Molly Haskell: From Reverence to Rape

October 27, 2016
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In a piece for TCM’s blog Movie Morlocks, critic Susan Doll posted a tribute to the new edition of Molly Haskell’s classic feminist takedown of the female cinematic imaginary, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women at the Movies (3rd edition; with a new foreword by Manohla Dargis), complete with outstanding captions, such as, ON ROSALIND RUSSELL: “NOT A FAVORITE WITH MEN.” Here’s a choice excerpt, which gives you a taste of Haskell’s contribution to writing film, a mix of ferociously idiosyncratic critical insight and bona fide enthusiasm that ran across taste, time, and genre:

TCM viewers who are enjoying “Trailblazing Women” should check out the new, third edition of From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies by film historian Molly Haskell. Haskell, who sometimes cohosts on TCM, covers the silent era to the late 20th century, the same time frame as “Trailblazing Women.” While there is some overlap between the series and the book, Haskell’s focus is on the image of women in the movies, the stars who embodied these images, and the relationship of these images to women in society.

Long ago, when I was in film school, I was introduced to feminist film theory, particularly the work of Laura Mulvey, who innovated the concept of the male gaze, or the visual objectification of women in the eye of the male beholder. I was conflicted by the work of Mulvey, and the first generation of feminist film critics who followed her lead, because they didn’t seem to like the movies. In class, we were required to look critically at classic Hollywood movies for their conservative ideology and patriarchal perspective, with the unspoken assumption that we would ultimately reject the films from the Golden Age. The problem was that the grad students in my circle were all diehard movie-lovers. We spent endless evenings at the Varsity repertory theater watching double features of old movies. We regularly attended the college film series on the weekends and went to contemporary films at least once a week. As a young woman, I felt I should embrace a feminist perspective on films, but I was a cinephile first. Movies came before politics, religion, or boyfriends–always.

When I first read  From Reverence to Rape, I was relieved that Molly Haskell also admitted movies were her “first allegiance,” and that the theory of the male gaze “seemed too monolithic, a narrow one-way street, allowing no room for the pleasure women take in looking and being seen.” Without discrediting earlier feminist writings, Haskell expanded perspectives and enlightened readers not only because she loved the movies but also because she knew cinema history. In discussing Rosalind Russell’s complex star image as a professional woman, she compliments the actress on her perfect comic timing; in evaluating Gloria Swanson, she dispels the star’s image from Sunset Boulevard by reminding readers of Swanson’s silent-era comedies in which she played “goofy” and “dippy” characters. She details a Swanson silent called Stage Struck that I was lucky enough to see, even though the comedy is rarely mentioned by historians or scholars. She freely uses terms such as “sexpots” and “nice girls,” which reveals her down-to-earth writing style. Somehow, I can’t imagine Laura Mulvey discussing comic timing, or using the word “sexpot.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To read Susan Doll’s piece in full at TCM’s Movie Morlocks blog, click here.

To read more about From Reverence to Rape, click here.

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