"Here I drew breath and added...in the margin, Why does Samuel Butler say, 'Wise men never say what they think of women'? Wise men never say anything else apparently—Here is Pope: 'Most women have no character at all."
—Virginia Woolf, A Room of Ones' Own
"History is lunch."
—Allan Gurganus, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All
"Our stellar journeys beyond incarnation by and in patriarchal pens require transcendence of authorized incarnations..."
—Mary Daly, Pure Lust
In one scene in her adaptation of Virginia Woolf's novel, Orlando, Sally Potter gathers together three of the Great (male) Minds of the eighteenth century, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and Samuel Johnson under the pretext of discussing Great Literary Ideas at a fashionable salon. The three writers actually discuss Swift's gout until the title character arrives. She is a beautiful woman, a perfect lady (though she has just recently been a man), and the writers, attracted to her, engage her in conversation. Eager to discuss poetry, a realm of thought accessible to her in her former life as a gentleman and a patron of poets, Orlando naively ventures into territory forbidden to women. Swift, Pope, and Johnson, unwilling to waste time and energy talking shop with a lady, deny Orlando the intellectual stimulation she desires, quickly turning the conversation to a discussion about the character and situation of women, quoting their own work to fashion a picture of women as less than men in mind, body and soul. This is her first foray into society as a woman, and the Lady Orlando, unused to indirect attacks on her character and unprepared to believe what she hears, is powerless to refute her companions' claims.
The interaction between the ideas of the eighteenth century concerning gender and Woolf and Potter's insights into the same subject is brilliant.
Orlando and another recently released film, Like Water for Chocolate, give women voices and choices rarely offered them on the screen. The films envision women as time travelers of sorts, tracking the evolution of women's self-awareness over the centuries and generations. Unlike "women's films" of the Steel Magnolias genre in which the women featured exhibit strength only in that they passively weather whatever horrors life surprises them with, these two wildly different films create space in which the women in them encounter their own history, shaping past, present, and future according to their experiences.
The Swift/Pope/Johnson scene in Orlando is so provocative in this case because of its insight into how the suppression of ideas generated by women and the degradation of women's experience by the literary and social establishments the three writers and their salon represent retard the development of women's own self understanding. The films wrestle women's experience from the clutches of those who would demean it and allow it to live and flourish on its own.
In the beginning, the young, fashionable Lord Orlando, favorite of the first Queen Elizabeth, obeys the Queen's dying command never to grow old. Orlando survives death and the centuries, participating in the male worlds of love, poetry, and politics, property, and power until one day he wakes up to find that he is "the same person" with a "different sex." From then on, Orlando explores life as a woman, learning from encounters with the Great Minds and suitors who propose only marriage or spinsterhood, that she has been confined by virtue of her sex to life without property, or power, or respect. Orlando fights and mourns her loss of status, but eventually overcomes it, finding in the end, at some time in our futures, a peace between herself, her gender, and the world that defines it.
Orlando rejects the passivity inherent in other movies "about" women. Potter keeps Orlando's journey of discovery literally in motion, making use of the ever shifting rules of fashion and etiquette to move her film though time. She uses costuming to illustrate Orlando's resiliency. Here clothing, as in life, not merely the stuff of shallow trends but a device used to tell the story of the wearer, is an issue at the core of gender. Orlando starts out as a man in tune with fifteenth century fashion with a feminine appearance to which the men of the day aspire. As the film ends, Orlando sports the androgynous appearance to which the women of her day aspire. For Orlando, gender .and gender roles are fashions that both confine and reshape her, but also mark her ability to adapt—a quality valuable in her eventual re-making of her self. Though she is a woman dressed so that she resembles furniture, she evolves.
Freed from the fashion of gender, Woolf’s idea of the androgynous person who acts without regard to her or his sex remains. Stripped of the feminine or masculine pronoun, Orlando's basic essence is neither female or male but the "I" by which Orlando defines his/her self at the outset of the movie. The "I" experience from which Orlando expresses her self is also the "eye" experience through which she views the world. For Orlando, the experience of androgyny re-focuses her I/eye's lens. In the end, her appearance is androgynous, but she remains a woman, able after travelling for centuries to tell her story.
It seems that Orlando's awareness and concepts like it are ideas the world is only now ready to take seriously. Women's own stories, pregnant with songs of the self, travel through the years as biographies written in their own handwriting. Take seriously for a minute the film of Laura Esquivel's novel, Like Water for Chocolate: A Novel in Monthly Installments with Recepies, Romances, and Home Remedies. The biographies of several generations of fictional women emerge from the intricate and magical recipes written in the family cookbook.
Like Water for Chocolate's recipes for Wedding Cakes, Quail in Rose Petal Sauce, and Hot Chocolate tell the story of passion aiding women in a revolution against the traditions that imprison them, stifling self knowledge and the expression of the personal witness of history. Here, time travel is inter-generational. The travelers, Mama Elena and her three daughters, Gertrudis, Rosaura, and Tita, victims of rigid social standards dictated by books of etiquette written for socially prominent families, participate in a curious feminist revolution in turn of the century Mexico. Mama Elena, a bitter and tyrannical woman, forbids her daughter Tita to marry, citing as her reason the family practice of requiring the youngest daughter to take care of her mother in her old age.
Mama Elena's adherence to the stifling etiquette of the past and Tita's refusal to reject her passions and accept the injustice her mother lives by, creates a gulf between mother and daughter. The two women find no common ground on which to build a mutual relationship. Mama Elena persists in her cruelty; Tita learns to hate her mother.
However, Tita learns from her mother's history. She liberates herself from her mother's image of women as docile and obedient—an image Mama Elena herself does not resemble—recreating the image of woman to resemble herself. In this film, one woman's life sets the stage for the lives of the women who follow her in time. As Mama Elena's sordid past reveals itself to Tita's eyes, she begins to understand the forces that made her mother only a shadow of the woman she could have been. Mama Elena's wholesale rejection of passion and emotion and acceptance of self-hatred in exchange for the "fashionable" role of a socially acceptable woman milks her of all happiness.
Tita possesses confidence despite her upbringing, as well as courage, fortitude, resolution, and resilience—qualities inherent to the character of a woman engaged in revolutionary movement. Her passion for the freedom to choose the way to live her own life leaks into her cooking, inspiring those who partake of her food to feel the epitomes of love, desire, sadness, and pleasure, all ingredients in Tita's recipe for revolution. The emotions created in her dinner guests become Tita's signature. She establishes herself in the foods she creates. As her guests eat her art, they witness life through her eye.
At a time when the film industry hands out token acknowledgements to women (witness last Oscar night's "tribute" to women in film, or Albert Broccoli's absurd idea to remake James Bond into a "nineties man"), when columnist Ellen Goodman considers bestowing an award on the cast of Indecent Proposal for doing its best to set back the progress of women, and Hollywood gives meaty feminist parts like the lead in Sleeping With the Enemy to Julia Roberts, movies that take a different perspective become increasingly important. When the camera becomes the active eye of active, self-aware women and not simply an instrument that records events happening around their lives, then films no longer must carry the label "women's movies." Films the likes of Orlando and Like Water for Chocolate, though they are few and far between, bring women's histories into full view, giving forum to their ideas, countering the unfocused eyes (where women are concerned, at least) of the Swifts, Popes, Johnsons, and Mama Elenas of the film establishment.
The exciting part about it is that these films are the beginning. Orlando and Like Water for Chocolate secure the space on the world's cinema screens for other films to follow where the women in them not only write their signatures, but continue to progress, creating themselves over and again while realizing revolutionary perspectives.