The Accidental Feminist by M. G. Lord

“The man is a husband and a father and something else, say a doctor. The woman is a wife and mother and … nothing. And it’s the nothing that kills her.” Elizabeth Taylor as Laura Reynolds in The Sandpiper.

I admit that I decided to read M. G.  Lord’s non-fiction book, The Accidental Feminist because I was curious to read the author’s argument that Elizabeth Taylor is a feminist icon. The book’s overly long, but self-explanatory secondary title is: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice, and this secondary title goes a long way in explaining the book’s direction. First the disclaimer: I like Elizabeth Taylor. I think she is a seriously underrated actress, and I tend to enjoy the films that are a little off-beat. The Driver’s Seat, for example. Butterfield 8 is another one, but in spite of my admiration, I couldn’t really see her as a feminist icon. There again I am fascinated by the idea that Taylor, who had many of the hallmarks for tragedy that destroyed other female stars (child stardom, tabloid sensationalism, multiple marriages, illness, and a noticeable appetite for gems), managed to live to a ripe old age and die fabulously wealthy. In other words, unlike let’s say Barbara Payton, Marilyn Monroe, and Linda Darnell (just to name a few from an endless list), Elizabeth Taylor managed to survive the demands of Hollywood and unlike many glamorous female stars before her, she didn’t die in oblivion. Apart from the fact that I like Elizabeth Taylor as an actress, I also admire her early stance of support for AIDS–especially when many other famous people, who might have brought attention to the issue in those critical early days, opted instead to hide from the topic.  

The Accidental Feminist is not a biography of Taylor. Instead it’s primarily film criticism with an emphasis on how her roles challenged censorship and social mores of the time. The author states that feminism is “a tricky thing to define,” and after quoting various definitions, argues that many of Taylor’s films had a definite “feminist context– “accidental or deliberate–text or subtext.” Most of us have heard of the Hays Code with its explicit lists of dos and don’ts, and what’s so interesting here is Lord’s intense exploration of how the Hays Code not only censored many of Taylor’s films but tried to creatively shape the messages of several films. This sort of information is a valuable read for any film buffs. Films examined include:

National Velvet (“A sly critique of gender discrimination in sports.”)

A Place in the Sun

Giant (“The feminization of the American West.”)

Suddenly, Last Summer (“The callousness of the male medical establishment towards women patients.”)

Butterfield 8 (“A woman’s right to control her sexuality.”)

Cleopatra

The Sandpiper (“goddess-centered paganism against patriarchal monotheism.”)

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (“What happens to a woman when the only way that society permits her to express herself is through her husband’s career and children.”)

Ash Wednesday

The Little Foxes

The slight biographical information in these pages is restricted to the bare outlines of Taylor’s life and how these details impacted her career. At one point the book unobtrusively lines up the tragedies Elizabeth Taylor dealt with effectively, including the death of James Dean, Montgomery Clift’s car accident, and the death of husband, Michael Todd in 1958 (they’d been married for just over a year).

The characters she played were women to be reckoned with. And many of her roles–the great and the not-so-great–surreptitiously brought feminist issues to American audiences held captive by those violet eyes and that epic beauty. While I know that writers and directors create movies, stars create a brand. And the Taylor brand deserves credit for its under-the-radar challenge to traditional attitudes: a woman may not control her sexuality; she may not have an abortion; she may not play with the boys; she may not choose to live without a man; she must obey her husband; and should she speak of unpleasantness, she will be silenced.

There were points at which I felt myself arguing with the premise of the book–after all these were roles that Taylor, the actress played, and that’s a separate thing from Elizabeth Taylor, the person. In spite of the risky film roles, Taylor played so well, her life, covered vividly by the tabloids also had a message. But at the same time, the author makes a powerful argument (depending on a person’s notion of what constitutes feminism), about Elizabeth Taylor’s bravery in allowing herself to be photographed bald prior to surgery to remove a benign brain tumor, her box-office power when it came to a female audience, and her early support for AIDS research. I’d also argue that the really risky role in A Place in the Sun went to Shelley Winters–not Taylor. And then there are those hilarious sexed-up ads for Taylor’s early films which de-emphasized her acting and instead accentuated her physical attributes. Giant, for example was sold to audiences as a “steamy love triangle.” Here’s a marvellously astute passage:

The ad then shows Dean, shirt unbuttoned to the waist, oozing intensity, and Taylor on her knees before him. Although they are technically chaste, their positions hint at an act that would violate the Production Code. The caption: “Jett Rink, the outsider–and Leslie, wealthy and beautiful.”

The last frame shows Dean leering at Taylor as if she were a hamburger and he had missed lunch. The caption: “Jett Rink’s shack. No one has ever set foot in it–and then suddenly, Leslie.” The last picture is the most distorted. Far from depicting a sweaty libidinous tryst, the actual scene is prim and tender. To show Leslie that he is not a brute, Jett struggles to get everything right as he makes her a cup of tea. His actions are a perfect metaphor for the feminization of the West.

 At the same time, I bristled at a few statements. Taylor and third husband, Michael Todd led a lavish lifestyle, and at one point, we’re told that after Todd’s premature death in a plane crash, he left a “mere 250,000 in the bank.” Taylor picked up and went back to work. What else could she do since there were bills to pay and three children to support, but there’s something grating about that “mere $250,000″ wording…I went to http://www.dollartimes.com/ to check the value of 1958 money compared to today, and according to that website, $250,000 in 1958 terms was worth around $1,929,392.61 in 2011. With those kind of numbers, it’s hard to put Taylor in the same boat with other single mothers  who live on state support or meagre child support payments. That’s not to say that Elizabeth Taylor didn’t suffer at the death of her spouse, but let’s face it, the woman had advantages…. Another point of disagreement with the author occurs over The Taming of the Shrew, a film I love btw, but whose final scene can be construed as the “shrew,” a very beautiful Elizabeth Taylor advocating blind obedience to one’s spouse–even if his demands are insane.

One of my favourite anecdotes in the book must be included:

As a young woman Taylor, too, played the duplicity game. But in 1962, after two men in sequence very publicly ditched their wives for her, she stopped hiding. And far from suffering at the box office, she became Hollywood’s highest-paid actress. Not even the vatican could hold her back. When its weekly newspaper, L’Osservatore della Domenica, accused her of “erotic vagrancy,” she blithely quipped, “Can I sue the pope?”

Love that  term “erotic vagrancy.” Ultimately this is a highly readable book that made me think–and while I didn’t agree with every statement, the book did bring a richer appreciation of Elizabeth Taylor. And isn’t that the point?

Review copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley. Read on the kindle.

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28 Comments

Filed under Lord M. G., Non Fiction

28 responses to “The Accidental Feminist by M. G. Lord

  1. Not sure i will read this one. Terrific review.

    BTW, what did you think of the film, ‘Drive’?

  2. I read the book first, and to be honest, I was disappointed in the film. How about you?

  3. An interesting review. I like her too but would never have called her a feminist and still really do not see it but there are people who call Madonna a feminist and along those lines Elizabeth Taylor may have been as well. It’s a question of definition. She is certainly more interesting than one could assume.
    I was pretty sure you didn’t like Drive as you never mentioned having seen it. It’s one of those movies that lives and dies with the score. Without the score it would have been an empty shell. If you didn’t like that and the atmosphere, then it wouldn’t work. It’s very far away from the book.

  4. I wouldn’t have imagined her as a feminist either. That made me think that maybe the cliché is that a feminist can’t be sexy. What do you think?

    I haven’t seen all the films mentioned but I’ve seen at least Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf and The Taming of the Shrew. The first one can be seen from a feminist side, the syndrom of the bored housewife. I thought the second one very sexist: the ending is appalling but well, it’s Shakespeare, right? Not a very nice time for women.

    PS: I really liked Drive, the film. Now I wonder if I’ll like the book even more. It on the kindle, one day, when I have time…

  5. I don’t see why a feminist can’t be sexy. I think the public life of Taylor overshadowed her films (at least for her peak decades), and I think the message she sent wasn’t feminist. Perhaps now all that has more or less gone, it’s a good time for a retrospective of her films and a consideration of her image in film devoid of the tabloid stories.

  6. You’ve summed up the argument so well that I don’t feel a need to read the book. While at first glance it does seem a bit off the wall, when you look at the list of titles that you put forward (at least the ones I remember) it does make some sense.

  7. I’m surprised Lord didn’t mention Cleopatra in the list, or the love of her life, Richard Burton with whom she had a tempestuous relationship!

    • Yes, Cleopatra is mentioned. The author states that it’s “neither a great movie nor a feminist one.” There’s some detail regarding behind the scenes too. Burton also appears as well as some of his comments about Taylor, their marriage, remarriage (contemplated third marriage) and the fact Taylor was allowed to attend his funeral. But the films are foremost rather than the men.

      • Sorry Guy, What I meant to say, as I wrote this in haste, was that I am surprised she did not consider it feminist, very surprised in fact. What do you think?

        • It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Cleopatra. Decades to tell the truth. Not so with most of the other films under consideration. She was certainly an incredibly strong individual, intelligent, educated etc, so yes, I see your point. I’ll have to think about that one and perhaps even dig out my copy of the film.

  8. What celebrity woman in those days was a feminist? Anyone claiming to be one would have been hounded out of the industry. Personally, I think she’s a great actress, and I read a few interview snippets that make it clear that she had her head on right – except when it came to men and marriage – so it’s not surprising that when she got some star power, she tried to shake things up a bit. She commented explicitly in one chat about the poor hand women actors are dealt.

    Driver’s Seat…now it comes out. You were disappointed in it! Well, thanks for one of the weirder film experiences ever…

    On another thread, I read you nice review of transgressive Brit females! Thanks for expanind my knowledge of Ms. Dors, a native of Swindon, UK, where I spent some time at the headquarters of my employer. A rather unremarkable town, noted only for Diana’s residence there and the presence of the only five? eight? level round-about intersection in Europe.

    Finally (if your crazy WordPress theme allows me to continue), I have been trying to post a comment at the FNF Forum, and though I am duly registered, it will not let me. I wanted to comment on Marc Svetov’s remarks about Fail Safe, which were, I thought, totally off the point. Fail Safe was published in 1962, two years before Kubricks brilliant Strangelove was released, and it makes no sense to say that Lumet plagiarized Kubrick. Furthermore, Svetov seems to hate the film: I wonder how old he is? If he lived through the Cold War at all, he might find it a bit more compelling! I think calling it poshlust is way off: it’s a nuclear war melodrama, and an effective one. He seems to think it’s rather far removed from reality, but that is its strength, and the source of Strangelove’s genius. The both depict the same facts of the Cold War: one with black humor, the other as film noir melodrama.

    • No, Caroline asked me if I liked DRIVE (Ryan Gosling), the film. I loved the book version by James Sallis but was disappointed in the film version. Why did they have to stick a romance in it? Rhetorical question. LOVED Driver’s Seat (based on the Muriel Spark book) and weird is good for you.

      I’ll write to the owner of FN and ask him what gives…

  9. I can see the argument, but it smacks of someone trying to find an angle for a book. As a rule in fact, overlong subtitles often indicate books that are trying a bit too hard.

    Great actress though.

    • Max: The author also wrote Forever Barbie which is a history of the Barbie doll and its impact (as far as I can tell as I haven’t read it). I mention it as I think it gives her cred as far as the Taylor topic goes. This was an interesting read and one that engaged me enough that I argued with it on several pages. I enjoyed the film criticism and also really enjoyed the back and forth arguments from the Hays code people on the morality of various scripts. Unbelievable the audacity of those people.

      • A history of Barbie is I admit an interesting topic. Fair enough then, I agree that give sher cred.

        Nothing wrong with a book you can argue with. I’m reading a Socialist apologia for modernist architecture at the moment, and part of why I’m enjoying it is that it sets out a robust position I can mentally accept or argue with.

        You’ll hear no defence of the Hays code from me. Extraordinary how small groups can think that they somehow can act as arbiters of what other adults are able to handle, or should be allowed to handle.

        • I should make a separate post which contains some of the nonsense they wanted in one of Taylor’s films.

        • … think that they somehow can act as arbiters of what other adults are able to handle… Wasn’t there a woman in the UK, Whitehouse?, your version of our Anita Bryant, that Pink Floyd upset a lot..?

          • Mary Whitehouse. Constantly on tv when I was a kid, calling for other things not to be on tv. Constantly offended. She sought to protect me from things that did me no damage. She meant well, but that doesn’t change the fact her platform was ultimately one of rejection and exclusion. She’d have given us a world of endless Agatha Christie novels, cosy chatshows and human interest news stories. Why she couldn’t just turn over if she didn’t like what she saw escapes me.

          • Did they put her in a song? I have a memory of someone doing that?

            Anita Bryant … Tried and Pie’d

  10. I remember her. I don’t understand moral watchdogs/censorship types. Wasn’t she mentioned in some rock song?

    That old OFF switch works wonders.

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