Divorcing Women and Cinematic Symbolism – Part 2: The Power of the Pen

The relationship between books and movies is obvious. The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, The Great Gatsby, and upcoming Mortal Engines naturally invite audiences to read the book before seeing the movie. Since books came before film, they have molded not only storylines but also the conventions for the characters in film. Some of these literary and cultural conventions have confined women into nothing more than symbolism on the page and screen. So let’s open the chapter on women and symbolic lineages, shall we? 

Enter the Bible

Still from Boom Town (1940)

Writers have lived in a world rich with archetypes and symbolism (religious, mythic, and cultural) since Eve took a bite out of the proverbial apple. These conventions carried over into film. Take, for instance, the 1933 film Ecstasy, which severely tarnished Hedy Lamarr’s career before it had even started. In it, her character, Eva (symbolic in many ways of Eve), meets the love of her life, Adam (guess where that name came from?). Eva is even in the nude when she meets Adam, as her horse has run off with her clothes (just like Eve meeting Adam in the Garden of Eden). Whether intentional or not, the film highly sexualized Eva for that time period, and Hedy paid the price for her character as audiences transferred the symbolism to her, forever typecasting her as a sex symbol. Hedy was even tricked into the scenes in question.

Poster 2 from Mother! (2017)

Another contemporary film drawing heavily upon Biblical allegory is mother! (2017).  In the film, Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) is symbolic of Mother Nature, her husband Him is symbolic of God, the first visitors are symbolic of Adam and Eve, and later bringing their sons who are symbolic of Cain and Abel. After Him publishes his poem (symbolic of religious text), he gains many fans (symbolic of followers) who break into sects, wars, etc. However, in depicting a “motherly” role, Mother is shown to have little agency and be frequently ignored and subservient. The more problematic symbolism, however is when Man (symbolic of Adam) first shows up. He has a gaping wound in his side (symbolic of a rib being taken from Adam to create Eve). It’s shown to be painful, and he’s dying of it. Clever, but was the creation of woman really so painful, Aronofsky? And don’t get me started on the supposedly “passionate” love-making scene between Him and Mother. Love it or hate it, you see how the film depicts womanhood and condemns it to serve a life of symbolism. As with Hedy, the film also impacted Jennifer Lawrence’s image as an actress free of sexist roles for a hot minute – different times from the 1930s. At least J-Law’s first role did not typecast her as a sex icon, so this role did not rebrand her image permanently. Then again, Red Sparrow happened…

The women of the Bible themselves seldom have so little agency (even for a different era – check out Deborah’s rule) or such negative impacts (stop chalking up the fall of man to Eve alone) as literature and film depict them. So in using the Bible as source material for film, let’s explore other biblical allusions, shall we?


Enter Classical Myth

Still of Meg from Hercules (1997)

If you’ve seen films like the Clash of the Titans300Percy Jackson (2010); O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000); and, of course, Wonder Woman (2017) – just to name a few – then you’ve seen just how much film and television draw on Greek and Roman mythology.  While this source material may add a touch of class and allude to larger, pre-established themes, there are, unfortunately, few examples of strong women.  Artemis and Atalanta do stand out, as do the Amazons, who served as source material for Wonder Woman comics and films.  These strong women are a clear minority against the dozens – if not scores – of strong men described in these myths.  Just…please don’t get me started on the tragedy of how most other female characters are portrayed in these myths. Many films based on myth have represented women proportionately with their source material. I expand on this more in my last article. Let’s just say I’m glad that films like Wonder Woman 1984 are on the horizon. 

Not all Greek and Roman literature was tied to the gods and goddesses, of course. Some of it was quite…basic. Women were portrayed domestically as the ideal Roman homemakers. On the flip, there was a sub-art scene that emphasized alluring mistresses – target audience: Roman men. There was no humanizing middle ground. The Madonna-Whore complex in film/TV is nothing new, and its roots supersede the spread of Christianity and use of the Madonna. 


Enter Chivalric Romance

Still from A Knight’s Tale (2001)

The knights were always the epitome of adventure while the women were the dainty ones who awaited their return. Or were they?

Modern critics and historians argue that women in chivalric romances were actually symbolic of introspection and represented the intellectual side of the adventures written. They would question and challenge the actions knights had taken. To me this feels a bit like saying that women make good secretaries because they’re organized. Yes, and remind me why society doesn’t have that expectation of men? I believe both men and women can be introspective and intellectual!

That said, those women who weren’t the “intellectual” symbols were the damsels in distress or temptresses. Although the damsel trope had reached popularity with the Andromeda myth well before this era in literature, chivalric romances helped catapult them into literary popularity. And it followed film: from King Kong (1933) to the Spider-Man trilogy (2002, 2004, 2007). To say the least, this trope has led to less well-written and rounded female love interests in film.


Enter Gothic Literature

Poster from Crimson Peak (2015)

The study of literature is vast. So many eras, so many movements, so many impacts. I could talk to you about how the Renaissance cemented notions of heaven and hell that were later used in film, or how Victorian gallows culture led to the procedural crime dramas we have today. However, Gothic romances, originating in the 1700s, brought elements of chivalric romance wrapped in romanticism wrapped in omens and superstitions and symbols.

The gothic genres of horror and romance were more forward-thinking than most literary genres because of their female authors, from Mary Shelley to the Bronte sisters. Their genres and tropes have impacted all horror movies as well as visual tropes in historical dramas. Really, there are many female trailblazers to thank in this era outside of this genre. Other male gothic authors, however, sensationalized the abuse and terror of innocent women in their gothic works for the value of entertainment. Others, yet, used the genre to enforce moral codes within society and what monsters await deviants.

Someone had to invert that established literary symbolism to make a point. 

DVD Cover from Tess of the D’Ubervilles (2008)


Enter Thomas Hardy

Between 1891 and 1892, Thomas Hardy published Tess of the d’Urbervilles, wherein he inverted established symbols and tropes familiar within Victorian society to make a point. He even did so with gothic symbolism and made trite commentary on English aristocracy. He subtitled Tess: A Pure Woman despite how actions and events around her might not have been interpreted as such among Victorian society. Her story is a tragedy, but the tragedy is the commentary. This novel has been adapted well twice into major cinema: Once in 1978 by Roman Polanski (great guy) and once as a miniseries by BBC in 2008 (guess which one I appreciated more?). By inverting symbolism, we give it deeper meaning and comment on the nature of the symbol. 


Enter Education

Those who are literate possess an advantage over those who are not: they have a medium with which to express themselves and their perceptions of the world – either as it is or as they think it should be.  Perhaps this is why literature has been the dominant art form in many ruling classes in many societies. Those who can read and write can support or reshape cultural norms. Thankfully journalism is still a thing. As are blogs, vlogs, and books – whether leather-bound or audio-narrated. But know that the importance of who holds the pen is paramount to determining whether art influences culture…or culture influences art. The more that women have access to higher education and the option of writing books, screenplays, or other storytelling mediums…the more complex and rich characters are likely to come to life for the audience as well as their society.

So, until next time: happy filmmaking!

Still from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

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