Images of Women

   Although images of women on film have been varied, and a range of female characters has always been central to film narratives, the truth remains that films tend to have male protagonists and be about male concerns, with only a handful that can be considered true women's pictures. Boys growing up, their rites of passage, war, adventure, male intellectual dilemmas, their pursuit of sex or success, have proved far more prominent as film motifs than more specifically female experiences. With very few exceptions, films were conceived, funded, created, and commercialized by men. Such a male-centered perspective means that, even when pioneering women in Spanish cinema, like Rosario Pi (1899-1967) or, in the Franco Period, Ana Mariscal (1923-95), became directors, differences in gender representation were not substantial: like men, they worked within the limits of available ideologies, conveyed through stereotypes and narrative. Furthermore, until recently, most political regimes saw gender as an area of intervention, providing strict sets of guidelines on the "right" kind of masculinity and femininity. In the case of Spanish cinema, Francoist ideology was very particular concerning the differences between men and women in society, and the government imposed these differences in representation through censorship, funding rewards, and other pressures.
   Perspective and ideological restrictions account for a more limited range of female types and a more ideological content in the representation of women than is the case with men. Two basic mythologies of women have a strong influence in popular representations of femininity, particularly in Southern European cultures: the saintly, nurturing Madonna and the whore, the fallen woman who has been led astray by an excess of desire. In Spanish cinema, the Madonna was the prevailing mythology for decades, as a part of a specific ideological project. Women in Francoist film were seldom allowed to stray from this passively saintly image. There were exceptions, though. On the one hand, Aurora Bautista, and folkloric singers Juanita Reina and Lola Flores, were allowed to play stronger women who led the narrative. But they were also spectacular: a feature that suited the set of traits accepted for women. Even when Lola Flores was allowed to display personality, it was within the limits of the musical genre, which somehow rendered such a strong personality harmless to male egos. In the same period (until the early 1960s), the films of Manuel Mur Oti in general were focused on unusually strong women who acted beyond convention. Mur Oti's El batallón de las sombras (The Battalion of Shadows, 1957) is representative of his output, showing a group of strong women living in a tenement house, who are unusually capable of narrative agency and who are responsible for their men. Otherwise, women in Spanish cinema tended to be faithful wives and mothers, beautiful, passive objects who stood by their men and supported them, or more freewheeling young women who were learning to be just that. Very seldom were women's desires or their experiences represented on film.
   The mother is also a particular variation of the Madonna type. Women-centered films tend to revolve around motherhood, as this is the most socially accepted aspect of femininity in Spanish culture. Although perhaps to a lesser extent than in Italy, some of the most important films in the Spanish tradition feature women in mother roles, and a large share of women characters' actions and motivations on film involve this role: Acacia's wanderings in La aldea maldita (The Cursed Village, Florián Rey, 1929); Aurora Bautista's "bad mother" in Pequeneces (Little Matters, Juan de Orduña, 1949), who is punished with the death of her son; the strong matriarch in Surcos (Burrows, José Antonio Nieves Conde, 1950); Rafaela Aparicio in Carlos Saura's Mamá cumple cien años (Mama Turns 100, 1979); the generous and independent character played by Margarita Lozano in La mitad del cielo (Half of Heaven, Manuel Gutiérrez Aragón, 1986); Terele Pávez in Los santos inocentes (The Holy Innocents, Mario Camus, 1984); and, of course, Manuela's quest in Todo sobre mi madre (All About My Mother, Pedro Almodóvar, 1999). Almodóvar in particular has made the mother-centered story something of a trademark, and strong images of motherhood, sometimes clear references to the director's own mother, feature prominently in the narratives of Laberinto de pasiones (Labyrinth of Passion, 1982), La ley del deseo (Law of Desire, 1986), Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, 1988), Tacones lejanos (High Heels, 1991), La flor de mi secreto (Flower of My Secret, 1995), Carne trémula (Live Flesh, 1997), and Volver (2006).
   Commentators have also suggested that Spanish cinema is a fertile ground for the images of castrating mothers, particularly in the years of the Transition, where a ferocious woman was used to symbolize the spirit of the motherland eating her sons. Even if Federico García Lorca's play La casa de Bernarda Alba (The House of Bernarda Alba) was written before the Civil War, its central character has been discussed as representing the spirit of repression and censorship in General Franco's Spain. Furtivos (Poachers, José Luis Borau, 1975) is probably the best example of this trend in the cinema.
   The whore was incarnated with special emphasis in the Carmen myth, the sultry temptress who could ruin men's lives. Although censors were very particular about banning this stereotype, early examples of such "wrong" womanhood are found in Surcos (Burrows, 1951) and Calle mayor (Main Street, 1955), but these femme fatales are somehow meeker than their Hollywood counterparts or the fallen women of European cinema. Sara Montiel, who rose to stardom in 1957 as restrictions in representation started to ease, is central to the evolution of the feminine image in Spanish cinema from the intense but essentially Catholic strong women played by Bautista and the folklóricas. Montiel's characters were actually often saintly and, at least in the first phase of her career, never actually did anything morally objectionable. But the actress' voluptuous looks and her flesh displayed in costumes that were as tight as allowed meant that narrative could seldom contain her sexuality, and she became an icon. Even when she conformed to typically male ideas of women as sexual objects, there was also a sense that this "object" could stand on her own and talk back, which was appealing to her female fans.
   Increasing permissiveness meant that the distinction between madonnas and whores became blurred and less relevant as the 1960s progressed. New progressive types could be found in desarrollismo comedy, but these would evolve into nudies as censorship relaxed. On the other hand, the more artistically ambitious Nuevo cine español presented a notoriously masculine perspective: if men could be more sensitive in these films, women were hardly interesting or substantial. They were just passive objects of the male gaze or sources of concern for male protagonists.
   By the 1970s, the wave of soft porn made for a traditional misogynist cinema with few interesting women roles. In Mariano Ozores and Pedro Lazaga films, women lacked any power for narrative agency. Very few images of women could provide strong identification points for new women. It was left to a new generation of actress, including Carmen Maura, Victoria Abril, Ana Belén, Angela Molina, and Mercedes Sampietro (a favorite of feminist director Pilar Miró) to provide a more interesting range of characterizations. Although Pedro Almodóvar's women have been denounced by some as idealized divas, the fantasies of a gay man, their richness is undeniable. He introduced something we might call "a nonmale perspective" to film, and was bitterly resented by critics (always male and always projecting heterosexuality) for that. Thanks to Almodóvar, the star personas of the young actresses, and the work of Pilar Miró and Josefina Molina, Spanish cinema had begun to shift its representations of women.
   A new generation of women directors since the 1990s, including Icíar Bollaín, Chus Gutiérrez, and Gracia Querejeta, has pushed female experiences and concerns center stage, and Spanish cinematic investigations into the lives of women are a central part in the range of narrative themes found in contemporary Spanish film.
   See also Hable con ella; LA Vida secreta de las palabras; Solas; Te doy mis ojos; Viridiana; Volver.
   Historical Dictionary of Spanish Cinema by Alberto Mira

Guide to cinema. . 2011.

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