The Modern Woman: 1920s, 60s, and Today


Yesterday, I watched a movie called Thoroughly Modern Millie, starring Julie Andrews. It was made in 1967, but set in 1922. I think that seeing movies from the past portray “history” is always interesting, because as culture changes, every decade, it tints the way we look at the past. I’ll also mention now that I highly recommend this film, it’s adorable and hilarious, though that’s not going to stop me from analyzing it to pieces.

In the movie, as you may have gathered from the movie and post title, Millie is a “modern woman” of the 1920s. As seen through the lens of the 1960s, which was in the midst of the feminist movement, and the movie of course wanted to appeal to the “modern women” of the 1960s, as well.

In the beginning song sequence, we see Millie start out as an old-fashioned girl with curls and a flowered hat, and a prim wool dress-suit. During the song, she looks around and sees the fashions being worn by other young women, and transforms herself by cutting her hair into a bob, ditching the flowered hat, and donning a potato sack flapper dress and beads. She tries also to flatten her chest, unsuccessfully, and it is a source of concern for her the entire movie that her beaded necklace doesn’t hang straight (like it does for the fashionable, flat-chested girls).

She declares herself a modern woman, man’s equal, a woman who can do anything, and states her goal: to marry her boss. “Well, who’s your boss?” another character asks. “I don’t know,” Millie tells us, “I haven’t met him yet. I start interviewing bosses tomorrow.”

Which, although it’s cute and humorous, makes me pause and wonder “okay, uh, man’s equal, but her big goal is not to BE the boss, it’s just to marry the boss?” Which is further undercut at the end of the movie, when she throws herself into the arms of her beau and exclaims “I don’t want to be your equal, I want to be your woman!”

So marrying the boss and being his secretary/wife is too equal. Women don’t really want that. They just want to be arm-candy and stay in the kitchen.

As much as I love the women’s movements that occurred in the 60s and 20s, and as much as I love the 20s in general, I can’t say this is an entirely unfair portrayal of the modern woman of the 20s. For comparison, I want to talk about the 1927 film It, starring Clara Bow.

Clara Bow was–quite literally–the original It Girl. “The concept of “it” was invented by Elinor Glyn for a story she wrote and published in serial form in Cosmopolitan in 1926. She defined the concept as

that quality possessed by some which draws all others with its magnetic force. With “IT” you win all men if you are a woman — all women if you are a man. “IT” can be a quality of the mind as well as a physical attraction.

In an era when the word “sex” was considered unacceptable for use in polite company, Glyn’s concept was enthusiastically adopted by the public as a euphemism for “sex appeal”.” (From Wikipedia)

The article is referenced liberally, that quote shows up in the movie, and Glyn gets a cameo as herself.

I also find it interesting that Clara Bow’s dark-haired in the film. Is anyone else surprised that the original It Girl wasn’t yet another blonde bombshell? Brunettes rejoice, here’s at least one movie where you aren’t insulted and told that “Gentlemen prefer blondes”.

In the movie, shopgirl Betty Lou Spence decides that (as a modern woman, of course) she’s going to marry her boss. Well, her boss’ boss’ boss, the manager and heir to the “world’s largest store”. (There are hints that it’s the Macy’s in New York, but they don’t drop any names.)

In the middle, there are some antics, including a mix-up about unmarried mothers which is worth mentioning. Betty Lou’s roommate Molly is an unwed mother with a young baby, and Betty Lou pretends to be the baby’s mother to fool the welfare people who want to take the child away. But this causes problems when Betty Lou’s target (the multimillionaire heir) is also fooled, and offers her an “arrangement”, because he’s all respectable and stuff, really.

In the end, the mix-up is clarified and Betty Lou marries her multimillionaire. (Guess what? So does Millie.)

I’m not sure, were either of them “modern” women? That term is used–at least by Millie–to indicate that she’s “man’s equal.” But they’re clearly not. Both of them are poor shopgirl/secretary types who marry a man with money and power, and Millie even has to disown her equality and “modern woman” status in order to do so! Betty Lou never had to disown her equality, she never tried for it in the first place. She enjoyed the freedom of being a woman of the twenties, with her short skirts and bobbed hair, but her ambition is entirely based on catching a man–and making sure she has “IT” (sex appeal) in order to do so.

Have we made any progress? I’m a feminist, and yet the Cinderella story of these two movies still appeals to me. I’m a poor feminist, and if a handsome and charming multimillionaire showed up, offering to make me his trophy wife? Hell yeah, that’s an attractive fantasy. (Assuming, of course, that I would fall madly in love with him before finding out about his money, or that I’d fall madly in love with him despite his money, like in the movies I just discussed.) It’s a more attractive fantasy to BE the multimillionaire who then falls in love with the handsome working-class gentleman, but I have yet to figure out how to make my fortune.

Actually, this brings up one more thing about the movie that’s worth mentioning. The character of Muzzy serves the role of Millie’s fairy-godmother. She’s actually the stepmother of the multimillionaire heir who Millie marries, and she tells Millie her own life story: she was a showgirl who fell for a guy and later found out he was rich. He died a few years back, and now she’s rich! Muzzy flirts outrageously with her array of “tutors”, in a variety of languages and subjects (French, German, Dancing, Airplane Piloting, Acrobatics, Bullfighting…), and it’s strongly hinted that she sleeps with most of them (three of them are seen exiting her room late at night, within seconds of each other).

She IS the modern woman that Millie wants to be: rich, independent, man’s equal and sexually liberated to take multiple partners. But she had to marry a man to get there, and no one actually refers to her as a modern woman; only Millie is called a “modern.”

I guess I haven’t talked much about the “Today” part of the title. What does being a modern woman mean today? As a man or a woman, if you’re reading this blog, what do you think are the ways in which it’s most important for the sexes to be equal–and do you think that they are equal in those ways, in 2010?


3 Responses to “The Modern Woman: 1920s, 60s, and Today”

  1. 1 Alii

    It’s suggested in one review of the movie that I read that the whole thing is supposed to be a farce. But I wonder, exactly, what is the thrust of the farce? Is it that it’s ridiculous for women to WANT to be man’s equal? Or is it ridiculous for her to declare herself ‘not an equal but a woman’? Most of the movie seems to point to the former, because – especially in the opening sequence – Millie’s wanting to be ‘modern’ is made quite a bit of fun of.

    And I know this blog’s about feminism primarily, but every single stand in the Chinese Market had bok choy in it. Now, I love bok choy, but goodness gracious that’s not the only thing anyone eats. It was like the movie clung to it’s farce roots or just didn’t care that it was obvious that their set dressers were lazy/cheap/racist.

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