Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Powerhouse Ladies: An analysis of leading women

Hello my pals and gals! I'm sorry I've been posting less and less this month, but I've been keeping myself pretty busy. Turns out I'm traveling to Europe with my family on the 16th of this month! Exciting huh? I'll be spending two weeks there but, don't worry, I won't leave you guys hanging. I have posts scheduled to go up while I'm there.
Anyway, one area of film studies that I find has been interesting me a lot lately is character analysis. It's fascinating to relate one's personal experiences and one's personal understanding of the human race to comprehend a certain character's actions or thoughts. I've been reading about character categories, the different roles a character can play in the development of a movie. In this post, I will analyze one of my favorite types of characters: The powerhouse lady.

Amanda and Adam Bonner: gender equality on Adam's Rib (1949)

I remember the first time I saw the movie "Adam's Rib" (1949). I don't remember how I got a hold of it, what led me to watch it, but I do remember it was one of the movies that made me fall in love with Katharine Hepburn. I loved how her character, Amanda Bonner, still one of my favorite movie characters ever, was so strong, so opinionated, so independent. I loved seeing her in court, defending her client with all her strength and saying the truth in such a fearless way. I couldn't help but notice the obvious feminist content, but, being a recent fan of Old Hollywood, I didn't quite realize until the end of the movie how groundbreaking that character must've been for 1949. Only about 30% of women had a job at that period. Less than 2% of lawyers were women. Of those, only 20% were married. After all the boring math is done, it turns out only 0.4% of lawyers were married women. Amanda Bonner was one of those. She was fierce, she stood up to the men and she said what she thought. But yet she wore a long black dress with red lipstick to the party and cried with her husband about their newly-purchased ranch and the "darling dogs" illustrating the landscape. They called each other "Pinky" and never failed to kiss good night. Little did I know the woman who played her was an advocate and a symbol of such lifestyle. Feminine, but not frail. 


"Feminine, but not frail" is the main premise of the powerhouse lady. The powerhouse lady fears no man - she fears no woman, either. Much like Margo Channing, Bette Davis' character on "All About Eve" (1950), right, who is a successful actress who leads her career under her own terms. The powerhouse lady is conscious of  her position as a "doer", as opposed to a "watcher" in life. Movies with a powerhouse lady usually center around her and her endeavors as a convention-defying, free-willed, independent-spirited individual. Powerhouse ladies are usually very successful in her profession, sometimes in professions that are mostly exercised by men, like in Nina Yakushova, Greta Garbo's character in "Ninotchka" (1939), left, a successful Russian government agent. However, a powerhouse lady is by no means "manly". She has usually polished and elegant looks, she is usually depicted by an attractive (I'd call Greta Garbo more than simply attractive, if you ask me) actress and is still associated with some personality traits usually credited to women. Who can forget Tess Harding, Katharine Hepburn's character in "Woman of the Year" (1942), in high heels and pin-curled hair, attracting the eyes of all the fellas in the newspaper?

Being a powerhouse lady also means being conscious of one's absolute equality to men. In fact, in movies with powerhouse ladies, one's womanhood is almost never the main subject of the movie (with Adam's Rib and another few obvious exceptions). Usually there are brief remarks about sex (it was still the 20th Century, the mentality was different), like in "Ninotchka", when the Russian agents meet Garbo on the station and one of them cracks: "What a lovely surprise, a lady comrade." Greta, very serious, answers: "I hope my womanhood won't be an issue." And, for the rest of the movie, it wasn't.

Meet John Doe: Barbara Stanwyck is a successful and
intelligent journalist. Her romantic relationship doesn't
change her powerhouse status. 

Mildred Pierce: Joan Crawford survives a
struggle on her own
The romantic relationships of a powerhouse lady are usually unaffected by their strength and independence. Sometimes, these characteristics are evidenced by the "ability to get on without a man" (still a shock before the 1960s) and some are explored in parallel with a romantic relationship. In "Meet John Doe", Barbara Stanwyck is a typical powerhouse lady: Intelligent, successful in a field so male-dominated that journalists were called newspapermen, who is bold, brave and outspoken. There is a gorgeous love angle in her relationship with Gary Cooper, but neither is he intimidated by her powerhouse status nor she feels she needs to become submissive to Cooper's character. This is an example of a romantic powerhouse lady, but there's also the option of a woman going through a struggle of a psychological, social or financial nature alone, and emerging an even stronger and self-sufficient individual. The main point of the movie is to glorify the powerhouse lady as a flawed individual who is capable of great things.

Greta Garbo, the twenty-year-old who didn't
speak English and became one of the biggest
movies stars the US has
ever seen
Powerhouse ladies are like femme fatales in their unshakable confidence and drive, but they differ from them in the sense that femme fatales do utilize their great beauty to achieve one or another advantage. Lauren Bacall's Marie "Slim" Browning from "To Have and Have Not" for instance, who used her beauty to get by in a whole new place in which she arrived alone. Had she been a powerhouse lady, she would probably get a job and be humiliatingly good at it, or fight her way to the top of her career even though there are people who are better professionals than her, or even manipulate people into helping her up the ladder. But she'd never use her beauty or her womanhood as a way to get ahead, which is just another feminist undertone to this type of character. It's important to not how groundbreaking it must've been to have this kind of character in a society still largely dominated by men.

In analyzing powerhouse ladies, one notices a pattern in actress choice. These women usually carried out lifestyles that related in one way or another with the powerhouse ladies they played. Real-life powerhouses, if you will. Greta Garbo came to the United States by herself when she was twenty years old, and, with very little English and without knowing anyone, she fought her way to the top of the acting game. She relay on her talent (and, my dear, she was talented), her perseverance and her intelligence to become who she is. Katharine Hepburn was secure enough to disregard convention and live her life under her own terms from birth to death. She cooked her own meals, changed her own tires and swept her own bedroom, always shrugging off unnecessary help. She, too, relay solely on talent, perseverance and intelligence to become who she is. Bette Davis was an outspoken,  opinionated woman, who sued her own studio, became the first female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and, in her later years, advocated against sexual repression. She, you guessed it, relay on talent, perseverance and intelligent. These three are, to me, the three biggest representatives of real-life powerhouse ladies in Classic Hollywood.

Who is your favorite Hollywood powerhouse lady? Let me know in the comments!

So long,


  1. Hi Marcela, hope you have a great trip, lucky thing. I really enjoyed your post and these women where all great examples for women, even today. But my favourite would have to be Katerine Hepburn, she was such a positive soul as well and that's what I strive for.

    p.s I just started my own classic movie blog, if your interested it's at www.ohsoveryclassic.blogspot.com

    1. Thanks Alyssa! So glad you made a blog! Welcome to the community!

    2. Thank you for the welcome and for becoming my first follower. :)

  2. Even not knowing the "technical name", I always loved powerhouse ladies and the movies about them. They're to me a role model and it's amazing to think how pioneering they were for their time.
    Don't forget to tell us about your traveling adventures when you come back! ;)

    1. The "technical name" doesn't even exist, I made it up, so you're in luck :)
      I will! Thank you! Cheers!

  3. Marcela, this is such a great post. You've done such a good job characterising what I would term the "feminist persona" of these women. If you are interested in reading a little light (ahem) theory about the whole contrast between the feminine, feminist, and female, I recommend Elaine Showalter's book "A Literature of Their Own." It's referring to women authors, but I have used it to describe film. http://www.amazon.com/Literature-Their-Own-Elaine-Showalter/dp/0691004765/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1353323276&sr=8-2&keywords=elaine+showalter

    1. Hope you are having a fantastic time in Europe! If you're in London, come see me!

    2. Hi there Maggie! Thanks for the suggestion! I won't be going by London this time, unfortunately, but I adore your city! Cheers darling!

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