The Rise and Fall of the College Widow

May 27, 2011 § 1 Comment

While watching A Yank at Oxford, I spotted a real, live endangered species of the film world: the college widow. TV Tropes refers to the college widow as a “forgotten trope,” in that it was once a commonly accepted cinematic shorthand but has fallen out of favor. Originally “college widow” referred to a single woman–not necessarily a widow–who hung out with the college men year after year, sometimes hoping to find an educated husband after she had graduated without snagging an engagement ring, sometimes just looking for a good time. On film, directors sometimes made her into an actual widow in order to make her promiscuity slightly more palatable to the audience. Thus the Hollywood college widow is usually a woman whose husband (often a member of the university faculty) died young, leaving her all alone in the full flower of her beauty and sexual experience–which, of course, attracts the attention of the young college men that surround her. This being the first half of the twentieth century, though, the college widow is usually painted as predatory rather than preyed upon, with the men who get involved with her treated as innocent victims.

The reason this trope was invented seems obvious, the reasons it disappeared even more so. Filmmakers had to assure us that our heroes were healthy, red-blooded American men, who would never resort to all that Brideshead Revisited stuff that was rumored to go on at many an all-male campus. Obviously in the 1910s-1940s (the heyday of this trope), prostitution couldn’t be depicted on screen, so our protagonists couldn’t get their kicks that way. Once the Hays Code came into effect, adulterers must be punished. And for a hero to seduce an unmarried young woman would be caddish. So the college widow served as an effective outlet for all of our heroes’ wants and needs (and those of the writer): it proved the protagonist was straight, sexually desirous and desirable, and yet still a gentleman. Of course, the trope began to be played for laughs even more often than it was played straight, in movies like Horse Feathers. With the rise of co-education and the fall of the production code, the college widow found herself expelled from campus in favor of flirtatious co-eds.

One Yalie described the college widow thusly:

“For the college widow had a depth and richness of emotional experience never developed in American life of that day outside of a few metropolises, and seldom there. She began at sixteen or eighteen, as a ravishing beauty, the darling of freshmen; she passed on in the years of her first blooming from class to class of ardent youngsters, until, as her experience ripened, she acquired a taste, never to be satisfied by matrimony, for male admiration, abstracted from its consequences; and more subtly, for the heady stimulant of intimacy with men in their fresh and vigorous youth. By her thirties she had learned the art of eternal spring, and had become a connoisseur in the dangerous excitement of passion controlled at the breaking point, a mistress of every emotion, and an adept in the difficult task of sublimating love into friendship. The students lived out their brief college life and went on; she endured, and tradition with her, an enchantress in illusion and a specialist in the heart. Twenty, even thirty years might be her tether; when suddenly on a midnight, a shock of reality, or perhaps only boredom, ended it all; she was old — but still charming and infinitely wise. To smoke a cigarette with her when cigarettes were still taboo for women, and drink her coffee and liqueur, was a lesson in civilization.”

The Great American Novel Project: The Scarlet Letter

February 24, 2011 § 1 Comment

My only exposure to Hawthorne thus far was a series of his short stories I had to read for my freshman year American lit class. For the most part I was unimpressed, and now, almost ten years later, most of his vaguely creepy, Romantic takes on Puritanism blend together in my head, like Poe with more religion and less pay-off. Still, there were a few of his stories–“Rappaccini’s Daughter,” for example–that intrigued me enough not to swear him off entirely. It wasn’t a coincidence, either, that Hawthorne’s stories that I didn’t hate were largely the ones where women played a large role, I was cautiously optimistic about The Scarlet Letter, despite its reputation for being the bane of most high schoolers’ short existences.

“Cautiously optimistic” turned out to be the right approach. There are plenty of aspects of The Scarlet Letter that will annoy the modern reader: its overwrought symbolism, the constant gnashing of teeth and beating of breasts to express anguish, its monotonous repetition of the same dreary themes. I can see why so many high schoolers hate it. But for a former English major with a slightly higher tolerance for boredom and a little bit of a puritanical streak, I found some things to like, too–the foremost being Hawthorne’s proto-feminist take on the sexual double standard and his explorations of how Hester’s transcending society’s boundaries led a greater degree of enlightenment. I’m not sure I could have handled five hundred pages of The Scarlet Letter, but given its short length, it was a fairly painless entry into this project.

Next up: my most-dreaded book of the whole project, the legitimately 500-page Moby-Dick.

Where the Boys Are (1960)

December 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

Mild spoilers.

Few movies manage to visually capture a Midwest winter quite like the opening moments of Where the Boys Are. Our heroines converge outside of their college lecture hall, sneezing and sniffling, slipping on the ice. Snow piles up around them; snowflakes the size of quarters whip around their hooded heads. Merritt isn’t sure that she’ll be able to go on their spring break trip–she has too much schoolwork and is on the verge of failing out of school, despite an IQ of 138–but finally takes a look around her and declares, “If I see one more inch of snow, just one more flake, I’m going to absolutely barf!” And thus our group is on the road to Fort Lauderdale.

Storytelling wisdom holds that if you have a quartet of girls or women as your main characters, they must fall into the following stereotypes:

  • the naive sweetheart (or, taking this to its extreme, the bimbo/goofball)
  • the sexpot/the flirt
  • the ball-buster/the tomboy
  • the smart, normal one that we’re supposed to relate to

See: Little Women, Sex and the City, Golden Girls, the original Baby-Sitters Club, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Living Single, Now and Then. Where the Boys Are is no exception to this four-woman pack of stereotypes, and here we get:

  • Paula Prentiss as the goofy Tuggle, who wants nothing more than to become “a walking, talking baby factory”
  • Yvette Mimieux as beautiful Melanie, who’s desperate to hook up with an Ivy Leaguer
  • Connie Francis as “captain of the girls’ hockey team” Angie, who has no luck with men
  • Dorores Hart as Merritt, our practical narrator, who’s trying to find a balance between love and sex

The four of them descend upon Florida with one collective goal: to be where the boys are. Tuggle immediately meets a goofy Michigan State student who introduces himself as T.V., and the two of them spend most of the film tug-of-warring over their conflicting desires: sex (his) versus marriage (hers). Angie struggles to attract any boys whatsoever, eventually settling for a bespectacled jazz musician who’s the only one to express interest. Melanie finds the Ivy Leaguer of her heart, but quickly gets in over her head with him. And Merritt, least interested in sex of them all, stumbles upon her dream date without even trying.

To modern eyes, Where the Boys Are can’t seem to make up its mind: it comes in as a sex comedy, flounders in the middle, and goes out like a sexual morality tale. This film was actually a forerunner to the entire genre of teen sex comedies–the parallels to later films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High or American Pie are obvious in the way the girls joke about sex in jaded tones. But as Merritt points out later, it’s “all talk.” All of the girls are virgins going in, and the only one who no longer is at the film’s close ends up regretting it. For all its debate about sex in its opening scenes, where Merritt argues with her professor that telling girls to stay virgins until marriage is unrealistic, Where the Boys Are serves up a moral that’s ultimately sexually conservative. Melanie is severely punished for losing her virginity: a rumor goes around that she’s easy, and she is subsequently raped, the trauma from which leaves her mentally disturbed, wandering through traffic in a daze. After not sleeping with the men they’re dating, the other girls are rewarded with boyfriends (albeit some of questionable merit), and Merritt, in particular, wins out: her man, Ryder, turns out to be an unbelievably wealthy, intelligent Ivy Leaguer who wants to continue dating her after they leave Florida.

Although it reflects the values of the early ’60s–its depiction of the Fort Lauderdale spring break culture of that era is practically an anthropological study–the film has aged remarkably well. Its debates about “hook-up culture,” when to sleep together, and whether abstinence-only education is realistic seem surprisingly modern, and help to raise it above the average ’60s beach party flick. Still, a more nuanced ending might have helped. Instead, we get this takeaway: put out and you will get raped and go insane, stay pure and you’ll be rewarded with all your wildest dreams come true.

On Horror, Halloween, and Black Christmas

November 1, 2010 § Leave a comment

Spoilers for Black Christmas (1974) ahead.

Halloween is not my favorite holiday. I work at a bar, so most years, my Halloween consists of corralling, baby-sitting, and cleaning up after drunks in unimaginative costumes. This year, I worked both on Halloween night and the Saturday before it–which is when my city holds its big Halloween festival–but I wanted to do something to celebrate . . . so on the Friday before, my friend C. came over with a bottle of pinot noir. We cooked goat cheese and butternut squash ravioli in brown butter sauce with hazelnuts, made pumpkin brownies, and got sufficiently toasted on both wine and whiskey-apple cider before settling in to watch the original Black Christmas. (Side note: my kitchen is a horrifying, flour-encrusted mess right now.)

Horror and I don’t always get along. I’m prejudiced because it’s the most popular genre that Pretentious Male Film Buffs and Critics watch to relax. That’s fine, obviously–I have musicals and screwball comedies; there’s no reason they shouldn’t have something, too–but it also means that horror gets a lot of essays and blog entries defending and legitimizing its creepy sexual politics by people that filmmakers actually take seriously.

That’s a turn-off. But that’s not horror’s fault, really, so I feel a little bad about avoiding the entire genre. Then again, there are some things that are its fault. Too much old horror comes off as more corny than creepy, and too much new horror relies too heavily on gross-out gags and doesn’t pay enough attention to the suspense and psychological mindfucks. I don’t mind blood, but if a film employs increasing amounts of gore as their chief scare tactic, I start to lose interest. And I’m especially judgmental about the use of rape as a plot device in many horror movies (which is a blog entry in and of itself). The horror movies I like are ones like The Strangers, which, although it had its faults, had enough rare virtues that I was still able to like it: a focus on the fear of the unknown; long, drawn-out, suspenseful shots; unanswered questions and things left implied rather than spelled out; minimal but effective use of blood and gore.

Despite the fact that I don’t watch much of it, I’ve seen just enough horror to recognize the tropes that appear over and over again. (It might have helped that I came of age during–and thus watched the bulk of my horror movies during– the genre-deconstructing Scream era.) During the opening scenes of a horror film, I can usually predict who will be the Final Girl. Not only did my friend and I predict the “Final Girl” at the beginning of Black Christmas, but we managed to predict most of the plot twists and the ending long before they happened. The problem is that I don’t understand enough about horror to know if, at the time this movie was made, those twists were new and different. Give me, say, a musical and I’ll tell you exactly when certain tropes were invented and when they transformed from “trope” to “cliche” and then into “archetype.” But horror? Don’t ask me. During the film, I kept turning to C. and saying “The calls are coming from inside the house!” in a creepy voice . . . but it wasn’t until I checked IMDB this morning that I found out that this was actually the first horror film to use that device (along with originating or popularizing plenty of others, like the killer’s point-of-view camera shot or the high contrast of holiday joy with a murder spree).

That said, I like horror when it’s well-done–most especially when it avoids the sticky complications of the sexual morality plays that many of the worst films devolve into. From a female perspective, horror is a dual genre: when it’s good, it’s the film genre that explores the complexity of female roles the most; when it’s bad, it goes beyond misogyny. Because the hero of a horror film must be reduced to screaming, shaking, crying, and fleeing in a way that the audience would look down on a man for, it’s nearly inevitable that the slasher-flick hero will be a girl. That makes horror the sole movie genre that is aimed primarily at male viewers but forces the viewer to identify with a female protagonist. And yet the way sexuality is employed by many male directors–killing off the sluts and the girls who’ve had abortions and the girls who are having sex with their boyfriends in their car in the middle of the woods, forcing them to run half-naked through the wilderness before they’re finally hacked down–tends to undermine that. It’s a toss-up.

Black Christmas manages to avoid the sluts-as-cannon-fodder trend, sort of–our protagonist not only has had sex but is contemplating an abortion in the movie’s early scenes. As the film opens, she and her sisters at the Pi Kappa Sigma sorority house are being harassed by an obscene phone caller who eventually takes it to the next level and starts killing them off, one by one. Despite the premise, this is probably the least sexy sorority slasher flick ever made, and with nary a single panty raid, scantily clad pillow fight or implied girl-on-girl make-out session, it easily managed not to ping any of my hair-trigger “That’s-sexist!!!” sensors. The film is smart, for a slasher film, and treats its characters as such–the filmmakers have predicted most potential loose ends and explain them away in a way that’s both logical and believable, as when the murdered characters aren’t immediately missed because they’ve already made plans to head out of town for the holiday. There’s one eye roll-inducing “Don’t go upstairs!” moment (I’ll cut a movie slack for exactly one of these before I start deducting points), and the film telegraphs the decoy killer so early that only a complete novice horror-watcher would be surprised when he turns out to be a red herring . . . but on the whole, the film offers satisfying twists and rationales in a genre that too often seems to argue that its audience doesn’t deserve them.

You know what they say about horror movies reflecting the fears of the society they were made in, and this is almost a comically accurate example of that. Upon Black Christmas‘s release, in loco parentis was basically down the drain–and this in the wake of Roe v. Wade, the rise of second-wave feminism, and the Summer of Love. Parents could no longer count on their college-bound daughters to be protected by the school’s curfews and visitation hours, and their anxieties ran wild about what their daughters were up to with no supervision. In Black Christmas, Mr. Harrison–father of the first murder victim–stands in for ’70s-era parents everywhere when he shows up at the sorority house to pick up his daughter and instead finds only her filthy-mouthed, booze-swilling, premarital-sex-having sorority sisters, guarded over solely by an equally hard-drinking, incompetent housemother who doesn’t seem to be doing much in the way of mothering. But Black Christmas refuses to take the easy road and–unlike many of the films that would later rip it off–doesn’t allow its killer to mow down his victims simply based on whether they drink or smoke or what they do in the bedroom. Instead, it offers a much more nuanced take on women who want more than the small lives they’re being offered. And for that reason, Black Christmas was a great way to spend my Halloween.

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