I have sometimes confronted the idea that not wanting to have children is selfish. And I can see where such reasoning comes from. But it is also very narrow minded, and critical of people who do not feel the desire to conform to the social expectancy of breeding. In There’s Always Tomorrow (Douglas Sirk, 1956), the children of the focal nuclear family are the brakes on the realisation of dreams, of love, of living ones life as one wishes. As youths, the children Vinnie and Judy expect adults to do away with their feelings for the benefit of familial togetherness, living and operating as a unit with mundanity, rather than feeling. It is the children, here, and obviously so, who are being selfish. Claiming to think of their mother when all they are doing is vocalising the limits of their awareness of love and life. Like it is something that can only happen in youth and, once past the age of thirty-five, beds are separated and intimacy is done with. Children think that responsibility to social mores, to overanalysed, emotionless constructs, is greater than the responsibility to oneself. This is not the case at all.
Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1955) features a relationship between two adults, the divorced Jane Wyman and young, self-employed Rock Hudson, that receives spite and disapproval from the children. In a well-known scene, widely quoted, Wyman’s smug, thoughtless children buy her a television – an empty, passionless, impersonal gift – when they do all they can to destroy her love life and tell her that television will make her happy. As though they think her is so devoid of stimulation that she needs television to have “life’s parade at [her] fingertips.” Disapproving of the entire concept of a widowed woman engaging in a fulfilling, loving relationship, her daughter Kay (Gloria Talbott) with misguided hubris quotes Freud: “When we reach a certain age sex becomes incongruous.” When it is already too late, clearly, she realises her cruelty and tries to convince Cary . “There’s no point in approaching this emotionally. Let’s try to be objective.” Molly Haskell writes, “It is man as son, far more than daughter, who forces the exclusive mother role on the woman who has conceived him.” This sociological point proves itself – Kay comes around, sees her mother’s love as true. But the son doesn’t. He burns all bridges to his family and refuses to see her as a woman, as that would involve foregoing his masculine powers.
I guess this was around the time that these sorts of ideas were first entering heads–ideas that the nuclear family could not provide all stimulation and satisfaction required for happiness. I can’t be certain, but that, or the decade following, was a prime time for expanding ways of thinking about the family. Two films which came much earlier, but didn’t even contain a mention of children, were Mr & Mrs Smith (Alfred Hitchcock, 1941) and The Moon is Blue (Otto Preminger, 1953). Of course, these films are about young couples, but even in the case of Mr & Mrs Smith, it was not unusual for married couples to have children immediately, let alone before three years was up. These films, while still containing the message that conventional coupledom was the key to happiness, sure introduced the idea that it was actually hard work to get there.
In Hitchcock’s comedy of (re)marriage, children are not even slightly involved in the couple’s life. Yet there is still the idea that individuality needs to be privileged over society’s expectations. David (Robert Montgomery) says to his wife, Ann (Carole Lombard), “When a man marries he gives up a certain amount of freedom and independence. If I had to do it all over again I think I’d stay single.” While this is incredibly insulting to Ann, and also sexist in its insinuation that only a man gives up his independence. If it were anyone who gave up their independence in marriage in the 1940s, it would have been the woman! This particular variety of sexism is manifest in such a way as to allow almost no room for a woman’s self. In East Side, West Side (Mervyn Leroy, 1949), a lady comments, “Tell me something, when a guy ditches a girl, why is he always the one with the long suffering face.” Because by default he thinks he is always hard done by. The man plays up his power of victimhood, and then his regret and sorrow–whichever ’emotion’ will win him sympathy. The “other woman” in The Moon Is Blue, Cynthia (Dawn Addams), behaves desperately, and stupidly, reducing herself to things like spying on her ex-husband from the fire escape. I do not think such things would be acceptable these days, at least not within being certain of facing ramifications of sexuality, femaleness, and criticising the all-encompassingness of male power. And while Preminger is magnificently forward in his thinking and his representations of sexuality, The Moon Is Blue still behaves within a world where men have the ultimate influence. It hints at something – Patty (Maggie McNamara) states, “Who am I kidding? I’m just dying to get married. It’s not going to be easy though, because I’m choosy. The kind of men I want don’t grow on trees.” – but then, she ends up choosing Donald (William Holden) anyway. I have faith that those two had an equal marriage – Patty wouldn’t put up with any disrespect, I’m sure.
This Preminger gem shines as a rare example, though. Such things went by generally unquestioned back then. From what I can tell. As an example, this comment from Mr and Mrs Smith was the norm, heard in many varying incarnations: “You know, a woman can’t control herself entirely by her head. Which is probably why we love you.”
Molly Haskell wrote From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies in the early 1970s, and even as an influential feminist thinker (self-described as a film critic first and a feminist second) her groundbreaking study of women in film is problematic (but then, what isn’t?). I can only offer what is probably an obscene paraphrasing of Haskell’s comment, but it went something along the lines of arguing that women definitely had a right to hold positions in the workforce and work with men, but these positions would of course always and without argument be of lesser consequence than male positions. What I find incredible is that even though Molly Haskell argues for gender equality and for respect of women in all arenas, here she is unable to exit the mould of ‘but men can do more things and that’s just the way it is.’ This was in the first edition of From Reverence to Rape in 1973. I’ve no doubt that in subsequent editions (the second edition was published in 1987) this idea was cut out of the argument, following the recognised feminist realisation that such a mould should no longer be taken for granted.
In East Side, West Side, a lady (I didn’t write it down) says, “I’m not nineteen, I’ve heard a rumour that people don’t always get what they want, and that happiness isn’t the natural state of man.” Which is absolutely true, no question. But it would be nice if everyone were treated with respect, and everyone’s desires were allowed to flourish. Unfortunately that isn’t happening at the moment, and I really don’t even know why the at once miniscule and grand progress made in the world is being lost before our eyes, out of our reach, by an extensive band of men and women with an entitled sense of their own belief and absolutely no grip on reality. Like this guy.
This piece ends in a very different place from where it begins. I didn’t mean for my thoughts to direct themselves in such a way, but they have done so and I embraced it. Regardless of the developing subject matter I believe that everything here comes back to the one thing: most people deserve to be treated a whole lot better than we are. Here’s to a better future for us all.