Reflecting On Lauren Bacall And Feminist Film Noir For Women’s History Month

by Gabby Catalano

I was introduced to Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not at age 8. I remember watching a confident, mysterious young woman on screen who stood up for herself in the French Resistance and dominated a romantic relationship. I thought to myself, I want to be her.

Because I was raised by a single mother and moved back-and-forth from California to New York through most of my childhood, it was challenging to maintain friendships and find a role model. After moving, I spent most of my time indoors watching film noir and the powerful women that dominated the screen — the female characters made me feel less alone. From Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon to Chinatown and The Lady From Shanghai, noir’s striking visuals and complex, witty women set the foundations for my individuality, expression, and feminist attitude.

Women have a long history of commanding the screen. Throughout women’s time in Hollywood, femme fatales — French for “fatal woman” — have liberated onscreen women and gender stereotypes. During the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, women had traditional gender roles and were expected to marry, stay home, and care for children and their husband. Despite this, film noir women onscreen, including feminist icons like Bacall, Joan Crawford, Ava Gardner, and Elsa Bannister, to name a few, were given leading roles and oftentimes depicted as powerful, sensual, tough and unconventional women. Film noir made up feminist interest because it challenged gender stereotypes by putting confident and dominant women on screen, i.e.: Bacall played a role in the feminist revolution by breaking stereotypical onscreen romance and portraying untraditional female qualities; her awkwardness and teenage masculinity made her a sensation overnight.

Today, what society considers “sexy” has a not-so-subtle meaning. Many viewers only consider an actress “sexy” if she’s a sex symbol, or has appeared in several billboards, magazines, advertisements, movies, etc. When I watched Bacall in The Big Sleep as a young teen, I didn’t consider her “sexy.” But then, I caught on. Bacall played deep-toned, husky, and masculine characters onscreen that gave her a fearful, dangerous appeal. This in turn made her “sexy.” Her sex appeal wasn’t measured by her looks, but by her power, her tough attitude, her confidence, and her adult sexuality. Women in film noir represent a strong female mystery — a mystery about what it means to be a woman.

Of course, there had been sexually aggressive starlets that represented sex appeal before Bacall and other film noir icons. However, Bacall wasn’t a stereotypical “bad girl” during her time. She didn’t end up in jail or dead in the movies of that period, but she was more of a complex heroine of the stories who oftentimes played the leading man instead of the leading lady. Bacall and Humphrey Bogart captured the public’s imagination by switching gender roles: Bacall stands up throughout most of this scene in To Have and Have Not, while Bogart is sitting — her character is in a position of power and is literally above him. Bacall offers him money, then initiates the first kiss. These elements of the film break traditional screen romance stereotypes.

Although it’s quick to discount the femme fatales as demeaning stereotypes of women, these powerful characters actually helped make female sexuality and individuality more commonplace in movie theaters, challenging gender roles of the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Modern movies such as The Black Swan, Fight Club, The Dark Knight Rises, Inception, and many more, all embody the “femme fatale,” too. It’s a trope that continues to live on and be embraced all over cin-ema.

For Women’s History Month, I’d like to reflect on Lauren Bacall, a feminist icon and power heroine that comforted me during my childhood and adolescence. At 20-years-old, I still watch Bacall on screen and am reminded of how my loneliness was replaced with excitement and empowerment by film noir feminist icons. R.I.P. Bacall, you will always be my role model and idol.

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