds), Cinema and Nation, Routledge, London, 2000, p. 4.Back

[43] Richard Dyer, Heavenly Bodies, p. 5. Back

[44] Leonard Quart and Albert Auster,American Film and Society Since 1945 (2nd Ed), Praeger, New York, 1991, p. 58. Back

[45] By the Light of the Silvery Moon, 1952. Back

[46] The Man Who Knew Too Much, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Paramount, 1956. Back

[47] Leonard Quart and Albert Auster,American Film and Society Since 1945 (2nd Ed), p. 58.Back

[48] Lover Come Back, 1961;Pillow Talk , 1959. Back

[49] Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953. Back

[50] Patricia Mellencamp, A Fine Romance: Five Ages of Film Feminism, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995, p. 69. Back

[51] Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953; Some Like It Hot, 1959. Back

Write a response to this paper

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