Mildred Pierce, She Done Him Wrong, and their Representations of Women in Film

Rashaan Pace, Impact Staff

Throughout this history of mankind, our oral, written, and more recently, visual stories, have assisted with the identifying of oneself in correlation with personal development as well as understanding one’s place in society. 1933’s She Done Him Wrong and 1945’s Mildred Pierce, offer very different notions of  women with a taste of independence from the male patriarchy. The inability to fully emancipate directly reflect the cultural climate of the time and it’s consensus of what a woman’s role at home and community ought to be. Through their demonization of the hardworking, ambitious, and/or promiscuous woman, they reinforce the idea that women’s independence is a direct cause for the deconstruction of the family unit as well as a stimulant which can potentially corrupt all male moral conscious. Early “women’s films”, as some would categorize them do nothing more but perpetuate the notion that women are to be subservient docile creatures.

In their own special ways, both Mae West and Joan Crawford equally propel the plot of their films. Both protagonists remain the central figure throughout the duration of the storyline, however it is the ambition of the women which leave room for differentiation the two films. Perhaps it is because of the timespan between women’s suffrage in the U.S. and the making of these films, as well as the fighting of WWII, wherein women in the U.S. are forced to take the place of the men while the men fight the war, that Pierce’s character is demonized in a gentle and subliminal manner. Mildred, the hardworking, ambitious, faithful wife receives all of the blame for the corrosion of her family and the first thing her husband Bert says is “where were you?”. Before Kay’s death Mildred works hard to give her children the world and more. This desire to appease her children on worsens after the death of Kay, seeing as Veda, her eldest daughter, walks in the victory of being spoiled. This spoiling causes Veda to develop a corrupt taste for the finer things of life, as well as a will to do anything to achieve it. Though Mildred does, with the assistance of wealthy and ulterior minded males, achieve a sense of independence for herself, her business and tenacity to provide for her family do the opposite of her intent, and cause it’s demise.

West, on the other hand, offers a very different insight into the female possibility of liberation. Much less lady like and reserved as Mildred Pierce, She Done Him Wrong is an all out attack on alternative notions of femininity. While it is never suggested that either West or Crawford aim to be treated as equals with the men in their films, it is suggested through intense characterization and mise-en-scene in She Done Him Wrong. After close observation of Lou, the female protagonist, it can be inferred by her traditionally male name, Lou, her demeanor, use of diction, and frank sexuality, that Lou  does indeed, to a degree, view herself as an equal with the men. Lou walks and talks with the freedom that men do. She blatantly makes known her sexual prospects. This ambition, this quest for affection and attention keeps the story going along. While awaiting her beloved, Chick, she finds refuge with Gus, affection from Serge, and favor from the Spider. Her hypersexuality causes her to become the supreme object of desire. However, she must take on traditionally male characteristics, and become as man. This becoming as man is evident in one of the final scenes, there is a shot of penis shaped lamp, reflexive of the various themes within the film.

While Mildred does indeed demonstrate an ownership of her life and a desire to to emancipate from the male patriarchy, Lou gives off the illusion of freedom, yet displays a yearning for the security which some women feel comes along with the male presence. Because of the limitations of the women, however, both do indeed become imprisoned, whether it be because of Monte Beragon and Wally Fay’s finances for Mildred, or the Spider’s forcing enslaving of Lou, by the hegemonic male patriarchy.

Because of the content of the films, both do indeed call for change. West’s pre-code depiction of promiscuity, in a paradoxical manner , call for both a rise in sexual freedom, way before it’s time, as well as a reaffirmation of the societal standards in which a lady should conduct herself. Mildred Pierce, however calls for a change in 1945. It’s disapproval of honest working women calls for the change and digression of women back into the kitchen from whence she “only stepped out for a few short hours to get married”. Both films in their own special way perpetuate the idea that patriarchy is the natural state of affairs and that anything outside of it leads to chaos.

To a degree these depictions of women on film seeking the freedom they never do attain do support a male biased dance between the sexes. Mildred’s work causes her first and second family’s demise, thus closing the movie with her walking alongside, in the protection of her first husband, childless, but back in his care. Lou’s work and sexuality causes men to die, flee prison, break laws wind up in prison, as well as find security in the care of a police officer, whom dictates, rather than reasons, to her that she is indeed his. This reoccurring theme of the woman not only needing the man, but having no choice but to obey support the notion that these films reinforce the idea of female bondage.

Our various media outlets, whether it be books, television, or fairy tales, help us to self identify as assimilate into the world community. 1933’s She Done Him Wrong and 1945’s Mildred Pierce simultaneously glorifying the freedom of choice and feminine embrace, subconsciously reminded audiences of the fear of change, questioning of what is both normal and acceptable, and reaffirmed the authority behind the male patriarchy.