In the 1970’s, the portrayal of women and feminism in the media and on the screens, was predominated by a cycle of co-optation and backlash and it all started back in the late 1960’s when the Hays Code was abolished. The Hays Code that previously had restricted all sorts of “immoral” characters and behavior, now gave way to the current letter-rating system issued by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) which allows pretty much anything to be filmed and shown to mass audience as long as it is age-appropriate. The end of the Hays Code also coincided with start of the women’s liberation movement; now women were not only going to get more freedom on the screen but also try to get it in real life!
However, it is never that simple. With the Hays Code gone, movies undoubtedly became more interesting, and the 70’s produced some of the arguably best movies ever done (Jaws, Star Wars, The Godfather, Taxi Driver, The Graduate etc) because the filmmakers had more freedom in what they were allowed to do; but, the movies were still heavily androcentric. More so, with movies being allowed to show more violence and sex, women came to serve more as victims and sexual objects. Women were no longer portrayed mainly as the sweet housewife, but this new version of the woman was just as degrading and limiting. There was one other popular type of woman on the big screen that served for yet another purpose; the vengeance films. These films starred women who took revenge on the men who had wronged her, and while the films were women-centric, the women in these kinds of films were basically just a more sexualized version of a male character. Because if a women were doing these “manly” actions, like taking control, being violent, having power and usually besting the men, she still had to be feminine, attractive and sexy; she had conformed to the fighting fuck toy trope.
This co-optation and backlash of feminism themes (strong women, yay!…?) as a means to lure women and men to go and see these movies, is similar to backlash and co-optation of feminism in advertisements. With the advent of the women’s liberation movement, women were beginning to boycott companies and products that were anti-women or anti-feminist. This of course caused panic among the big corporations, because how would they make it without all these shopping women?! Well, co-optation! Advertisements adapted feminist language, images and themes in order to lure women back to shopping beauty supplies, clothes and other products intended for women (products that was the solution to fixing women’s insecurities about themselves, because —> not being attractive enough —> good luck getting a man —> a woman’s goal in life). These ads and the companies behind them used feminism as a way to profit, they were not interested in spreading or supporting feminism!
On television, the news coverage of feminist actions such as the Women’s Strike for Equality were suffering from backlash too. The media was condescending towards such actions, or they talked around it, focusing on trivial things to take away the focus from the event itself. This sort of zero-sum analysis stripped the complexity, the deep understanding and the meaning of the event; the media just wanted something easy and “catchy”. On the other hand, television shows, sit-coms especially, were getting more and more varied female characters, who embodied the modern woman much better, explicitly feminist or not. Mary Tyler of The Mary Tyler Moore Show was an independent, single woman, more interested in her career than in finding a husband to support her, and Maude Findley of All In The Family and her own show Maude, was an already successful woman, liberal and outspoken, divorced several times and tackling controversial issues such as abortion.
Overall, I still think that despite its set-backs (faux-feminism advertisements due to co-optation, negative media framing and backlash against feminism, the lack of varied, complex and feminist women in movies), the 70’s was a good decade for the feminism movement as a whole. Moving forward is the only way to go, and the 70’s brought the movement forward despite all the backlash. For example, the media may have framed the Women’s Strike for Equality in a condescending way, but still, just the fact that there was a strike and that it turned out to be so successful that the mainstream media feared its impact, that’s a great accomplishment! The movement had to start out somewhere with something right?! So, knowing that the 70’s was sort of the starting point for all things to come, today’s media has evolved for the better and for the worse. So, compared to what we see today, I think that the 70’s wasn’t as good with its portrayal of women and feminism in the mainstream media nor for the movement overall – but again, it is important to remember that it was still a progress from the earlier decades. It is going very sloooooow, but just as the 70’s was a bit better than the decades before, we have now come a bit further still, and that has to count for something at least…
(Originally posted on 2014/11/24 for Melanie Klein’s class blog “Women and Popular Culture”)