A probing look at film representations of women lawyers during the Reagan-Bush era.
As real women increasingly entered the professions from the 1970s onward, their cinematic counterparts followed suit. Women lawyers, in particular, were the protagonists of many Hollywood films of the Reagan-Bush era, serving as a kind of shorthand reference any time a script needed a powerful career woman. Yet a close viewing of these films reveals contradictions and anxieties that belie the films' apparent acceptance of women's professional roles. In film after film, the woman lawyer herself effectively ends up "on trial" for violating norms of femininity and patriarchal authority.
In this book, Cynthia Lucia offers a sustained analysis of women lawyer films as a genre and as a site where other genres including film noir, maternal melodrama, thrillers, action romance, and romantic comedy intersect. She traces Hollywood representations of female lawyers through close readings of films from the 1949 Adam's Rib through films of the 1980s and 1990s, including Jagged Edge, The Accused, and The Client, among others. She also examines several key male lawyer films and two independent films, Lizzie Borden's Love Crimes and Susan Streitfeld's Female Perversions. Lucia convincingly demonstrates that making movies about women lawyers and the law provides unusually fertile ground for exploring patriarchy in crisis. This, she argues, is the cultural stimulus that prompts filmmakers to create stories about powerful women that simultaneously question and undermine women's right to wield authority.
- Chapter 1. The Law Is the Law: Adam's Rib and The Verdict
- Chapter 2. Father Knows Best: Female Lawyers as Daughters in Music Box and Class Action
- Chapter 3. Female Lawyers and the Maternal: The Client and Defenseless
- Chapter 4. A Question of Genre: Jagged Edge and Guilty as Sin
- Chapter 5. Female Power and Masculine Crisis: Genre Hybrids and Dual-Focus Narratives
- Chapter 6. Genre, Gender, and Law: The Female Lawyer Narrative and Its Influence
- Chapter 7. Feminist Address and Spectatorship in The Accused, Love Crimes, and Female Perversions
- Conclusion: Female Lawyers in the Twenty-First Century
In the 1949 film Adam's Rib, often classified as a screwball comedy, assistant district attorney Adam Bonner (Spencer Tracy), surprisingly finds his wife opposing him in the courtroom. Defending a woman accused of assaulting her unfaithful husband, attorney Amanda Bonner (Katharine Hepburn) attempts to reread and reshape the law to reflect progressive values, part of the postwar discourse surrounding the "New Woman." Although he considers himself to hold these same values, Adam regards his wife's actions as an assault upon law and, by extension, a challenge to himself. Defensive and significantly weakened in the face of Amanda's courtroom strategies, Adam lectures his wife in no uncertain terms: "Contempt for the law, that's what you've got. It's a disease, a spreading disease. . . . The law is the law. . . . You start with one law, then pretty soon it's all laws, pretty soon it's everything; then it's me."
Simply by virtue of her status as a politically progressive career woman in post-World War II America, Amanda poses a threat that filters beyond the public arena and into the private sphere, a dichotomy strongly inscribed in American legal discourse and ideology since the Constitution and only lately challenged. Taking center stage against her husband in the space traditionally designated as his, Amanda's actions threaten Adam's potency both in the courtroom and in the bedroom, it seems, resulting in the temporary breakup of their marriage. Amanda destabilizes her designated space within the private sphere of the home directly as a result of her successful performance in the public theater of the courtroom.
Yet the danger Amanda poses ultimately is contained. Although she challenges the jury and the film audience to question basic assumptions about justice and gender—asking the jury to imagine the accused woman as a man defending his home and the husband as an unfaithful wife whose actions threaten family stability—she nevertheless argues in terms of traditional family ideology: "An unwritten law stands back of a man who fights to defend his home. Apply this same law to this maltreated wife and neglected woman—we ask you no more—equality." After winning in the courtroom, however, Amanda comes to understand and regret her miscalculation in terms of her own marriage. During a meeting with their accountant to divide their taxable receipts, she and Adam eventually do reconcile, the family thus reconstituted under the power of property and tax law.
Adam even manages to nullify Amanda's powerful courtroom argument in a comic scene during their separation, when he jealously interrupts what he believes to be a romantic liaison between Amanda and one of their neighbors. Bursting into the apartment, (licorice) gun in hand, Adam tricks Amanda into reacting. "You have no right," she shouts, thus admitting the ethical fallacy upon which her rational courtroom argument had been constructed. Amanda's sense of accomplishment in her courtroom victory is tempered further by a nagging discomfort and guilt arising from her husband's courtroom defeat. She has since learned only to joke about opposing him in an election for county court judgeship.
The threat has been contained, but with something of a difference. Adam's Rib simultaneously reflects anxieties about the post-World War II New Woman but also mediates an uneasy acceptance of this new state of affairs. The film spectator is encouraged to agree with Adam when he pronounces his wife a threat to the law and by extension to their marriage, yet the viewer also is allowed to recognize, if only for a moment, the validity of Amanda's courtroom argument. In contemporary films representing female lawyers, the case has become somewhat more complicated.
Although films involving female lawyers appeared in American film as early as the 1920s, more than twenty appeared once again in the decade from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s, the period that is the focus of this study. Beginning with two early 1980s comedies—Seems Like Old Times (1980) and First Monday in October (1981)—the female lawyer film has taken on relatively consistent codes of theme, structure, and representation, particularly following the 1985 release of Jagged Edge. In many respects, Jagged Edge establishes the tone for a majority of female lawyer films to follow, both in its representation of the female lawyer and in its hybrid status, merging, in this case, the courtroom drama with the psychological thriller and aspects of the maternal melodrama.
Produced in rapid succession, female lawyer films are simple in narrative form, encouraging critics, on first viewing, to regard them as Hollywood fluff or formula, in much the way B-movies and women's films of the past were dismissed as inferior productions or "weepies" by their contemporary critics. Beneath the simple form of the female lawyer film, however, lie two revealing oppositional tendencies. One is the popularly held idealized vision of law—that the law is a stable, immutable force beyond the reach of transitory political and cultural influences. This notion becomes complicated by a second factor—the political and cultural context registering a troubled or uneasy acceptance of women in law. Together, these two conditions create some difficulty in resolving the "problem" of women in law.
As we consider the body of 1980s and 1990s female lawyer films, two intertwining questions arise: why does the 1980s become the decade giving rise to so many female lawyer films, and why is law the chosen profession for a clear majority of Hollywood's female protagonists of the period? In partial answer to both questions, it is important to note another oppositional tendency in films featuring female lawyers. While these films powerfully mediate what many film critics and historians have identified as an "antifeminism" pervasive in Hollywood films of the period, they also register a "crisis of masculinity" many see at the core of this antifeminism. Film historian Robert Sklar rightfully points out that "the nature of masculinity is to be in crisis," going on to observe, however, that "in the 1980s traditional notions of maleness appeared to be under particularly severe challenge in the United States" (Sklar 1994, 345). In the female lawyer film this crisis reaches beyond anxieties concerning simple "maleness" as a performative expression of gender identity to a more deeply rooted cultural crisis of patriarchy—one that spills over from the 1980s and into the 1990s.
Films focusing on female lawyers provide unusually fertile ground for exploring a patriarchy in crisis, for with law at the core of contention, patriarchy itself is called to question. Yet, in keeping with the ideological limitations often dubbed as "Hollywood liberalism," in which films appearing to mount an ideological critique often end up supporting the very systems they call into question, the figure of the female lawyer is often positioned to deflect the very analysis of patriarchal power her existence would seem to prompt. In foregrounding the status of the female lawyer, these films displace overt interrogation of patriarchal power and its uses, by placing the female lawyer on trial, interrogating her role as woman and as lawyer.
Ostensibly feminist in their very positioning of a female lawyer as protagonist, films of the 1980s and 1990s paradoxically reveal her failure in "measuring up" to the liberalism the films themselves superficially adopt. The liberal, feminist political façade of the female lawyer film often crumbles to expose deeply conservative, antifeminist underpinnings, the films thus becoming symptomatic of the very crisis they wish to submerge—but not without revealing subtle and telling contradictions.
Hollywood Trends and the Female Lawyer Film
While the overall number of films featuring female protagonists in the 1970s and 1980s represents a small fraction of the total number of films produced in Hollywood during that period, the second half of the 1970s saw a number of films addressing women's issues, among them: Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974), An Unmarried Woman (1977), Julia (1977), The Turning Point (1977), Coming Home (1978), Girlfriends (1978), and Norma Rae (1979). Growing out of laissez-faire attitudes toward both industrial takeovers and enforcement of the Paramount ruling, as well as a new emphasis on "synergy," demands for increased production and greater variety arose in Hollywood of the 1980s (Sklar 1994, 339-341). So, too, was there a carryover from the interest of the mid-1970s in strong female protagonists—at that time a response to the general visibility and consciousness-raising efforts of the women's movement. Yet, while a film like An Unmarried Woman met with moderate box office success, it also revealed the limitations of Hollywood feminism, which, as film scholars Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner explain, "expunges all radicalism from feminism and repackages it as a 'new woman' or 'corporate' feminism which equated liberation from patriarchy with enlistment in its ranks" (Ryan and Kellner 1988, 144), a pattern at the core of many female lawyer films to follow.
At the same time as the industry felt a need to create "interesting" roles for women in the mid-1970s, it also cracked open its door, though ever so slightly, to women directors. These filmmakers (including Elaine May, Joan Micklin Silver, and Barbara Loden), however, often were assigned "women's projects," which they considered both limiting and expressive of a male-dominated industry that held onto stereotypical notions about the interests and capacities of female directors (Hillier 1994, 124). Moreover, with the notable exceptions of Sherry Lansing and Dawn Steel, two powerful producers in the 1980s and early 1990s, neither of whom were strongly committed to feminist projects, women in the industry generally held middle-management positions without the power to "green light" proposed projects and with few rising to positions of genuine power (Hillier 1994, 122). At the same time, however, the industry recognized the box office potential of an unusual group of talented and powerful female stars of the period, some of whom were overtly political, others of whom were perceived as "strong women" helping to shape the roles they played. Among these women were actors who eventually would take on roles as female lawyers: Jill Clayburgh, Glenn Close, Debra Winger, Ellen Barkin, Cher, Jessica Lange, Barbara Hershey, Susan Sarandon, and Michele Pfeiffer—as well as those who have yet to play female lawyers: Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, and Geena Davis.
Given the pressure for variety, for quick turnover of product, and for stronger female roles, yet the reluctance to allow female directors, producers, and actors the autonomy to develop their own projects, Hollywood began repackaging successful genres of the past with the new twist of a female lead. The 1980s and 1990s saw the production of the female sci-fi action film, with the Alien and Terminator series, among others; the reappearance of westerns, now featuring female leads in The Ballad of Little Jo (1993), Bad Girls (1994), and Buffalo Girls (1995); the appearance of the female "buddy" film, with Thelma and Louise (1991), or the female-male buddy film, with The Pelican Brief (1993), Speed (1994), and Fair Game (1994). Female cops appeared on the scene with Blue Steel (1990), and female FBI agents with Black Widow (1987) and Silence of the Lambs (1991).
The numbers of female lawyer films that were produced, in part, grew out of this recycling trend and from the synergistic influence of television shows featuring female lawyers as central characters. It is important to note, however, that many female lawyer films are genre hybrids involving more than simple replacement of a male lead with a female lead. The Pelican Brief, for instance, combines elements of the thriller and buddy film with the female lawyer film (technically, the female lead is a law student), just as Adam's Rib had earlier combined elements of the screwball comedy and courtroom drama. In the 1980s the classic male lawyer formula, often incorporating elements of the courtroom drama, supplied serious female actors with substantial roles. On the surface, then, the female lawyer film answered a feminist call for women in professional, nontraditional roles. And while the films did not command box office earnings as high as those of 1990s male lawyer films to follow or of dual-focus films involving both male and female lawyers, films of the 1980s and 1990s featuring female lawyers as protagonists earned solid box office receipts, with a few exceptions.
But in Hollywood's attempt to create interesting roles for women, whether in recycled genre films or nongenre projects, "interesting" has been defined in the context of a male-dominated industry and, in the mid-1980s, was further defined within a context of New Right "backlash" attitudes toward the women's movement of the 1970s and early 1980s, leading film scholar Robin Wood to observe that "the precariousness of what was achieved in the 70s can be gauged from the ease with which it had been overthrown in the 80s" (Wood 1986, 206).
A brief look at three modestly successful films of the decade illustrates the antifeminist stance growing out of these conditions. Ordinary People (1980), Fatal Attraction (1987), and Broadcast News (1987), like many other films of the period—in their respective focus on family, female sexuality, and independent professional women—display a thin veneer of liberalism that barely covers reactionary underpinnings. Each one reflects a concern central to the female lawyer films of the decade: Ordinary People examines the woman as mother; Fatal Attraction links aggressive, pathological sexuality with a career autonomy; and Broadcast News pits the female protagonist's professional competence and accomplishments against her desire for personal fulfillment. Very much like male-centered 1980s films devoted to the "restoration of the father," as Wood describes this tendency in the Star Wars and Indiana Jones series (Wood 1986, 174), and as Susan Jeffords describes it in the Back to the Future series (Jeffords 1994, 67-69), the female-centered films of the 1980s undermine their female characters in order to restore the father to his "rightful" place—be it within the context of family or within the symbolic context of phallocentric institutions where patriarchal authority must be stabilized. Heralding the coming of the Reagan era, a film like Kramer vs. Kramer (1979), for instance, suggests, as Ryan and Kellner observe, that "a man can both mother and work successfully. The question it poses implicitly is 'Why can't a woman do the same?'" (Ryan and Kellner 1988, 159). Several female lawyer films pose nearly the same question.
Beyond their frequent failure as mothers, career women in 1980s films are represented as professionally inadequate, either blurring the lines of ethical and legal conduct when carrying out their work, or adhering too rigidly or obsessively to ethical principles, as does Jane (Holly Hunter), who, in Broadcast News, is forced to choose between a professional defense of ethical journalistic practice, on the one hand, or personal happiness on the other—with no sense that as a female professional she can hope to attain both. As Elayne Rapping points out, films like Broadcast News, by focusing ostensibly on journalistic or other public issues, "submerge reactionary attitudes toward women in narratives that hang on the resolution of some other matter entirely, one posed as more weighty than mere matters of wedding and bedding" (Rapping 1989, 6). Among the other films that Rapping places in this category are The Good Mother (1988) and Running on Empty (1988), which assume a woman's right to "any number of good and important things" but then "proceed to undermine their heroines' rights to equality, dignity, justice, meaningful work, and sexual fulfillment, anyway, and to imply, yet again, that marriage and family are women's best hopes." Rapping suggests that this more subtle approach, one taken up by many female lawyer films of the period, is "more demeaning and dangerous than the more blatant anti-feminism of the day" (Rapping 1989, 6).
A more overt antifeminism expresses itself in Ordinary People and Fatal Attraction. A cold, unloving mother is shown to be at least partially responsible for her son's suicidal tendencies in Ordinary People, and her expulsion from the family makes possible a hopeful ending in which the warm and loving father can nurture his son back to health and stability, illustrating Wood's observation that "the mother becomes superfluous to Oedipal/patriarchal concerns, a mere burdensome redundancy" (Wood 1986, 173). And Fatal Attraction's independent professional woman takes on qualities of a horror film monster—refusing to die, even after suffering repeated stabbings. It is the "good mother" (Anne Archer), a full-time suburban housewife, who finally has the power to eliminate this sexually transgressive woman threatening to destabilize the middle-class family. In its cautionary tone and absence of irony, the final moments of this film support its Reagan-era ideology: although the father transgresses in his brief affair, his "rightful" role as head of household is restored and his own brutality in expelling this "other woman" in support of family is legitimized. Like Fatal Attraction, a number of female lawyer films imply, at their core, that women threaten the patriarchal order, and for that they must be punished.
New Right Demands on Real and Reel Female Lawyers
The consistent production of so many female lawyer films, beginning in the mid-1980s when the Reagan New Right had firmly established itself, suggests something more, then, than a Hollywood need to satisfy demands for "progressive" representations of women in powerful, professional roles. It seems no coincidence that the bulk of these films either were produced or were in the works during the Reagan-Bush administrations, which established an agenda of containment around feminist issues, devoting verbal support to women's rights while undermining women through legislative activity and attitudes touting "family values." If anything, this group of films, like others of the period, reflects the New Right approach to women's and minority issues—a superficial proclaiming of support, sometimes even displaying rare individual success stories to exhibit a forward-thinking position on such issues, meanwhile a forging of policies to undermine genuine empowerment of such groups.
In her book Women Lawyers: Rewriting the Rules, political scientist and lawyer Mona Harrington frames the highly charged issue of women in law in the 1980s and 1990s within the debate around multiculturalism and conservative resistance to multicultural demands, citing the 1992 Republican National Convention as the moment "when speakers . . . openly declared a cultural war on groups seeking social change—feminists, homosexuals, single parents, working mothers, and obstreperous racial minorities" (Harrington 1994, 5). Similar tensions inform the majority of female lawyer films, yet these films carefully conceal, or perhaps remain unconscious of, their own underlying reactionary attitudes. As if the organizers of the 1996 Republican National Convention had seen a few too many female lawyer films, all energies were poured into constructing a façade of acceptance, most notably in choosing a woman, Representative Susan Molanari of New York, as keynote speaker. While her presence painted the Republican Party as inclusive and supportive of women's issues, her message served only to reinforce the New Right agenda, with repeated references to home, family, and her central role as mother. Invoking the values held by three generations of her own family, she concluded with an image of rocking her daughter to sleep and wondering "what her life is going to be like" (Molanari 1996, A18). In this case, the very public conservative politician consistently represented herself as inhabiting the private sphere of the home almost exclusively, conforming to the ideal of the "New Traditional Woman," a concept arising from the pro-family movement of the 1970s.
In their similar need to adopt a superficially liberal or accepting stance, female lawyer films mediate deeply rooted contradictions within the politics of patriarchy and its response to feminism—contradictions evident not only within a Republican "New Right," as represented by Reagan and Bush, but also within the politics of Democratic presidents Carter and, later, Clinton, as well as some branches of feminism itself. Like Amanda Bonner in Adam's Rib and former congresswoman Susan Molanari, the female lawyer, in both contemporary film and culture, occupies a rather conflicted position. O. J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark, who was forced to undergo a transformation to make her more juror- and media-friendly, is one notable real-life example. The "packaging" of Marcia Clark by jury consultants included their advice that she speak about "domestic themes" to the press—"themes like grocery shopping and children . . . crucial tools in the makeover and motherization of Marcia Clark," which one consultant felt necessary, "since both male and female jurors are put off by tough female lawyers." Another consultant said of Clark, "She took to heart what the research has shown: that she's coming across as too hard, too cold" (Margolick 1994, A10). During the 1992 presidential campaign, another female lawyer, Hillary Rodham Clinton came under severe attack as a woman for whom professional ambitions appeared to eclipse household concerns, forcing her, like Clark, to construct a more domestic image in the media, extending to her taking on the surname of her husband. The female lawyer may have the power to operate within the legal arena, yet her success, it seems, is contingent upon her declaiming a stronger desire for fulfillment in the private sphere of home and family.
A brief look at the political climate surrounding debates on the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), from its 1972 passage in Congress through its ultimate failure to achieve ratification in 1982—and its relationship to similar debates involving women's rights in the immediate post-World War II era, to be treated in the section that follows—sheds light on the cultural contradictions resulting in such paradoxical representations. While the ERA passed by an overwhelming majority in the 1972 Congress and won ratification in thirty-two states within a year, the amendment was three states short of adoption when its ratification deadline passed in June 1982. Largely as a result of efforts by the New Right and the religious right, the amendment was defeated. Rebecca Klatch examines the attitudes of both groups, who felt confirmed in their belief that American society was sinking into chaos and moral decay as a result of the 1960s civil rights and antiwar movements, the sexual revolution, and the drug cult (Klatch 1995, 259-260). The New Right believed that at the core of this social rebellion and political dissent was an attack on its most sacred institution—the family. Central also to the disintegration of the family, from the perspective of the New Right, were the increasing numbers of women—especially wives and mothers—working outside the home, giving rise to "a new emphasis on self" and the "ushering in of the Me Decade of the 1970s" (Klatch 1995, 261). Such perceptions, according to Klatch, supplied ammunition for New Right attacks on women who wanted guarantees the ERA provided, for these guarantees were seen as simply one more expression of self before others, tearing away at the social fabric of American life. From a speech that hauntingly echoes Spencer Tracy's lines in Adam's Rib, Klatch quotes a local pro-family activist who proclaimed, "The libbers want to abolish the family. . . . But the family is the basis of everything. It is the foundation of our society; if that crumbles, everything else goes" (Klatch 1995, 262). New Right anti-ERA activists Phyllis Schlafly and Paul Weyrich organized their opposition through an attack upon gay rights and upon diverse definitions of family, arguing that such "perverse" thinking "has resulted in people trying to pass off as legitimate families, illegitimate lifestyles" (Klatch 1995, 263).
Intertwined with the conservative defense of the traditional family was a strongly inscribed public/private division, except when a redefining of the private sphere was seen to undermine the conservative agenda. The New Right further attacked feminists and the ERA on the basis that they were seen to devalue and challenge the right of women who wished to remain at home to care for their children. Fueled by opposition to the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, the New Right painted a picture of ERA supporters and feminists as women who would stop at nothing less than "infanticide" in attempting to achieve self-actualization (Klatch 1995, 265-270). The New Right found even firmer ground for opposing the ERA by claiming that the ERA translated into Big Government.
These New Right arguments prevailed in the battle to defeat the ERA, and such arguments, circulating in the early 1980s and beyond, inform female lawyer narratives, in spite of the ostensibly liberal political position adopted by many of the films. Exploring similar limitations of liberalism with regard to feminist issues, political scientist Zillah Eisenstein interprets President Carter's 1979 firing of Bella Abzug as co-chair of the National Advisory Committee on Women, for instance, as his attempt "to demobilize the radical faction of the liberal feminist movement" (Eisenstein 1984, 24). Eisenstein further suggests that "Abzug's dismissal was an effort by Carter to legitimize further the narrow legalistic interpretation of the ERA, rather than the broader view that connects women's rights to questions of the economy, abortion, and homosexuality" (Eisenstein 1984, 25).12
Writing during Reagan's presidency and referencing his appointment of Sandra Day O'Connor as the first woman justice of the Supreme Court, Eisenstein further analyzes the failure of the ERA as symptomatic of a political atmosphere that attempts to both profit from and undermine feminist issues, pointing out that while Carter passively supported the ERA, Reagan claimed to oppose the amendment but to support equal rights: "Reagan argues that the amendment would be harmful to women because it will treat men and women as though they were the same (equal?). On the other hand, the appointment of O'Connor was supposed to prove that a woman is free to be anything she wants to be. All women need is freedom of choice—not equality" (Eisenstein 1984, 131-132). Eisenstein's reading suggests an atmosphere ripe for the emergence of the female lawyer film and, in many ways, illustrates the underlying political thrust of such films. Reagan envisioned using O'Connor, a female judge, to advance his conservative agenda and strengthen the patriarchal status quo, yet, in so doing, appeared to support women's rights. Further ironies emerge in light of the discrimination that O'Connor herself experienced as a young lawyer who found that major firms were willing to hire her only as a legal secretary, despite her outstanding record at Stanford Law School (Rhode 1989, 55).
In 1981, the very year of O'Connor's nomination to the Court, First Monday in October appeared, a film centered upon the first female nominee to the Supreme Court. First Monday in October displays its narrative premise as liberal and forward-thinking, yet gradually reveals its own underlying conservatism. Not unlike O'Connor, the film's Supreme Court justice may be the first woman to serve on the Court, but as a conservative she seems dedicated to protecting the patriarchal foundations of that institution.
“The book asks important questions about the seemingly taken for granted quality of feminist perspectives on gender and work, about the ways in which both the codes of law and those of genre "frame" the female lawyer, and about the persistence of anxious constructions of successful women.”
“This book shows how the professional woman of popular film has so often been given a half measure of authority and agency in narratives which, though they may register patriarchal crisis, are also deeply dedicated to patriarchal restoration. Lucia convincingly illustrates how the female lawyer's status as a figure with access to the public sphere and to the law most often necessitates that she herself will be interrogated and put on trial.”
Diane Negra, University of East Anglia, author of Off-White Hollywood: American Culture and Ethnic Female Stardom