Saturday, May 22, 2021

Alice Guy Blaché | Les résultats du féminisme (The Consequences of Feminism)

seeing love from both sides now

by Douglas Messerli

Alice Guy Blaché Les résultats du féminisme (The Consequences of Feminism) / 1906

It’s fascinating to realize that a year before Georges Méliès was shooting the still rather crude, cartoon-like The Courtship of the Sun & Moon, Alice Guy released a sophisticated and clever satire in which she skewered male paternalistic notions of empowerment by imagining a reversal of male/female stereotypical roles as representing The Consequences of Feminism (1906). Playing on the male terror emanating from the growing female empowerment, Guy showed her opponents what life might look like in the future if women treated their companions as males had throughout the centuries, suggesting that gender roles were not in-born but were a result of acculturation and basic received attitudes about sexuality.

      The result is a stunning early statement that might have forced any thoughtful viewer to question his or her assumptions about gender and some of the attending mannerisms we assume are products of sexual orientation.

      In Guy’s view males now dominated by women sit around the room, as they do in the first scene of this 6.45-minute polemical film, sewing flowers on hats. The men move effeminately, hands stretched forward, and moving in steps that might almost remind one of dance. These males have long hair, a couple of them wearing flowers amidst their curls.

      A woman enters the millinery shop, apparently in search of a new hat. The shop manager goes in search of an appropriate hatbox, while she checks out the workers, pinching one of their cheeks.

     When she finally selects a hat, the manager choses one of the young men to deliver it, he first stopping to smear a bit of cream of his face before mincing out into the world.

      Immediately after we observe the same gentleman walking down the street, past the café where a woman sits drinking at an outdoor table. Seeing the man, she stands, going over to him and attempts to get a kiss. Another who observes her untoward action breaks up the masher’s attempts, offering to escort the helpless man away. But the new women is little better than the first, as she, convincing him to join her on a park bench, tries equally to force her affections upon him. As he struggles anew, two other men walking by, seeing what his occurring, run from the scene, clearly afraid of getting involved and attacked by such a “masher” themselves.

       At home we see a man busy on the sewing machine while his male maid is ironing. The new work blissfully together, the maid finally finishing up her chores while his wife seems to be not so patiently waiting for him on a nearby lounging chair, drinking and smoking. She stands, goes to get something, and knocks over the table chair before returning to her seat. The maid quickly picks it up, and puts it in its proper place before putting away the folded items. He kisses his boss goodbye gently on the forehead, the sewer fondly throwing him back a kiss with an extended hand and limp wrist.

        The sewing man, now alone, takes up a photograph and kisses it, impatient evidently for his companion or lover to return home. The woman we have seen flirting in the previous scene soon enters and kisses him, leading him to the couch for more kisses as she gets on her knees in seeming adoration of her housebound lover. Apparently, she is asking him to leave his home to join her for sex in a nearby hotel, for he pauses in some regret for leaving what he home behind, she convincing him to wrote a note, which he does before throwing several goodbye kisses at the room before exiting.

        In the very next scene he sits on a bed, she before him attempting to make love to him. He literally swoons in the process, she proceeding to undress him as he faints in reaction to her lust. As the camera’s shutter closes she rushes to bring her lover some smelling salts.

        Now in a bar, several women are occupied reading newspapers, while others gather in conversations round at nearby tables. A pioneer-like woman, toting a gun enters to be greeted heartily by the others, a woman pouring her out and drink and pounding her back with a sense of camaraderie.

         A man enters with a laundry basket filled with freshly washed linen, some of the women reaching it to pull out items and tossing them about the room, making fun of his confusion and distress. He rushes out horror-stricken by the chaos.

         Another man, leading two small children goes up to a woman in the corner, obviously pleading with her to return home instead of spending the night in the bar. She chases him off.

         We observe other men, also holding children passing by, fearful of intruding upon the all- female domain. The bartender closes the bar door to prevent further male entry into their sacred space.            

         The camera switches to a spot outside the bar where our busy female masher is sitting at a café table enjoying a drink. Bit by bit a parade of perambulators and attending older children steered by males wander the streets. One man with children at his side recognizes the drinker and pleads with her to return home with him, an offer she rejects while seemingly put to shame by the others of his kind who surround and support his entreaties, shaming the woman for her treatment of her husband and her children.

       At that very moment, the insurrection seems to grow as back at the bar we see a man enter and scold the women, demanding that they all should return to their homes and families. Again, they quickly rout him out. But the next moment a league of males enter the bar, pulling the woman out, many of them up-righting and pushing their wives in the direction of home, while the ringleaders grab up some bottles and hail their new triumph.

       The victory, of course, is precisely what women were attempting to achieve in 1906 living under the same conditions that Guy’s fictitious men were being forced to endure.*

       If there was any one director who attempted early on to understand the “other” it was Guy, who as I write elsewhere in these pages, explored notions of the double and the “other” in several of her films. In The Consequences of Femininity she was positing a “feminist” society that behaved just as the paternalistic male society had for centuries, a force that ruled over and controlled the “other,” in this case the opposite sex, in order to make a specific point. You can be certain that while this work is most definitely a satire demonstrating the evils of generations of male rule, she is simultaneously arguing against a feminism that behaves in the very same manner.

        If time and again in Guy’s work women prove themselves just as powerful as men, they are clever enough to share their prowess without denigrating their husbands or lovers. Instead Guy encourages both, through the symbolic act of cross dressing, to feel what it was like to temporarily live as the other, or as in this film to explore what he feels like to live under such patriarchal—or matriarchal—domination. Guy seemed always to be seeking empathy on both sides of whatever divide people perceived, whether it be sexual, political, or cultural.

     The clever housewife of her short film A Comedy of Errors manages to punish her presumptuous neighbor for believing her window kisses thrown out to her departing husband were meant for him by gradually stripping him of most of his clothing accessories: his hat, umbrella, and coat, awarding them as gifts to her husband as surprise birthday gifts; but when her husband begins to behave equally badly, suspecting her of having a secret affair, she just as suddenly allows the neighbor to reclaim his possessions, leaving her husband with the tattered hat, a broken umbrella, and a weather-worn cloak with which he began the morning.     

       Interestingly, Guy’s tale is retold, within a slightly different context, in Richard Wallace’s 1926 film What’s the World Coming To?, in which husbands and wives also reverse their traditional roles, the men again being depicted as sissified dandies.

 *The usually reliable commentator on silent films, particularly those featuring and directed by women, who goes under the moniker of “popegrutch,” wonders how the director found so many male actors capable of representing what reads today as an openly “gay society”:

       “The...thing that stands out about this movie is all of the signals the men put out regarding sexuality, which a modern audience reads as their being “flaming” or openly gay. Gay men existed at this time, of course, but they were far less open, even in liberal France, and again it’s hard to know how much we are “reading backward” when we interpret their behavior in this manner. Obviously, Guy was making them as feminine as possible to show her future dystopia in which men and women have traded places. Did she hire female impersonators as actors? That would make the longer hair and obvious facility with feminine roles more logical. Certainly, there were cabarets by 1906 in which this sort of thing went on, but I don’t know whether Guy would have had access. It’s possible that she used wigs and directed “straight” male actors until she got what she wanted.”

       Frankly, I’ve grown a little tired of the continued attempts to correct for our misconceptions of gay history, presuming that such so-called “effeminate” or affected behavior and the recognition of their signifying homosexuality was simply not possible in the early part of the century.  Perhaps it’s time to remind ourselves that as early as the 1910s figures such as Magnus Hirschfeld had already written extensively on his observations of gay individuals and in 1914 produced an important study Die Homosexualität des Mannes und des Weibes ("The Homosexuality of Men & Women"). He would fight, with other scientists such as Franz Joseph von Bülow, Eduard Oberg, and Max Spohr against paragraph 175 of the German Penal Code, which defined homosexual activity as a criminal act, believing that homosexuality was one of many natural and normal sexual behaviors. Hirschfeld would go on to found in 1919 the famous Berlin Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute of Sexual Research). By that time Berlin had already established itself as a hotbed for male and female homosexual bars and other gathering places, as well as providing numerous private home-gatherings for sexually adventurous males and females.

      Even earlier, Oscar Wilde had felt comfortable enough in France to move there after his British imprisonment.

    In 1927, Henry Gauthier-Villars, known better by his pseudonym Willy and for his marriage to the writer Colette,  had written a rather scandalous and disapproving work, The Third Sex, outlining the history of gay life in major European cities from the turn of the century forward.

    And there are numerous other examples of documentation of an extensive gay culture in Europe and elsewhere from the 1890s on, despite its social and legal restrictions.

     Even the word “gay”—which we are constantly reminded by some blinkered historians did not generally come to mean a man who had sex with other men until the 1950s—had long before taken on those connotations. When Cary Grant, dressed in a woman’s feathery nightgown in the 1938 comedy Bringing Up Baby was asked why he was dressed like that, in ad-libbing the line “I’ve just gone gay!” the actor most definitely did not mean that he’d suddenly grown very happy. Indeed, the word in various polari or polare languages (used by actors, day-laborers, gypsies, etc) had long before shifted that word from its 19th century references to a female prostitute, a man who slept with numerous women, or even its slightly later verbal signification (“gay it”) to have sex, to mean a man who was not only sexually active but who had sex with other men as well. By the 1920s a “gey cat” meant a homosexual boy, and “gay boy” soon after signified a homosexual male. In many European countries the word “blue” was another signifier for a gay man, again quite the opposite of being very happy.

     Working with actors and theater folk, certainly Alice Guy would have well known where to find the kind of actors she was looking for to portray what we can describe as “gay”-like beings, robbed of their pejorative masculinity.

    We might note that the strict bifurcation between homosexuality and heterosexuality was almost meaningless for many centuries. Sexuality was simply not conceived as an “either/or” activity.

     Finally, My Queer Cinema had its impetus in disproving the notion that homosexuality was seldom expressed or difficult to express in positive terms until after the 1960s. Once the first filmmaker determined that heterosexual desire was something of interest to depict on the screen, so did it become immediately necessary to represent the “other,” which cinema did mostly negatively but in a multitude of cases engagingly and interestingly, even if coded, despite the attempt of the normative society to censor, ban, and destroy all images and narrative representations of the experiences of what we now describe as the LGBTQ community. It has long been my contention that homosexuality in filmmaking became enormously powerful and interesting because it needed to express itself in new, different, and queer ways that stood out from the increasingly tired and bland expressions of love and sex depicted in normative filmmaking. Gay sex was best when it was conceived of as being wrong or “dirty.” You almost always knew that if something went sexually awry in commercial films it was because it had found itself quite nicely through the experience a different kind of sexual desire.

Los Angeles, May 21, 2021

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (May 2021).



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