Monday, April 20, 2015

The Many Voices of Women

Voice, one college professor told our fledgling English seminar, is something to be developed and to be distinctive. It was to be as personal and identifiable as to set us apart and so we wrote. I wrote in the style of Saul Bellow and was told it was more Bellow than even Bellow. I surmised that was something of a back-handed compliment and I'm still not sure.

But does everyone have a "voice" and are they all heard? While I think the first is true and might be a quality headed for development, the second is far from true. Check out any discipline in art and science and even religion and there's a striving to be heard that has been denied, covered up by using a man's name or pulled out of the books we have available to us. Who's that person sitting to the right of Jesus (left in the painting when viewed head on) in the "Last Supper" painting? Man or woman, possibly Mary Magdalene? Woman disciple? But who's trying to figure that out when they're a bit taken aback by the fact that there may be too many hands in the painting.

Are you interested in religious history? Wonderful area to see how the voices of women, in particular, have been left for only the most determined to mine. Often written in languages most of us find less-than-available for our translation much less interpretation, they are only in the past few decades coming to light. And not everyone is welcoming these new tracts with a great display of open arms.

Two of my favorite authors, Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman, have written numerous books on religion and the gospels now attributed to women. Some scholars even propose that there was a woman disciple who wrote her own gospels.

Greek traditions held that women may have special powers and there were goddesses and soothsayers galore for them and the Romans. A woman's voice was not only heard, but it was paid special attention.

Fast forward to modern day USA. Women's voices were part of the feminist "revolution" (awful word for equality movement) and even before that women writers were striving to be heard. Not specifically laying out the problems in their own lives, they did what one successful film director/writer has done--they wrote about female characters who were undergoing personal changes. How about "A Room of One's Own" by Virginia Woolf? True, it's an extended essay based on lectures she gave at women's colleges. But any woman who reads it gets the point.

Other women would come along and write in terms of their own times and experiences like Nora Ephron, a writer I adore. Ah, should anyone say they adore someone? Who can say. OK, say I find her refreshing in her approach to life. And maybe even entertaining and cooking.

Gone too soon, but Ephron's works live on to enliven the minds of anyone who wants to dip into the life and times of NYC in the 60s and 70s and beyond. You don't have to watch "Mad Men," just read Ephron. It's all there.

Women seemed to be on the brink of breaking through even in the late 19th and early 20th century when Alice Guy-Blache was forging her mark in directing and producing films. She's memorialized in a small film museum in Fort Lee, NJ where the nascent film industry took root on the farms and the famous volcanic cliffs.  A few women followed, but women's voices in film were largely provided by male screenwriters at the behest of men who ran the studios. Did any woman besides Ida Lupino have office space on any of the studio lots? The powerful bosses believed that ticket buyers were mostly male and only a male voice could appeal sufficiently to get the box office shares they sought.

Now, thanks to one incredibly talented actor, Meryl Streep, there is a new incubator for women screenwriters over 40. Over 40? Will anyone truly option something written by an over 40 woman or will they have to use the ruse in Woody Allen's "The Front."

Streep is starting with a small group and, I suppose, she'll see how it works out. Okay, Bobby, care to put some New York muscle into an incubator for women screenwriters of your own in NYC?

Appeal for women's voices is obviously there since we saw "Sleepless in Seattle" as a success and so was "When Harry Met Sally," and "Silkwood" and "Julie and Julia." Careers have been successfully launched or received major pumping up from appearing in those films. Who can forget, "I'll have what she's having?" A line to die for in a screenwriters repertoire.

And "Sex and the City" hasn't been a slouch in the ratings area, either. SJP has ridden that series right into stardom. Chris Noth rocketed right on to "The Good Wife" and I'm sure Sex played a major role in his being cast as Peter Florrick.

Have we truly heard women's voices in film? I don't think so. You might ask Kathryn Bigelow about that one. I think she's qualified to answer unless she believes that doing so could endanger her directing career. Of course, Meryl has a bit to say about it, I'm sure.

Who's going to do the interview? Hands, please.

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