With a new retrospective, the screenwriter Eleanor Perry gets belated recognition.
The 1972 Cannes Film Festival was marked by protests against Italy’s reigning auteur, Federico Fellini, who had green-lit an ill-advised poster for his movie Roma. Depicting a nude, three-breasted “she-wolf” perched suggestively on all fours, the advertisement drew opprobrium from the venerable American screenwriter Eleanor Perry and five others, who, according to the Chicago Tribune, “stirred up a hornet’s nest when they set up ladders in front of the Carlton Hotel before the [Roma] showing … and tried to deface [the] sign.”
The protestors waved signs that read WOMEN ARE PEOPLE—NOT DIRTY JOKES; soon they ascended a tall aluminum ladder “and threw four cans of red paint on the Fellini poster,” the Tribune reported. The cops started “shaking the ladder and trying to knock them to the ground while Mrs. Perry screamed mechant (a French word meaning wicked and evil) and ripped epaulets from their uniforms.” Asked later about the demonstrations, which had sent three people to jail, Perry told the paper: “I adore Fellini, he’s one of my idols, but this ugly distortion of the female anatomy is a humiliating offense to women everywhere.” Read More
Revisited is a series in which writers look back on a work of art they first encountered long ago. Here, Sarah Menkedick revisits Louise Erdrich’s memoir, The Blue Jay’s Dance.
Nine weeks into my pregnancy, in the middle of an Ohio woods lit gold with fall, I sat in a small, dark cabin and wept. I had no idea how to proceed and I also understood with a wrenching clarity that I could not turn back. I had no model for pregnancy beyond the asexual lady on the cover of What to Expect When You’re Expecting, clad in neutral sweater and slacks, plain-faced in her rocking chair, an emblem of the dull, docile femininity demanded of American mothers. I was terrified of her blandness and of my own obsequiousness to that book, my careful noting of the iron content in dried fruit and my newfound pedantry about pasteurization. After a decade spent trying to prove my exceptionality, I found myself, in October of 2013, flailing in my newly discovered ordinariness. I felt my life, my identity, my future like shattered glass at my feet.
I took a shower to calm myself and then, hair wet and sick at the smell of shampoo, I ran the five hundred feet from the cabin down to my parents’ house, where I sat on the couch with my stepmother and let loose with frightened sobs. She knew not to attempt rescue, to soothe me with platitudes or plead a strong case for the valor of motherhood. Instead, she sat quietly with my terrible uncertainty on a sunny fall morning and did not turn away. And then she recommended Louise Erdrich’s The Blue Jay’s Dance. She had read and loved that book when my brother and I were little. I believe she understood that seeing motherhood through the eyes of a writer would validate and ground it for me in a way that nothing else could. Read More
In 1926, when British publishers Chatto & Windus accepted Rosamond Lehmann’s first novel, Dusty Answer, they had modest hopes of its success. Young authors and tales of youthful experience dominated the market at the time, a craze sparked by Alec Waugh’s autobiographical best seller The Loom of Youth, published in 1917, when he was nineteen. And twenty-six-year-old Lehmann had written a book “of decided quality,” thought Chatto director Harold Raymond, who nevertheless told her that they didn’t expect to make any money. The novel received a few reviews following its publication at the end of April 1927. “This is, indeed, one of the most charming and convincing studies of young womanhood that we have read for some time,” said The Spectator. “But the story is too sad for popular taste.” Such an assessment was, it seemed, borne out by the less-than-brisk sales. Then a week later, the Sunday Times ran a review by the poet and critic Alfred Noyes, who was an old friend of Lehmann’s father’s, and whose praise was the stuff of debut novelists’ dreams:
It is not often that one can say with confidence of a first novel by a young writer that it reveals new possibilities for literature. But there are qualities in this book that mark it out as quite the most striking first novel of this generation … The modern young woman, with all her frankness and perplexities in the semi-pagan world of today, has never been depicted with more honesty, or with more exquisite art.
The world took notice, and an overnight literary phenomenon was born. During the summer of 1927, a whirlwind of publicity enveloped Lehmann, to her amazement and mild chagrin. “It’s rather terrifying somehow,” she confided to Raymond, “when a thing you have made yourself, very privately, becomes so very public.” Read More
Megan Mayhew Bergman’s column is about naturalism. This week, she discusses how women, often excluded from adventure narratives, carve out their own heroic space.
It’s February 1959. Marilyn Monroe and Isak Dinesen have joined Carson McCullers for lunch at her home on the Hudson River in Nyack, New York. A photograph from that day shows Marilyn and Carson leaning into each other. Isak, invited to America by the Ford Foundation for what would be her first and last visit, toasts Arthur Miller, who’s nearly out of the frame.
Carson wears all black and a depressed demeanor. Marilyn, in fur and a plunging neckline, tells a story about finishing pasta with a blow-dryer. Isak’s cheekbones announce themselves underneath the hem of her turban; she recalls the first time she killed a lion and ingests little more that day than oysters, grapes, and amphetamines. In eight years they will all be dead.
For me, the picture is like looking at the fractal nature of womanhood: something carnal, intellectual, and willful existing inside of one body. Internal conflicts shaped Monroe, McCullers, and Dinesen as creators. Marilyn aspired to make her own films and control her image while negotiating a growing dependence on pills and fear of abandonment. McCullers, broken down by seizures, divorce, and addiction, continued to write in the shadow of the masterpiece she wrote at twenty-two. Dinesen, brave enough to face down a lion and manage a coffee farm outside of Nairobi, began to starve and diminish herself. Simone de Beauvoir wrote that “all oppression creates a state of war”—and living in a state of war is depleting, as one tries to negotiate what she owes herself against what the world wants to collect. Read More
A calendar for 1977 by the British art collective See Red Women’s Workshop shows the month of February as a chutes-and-ladders-type “game for working women.” Wealthy daddies and husbands can help the player swiftly advance, but the game’s hazards are many: “Careers officer suggests domestic science,” “Trouble finding nursery—needs part-time work,” “Shopping in lunch hour, housework in evening—exhausted.” Even the end of the game is booby-trapped: “Over 40, promotion given to younger man.”
The other months in the calendar spin out the game’s thematic pitfalls: racism, sexual orientation, housework drudgery, social-service cuts. August exhorts women of different ethnicities to unite and organize against the National Front. November excoriates the discomfort inherent in beauty regimens—girdles, waxing, heels. September revises a child’s primer so that Jane thinks, “Stuff this! It’s about time I got myself out these sexist books and started giving girls an example of all the other things we can do!”
Jane’s purposeful finger to the patriarchy embodies the aim of See Red. In 1974, a group of women answered an ad calling for those in the visual arts to gather to help promote the women’s liberation movement and counter the prevailing negative images of women in advertising and the media. Like many women at the time, the members of See Red were disillusioned with the Left; the story they relate is an old one: “We found ourselves marginalized within these campaigns and were expected to stay in the background, keep quiet and make the tea.” The members worked collectively and non-hierarchically: from idea to concept to design to production, decisions and process were undertaken as a group. Notably, the new book See Red Women’s Workshop: Feminist Posters 1974–1990 lists no authors in the front matter, and the essay detailing the group’s history is written in the first-person plural. Read More