Gazing: Exploring the Female Protagonist in NOW, VOYAGER

14 April 2013

It is difficult to find early American films that paint women in a desirable light.  Let’s face it, she may seem like a stunning, desirable spitfire, but what woman really wants to be Scarlett O’Hara?  She’s temperamental, selfish, completely lacking control of her life, bouncing from man to man for survival, and devastated by rejection after rejection from an abusive husband.  “Frankly, [Scarlett, for you] I don’t give a damn.”

The 1930s through the 1950s are particularly ripe decades for concerning and unfavorable representations of women in film, and a great deal of feminist film theory has targeted this specific span of time.  However, feminist film theory has also pointed out there are a few films of these decades with positive representations of females on the screen, even films that dare to avoid gender stereotypes.  These rare films are even considered to have a feminist flare to them (although that is a term post-dating the films, and, therefore, not an accurate description of any agenda or intention on the part of the filmmakers).

Now, Voyager, from 1942, is a film modern-day critics believe contains some feminist stances.  And, while there is no doubt Now, Voyager treats is leading lady differently than other films of the time treated their female leads, there are still some dangerous stereotypes of women in Now, Voyager that should not be overlooked.  Put another way, the feminisms in the film are bold and ahead of their time, but these fragmented elements are not enough to ever equalize the representation of genders in Now, Voyager, and the disproportionate gender roles should not be overlooked.

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To summarize, Now, Voyager follows the dramatic metamorphosis of Charlotte Vale (Bette Davis).  When the film opens, Charlotte is a stereotypical spinster: overweight, frumpy, hidden behind thick glasses and loose frocks, bitter, antisocial, and the recluse of her family’s mansion.  Her mother, Mrs. Windle Vale (Gladys Cooper), constantly antagonizes Charlotte, pushing her further and further into isolation, until Charlotte’s sister-in-law brings Dr. Jaquith (Calude Rains) to the Vale estate.  Dr. Jaquith recognizes how detrimental Mrs. Windle Vale is to Charlotte’s condition and he commits Charlotte to a sanitarium for rest and to free herself from her mother’s constricting grasp. Away from her mother, Charlotte blooms; physically, she transforms herself into a radiant, desirable woman, and mentally she transforms into a confident, independent adult.  Once released from the sanitarium, Charlotte takes a sea voyage before returning home.  Onboard she meets Jeremiah “Jerry” Duvaux Durrance (Paul Henried), a devoted father trapped in a loveless marriage.  Although Charlotte and Jerry fall in love, the two never act on their feelings because of Jerry’s position as husband and father.  Charlotte returns home and is immediately confronted by her mother for the drastic change in her appearance and mentality; however, Charlotte remains strong, never allowing her mother’s abuse to shake the confidence she built within herself.  Yet, after Charlotte breaks off an engagement with a highly respected suitor, Charlotte and her mother argue, and Mrs. Windle Vale unexpectedly dies of a heart attack.   Feeling responsible for her mother’s death, Charlotte returns to the sanatorium.  There she meets a young girl named Tina (Janis Wilson), who bares striking similarities to a younger, reclusive, frumpy, and depressed Charlotte.  Immediately, Charlotte takes an interest in the girl, whom she quickly finds out is Jerry’s daughter.  Charlotte and Tina grow close, and Charlotte helps build Tina’s confidence; Tina, too, transforms just as Charlotte did.  When Jerry visits his daughter, and fully realizes the help Charlotte has provided her, he embraces Charlotte, hoping to reignite the romance they once had.  However, in an effort to protect her relationship with Tina, Charlotte turns down Jerry’s advances, claiming, “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon.  We have the stars.”

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Some have argued the film takes, what we would now call, a feminist stance.  For example, the film’s protagonist, Charlotte Vale, emerges as a strong, independent woman and maintains this status even in the film’s conclusion.  Charlotte stands up to her oppressive mother, who clearly seems to represent an older generation of women, a dying generation (literally), whom film seems to antiquate.  After all, Mrs. Windle Vale does not have any name of her own; she has no identity.  In addition to that, Charlotte turns down Jerry’s proposal in the film’s conclusion because satisfying his desire to be with her would compromise her desire to be caregiver and nurturer to Tina; she puts her wants ahead of his and does not conform to the dutiful sacrificial role often depicted.  Typical representations of women in 1940’s film do not capture such independence or such overt rebellion for the established norm; however, Now, Voyager challenged its typical contemporaries and, for that defiance, has garnered feminist accolades.

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Yet, even with its feminisms, Now, Voyager still hits some rough waters in its portrayal of women.  Most obviously, Charlotte Vale must transform herself physically in the film.  Interpreting the tone set by the camera in the film’s opening, Charlotte’s original slovenly appearance is so abhorrent the camera hesitates to capture her.  The audience sees her feet, but is initially protected from her hideous appearance.  Then, when she finally emerges, the camera uses a long shot; capturing her entire appearance, but still keeping viewers relatively removed from the terrifying sight.  Heavy-set, poorly clad, hair in a low bun, and with glasses, Charlotte is the antithesis of what a woman should look like.  It takes almost no time before Charlotte transforms into the svelte, well-dressed, meticulously groomed, and glasses-free woman who carries the majority of the film.  Thus, Now, Voyager may claim women can be independent and strong, but the other side to that is, according to the film, they can only do so if they maintain a wanton appearance.  No glasses; women are meant to be seen, not to see.  And, no frumpy females in frocks; in film, women are designed for “the gaze.”

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In addition, Charlotte may appear independent, and actually be independent in comparison to the portrayal of other female characters of the time, but she is still almost completely controlled by a man, Dr. Jaquith.  He rescues Charlotte from her mother, he is said to heal Charlotte in the sanitarium, he sends her off on the ship voyage, he takes her in after her mother dies, he controls her time with Tina, and he is, indirectly, the reason she does not reignite her relationship with Jerry.  Dr. Jaquith controls nearly every step Charlotte takes even though he is barely in the film.  Again, Charlotte is an exceptionally strong and independent female character for her time, but, apparently, behind these rare and remarkable female characters of the 1940s there are authoritarian male characters secretly calling the shots.

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As a final point to ponder, it seems as though much of the strength and independence Charlotte gains in Now, Voyager may, instead, be remarkably good luck and exceptional timing.  For example, Charlotte’s tumultuous relationship with her mother is, arguably, the largest strife in her life; Charlotte is not actually independent until she is free from her mother’s control (this, of course, is arguable because she may actually never be free and simply is exchanged from her mother’s control to Dr. Jaquith’s).  Charlotte seems good-hearted toward her mother and puts up with her mother’s hate-filled torture, but it is unclear why.  She may be a loving, semi-masochistic daughter, or she may know her mother’s hand is the one that feeds her, so she must obey and tolerate the torment.  Yet, just when Charlotte hesitates and lets her mother get the better of her, just when she cracks and fires back at her mother, Mrs. Windle Vale suddenly drops dead.  Miraculously for Charlotte, she is instantaneously saved from her peril.  Moreover, in her mother’s will Charlotte inherits the Vale wealth, making her a rich woman.  The only women who can actually have independence are the women who can afford it, and Charlotte’s unexpected good luck affords her anything she desires.  While this may not take away from the independence some may interpret Charlotte to acquire, her happenstance is rather curious, perhaps making her less of a strong woman and more of an incredibly lucky individual.

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Now, Voyager does present a remarkably modern woman for its 1942 release, one who becomes admirably intelligent, caring, strong, and independent.  Yet, the film is not so far ahead of its time that it equalizes gender roles to any degree.  The male characters, namely Dr. Jaquith, have a great deal more control in the film, and Charlotte’s favorable circumstance has less to do with gender equality and much more to do with a lucky break for the leading lady.

Nevertheless, the film’s conclusion may be its strength; Charlotte chooses Tina over Jerry and continues to work with the young girl, build her confidence, and provide her the space and security to grow.  Tina represents the future, and the future is the hopeful priority.  Considering the generations of women depicted in the film, Now, Voyager does not equalize the current gender roles of Charlotte’s generation, but does overtly highlight how rapidly these roles are changing for the better.

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~ by Kate Bellmore on 14/04/2013.

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