Art Vent

Letting the Fresh Air In

Thanksgiving with Brigitte Bardot and Ann-Margret

November 27, 2009 - 12:20pm -- Carol Diehl
Last night, after the turkey, we watched two films from 1963-64 back-to-back: Brigitte Bardot in Jean Luc Godard’s “Contempt,” and “Viva Las Vegas” with Elvis and Ann-Margret. To my male friends it was high camp, but for me, watching them produced flashbacks of what it was like to grow up in that era: wanting men, wanting them to like you, wanting them to want you, but at the same time having to fend them off on a daily basis, the frustration of having your strengths ignored while being valued for your sexual potential: no one was ever going to understand the damaged woman Bardot played so beautifully in “Contempt”—except, of course, Godard, who somehow managed to see it all, which makes it an oblique but powerful film.

Ann-Margret, then Ann-Margret Olson, was a few years ahead of me at New Trier High School in the Chicago suburbs. One of 3,000 over-achievers in a public school that boasted a fully professional theater facility and a faculty sprinkled with Ph.Ds, Ann-Margret was already an icon—a cheerleader and the star of everything. She was dark-haired and beautiful, with a singing voice that could handle any style. I remember a prom where she sang a jazz song a cappella, holding a room filled with probably 1,000 teenagers rapt. But even though her version of “Heat Wave” in the student variety show was so hot my friend Donna’s parents walked out, it wasn’t her sexiness that stood out—she wasn't provocative at all—but her strength and determination. She didn’t go out with the high school boys; my ex-husband, who was in a band with her briefly, said that it was because she knew she was destined for greater things. Flash forward a couple of years and I’m on vacation somewhere with my parents, watching (I think) the George Burns Show, and there’s Ann-Margret, completely transformed. Her straight, glossy dark hair is now frizzled and red-blond, she’s speaking and singing in an unfamiliar little baby voice and, like her character in “Viva Las Vegas,” acting all weird and coy. I didn’t understand it at the time, but looking back it was one of those coming-of-age moments as I wondered, why would she hide her talents and do this to herself? Why would she allow this to be done to her?

A former colleague from Bennington tells me that the current crop of female students wants to disassociate from feminism, clearly not understanding the emotions that prompted it. They don’t want to be angry—perhaps they want to be liked? If so, we’re all in trouble. While it might appear that we’ve gone overboard with the whole sexual harassment thing, talking with my dinner companions last night I recalled what it was like to be female before the culture had those constraints—the high school and college teachers who hit on me and then gave me bad grades, the (two) dentists who would rub themselves against me as they drilled (think of how conveniently the dental chair is situated), doctors who took advantage (how to explain my first gynecological exam to my mother? I didn’t), the Purchasing Agent at Evanston Hospital, who literally chased me, the temp, around his desk. Then there was my only corporate job—at Whitney Communications, which owned Art in America in the mid-to-late 70s—where, among other things, the vice president used to routinely feel my back to see if I was wearing a bra and snap it if I was. That was our world; we took it for granted. Once we discovered we had rights, that we didn’t have to put up with this shit, yes, we were angry. What I love about “Mad Men” (check out this clip) is that it’s not an exaggeration.

Too much of the discussion around feminism is centered on the political action, rather than the culture that provoked it, choking off any serious analysis of where we stand now. I’d love to teach a class focused on the culture of the times, and I’d start with “Contempt” and “Viva Las Vegas.”


Viva Las Vegas:


Godard insisted Bardot wear a dark wig throughout Le Mepris, (your still not withstanding) to imitate his wife’s bob. He was married to Anna Karina at the time. In fact, he even had Bardot wear several items from Karina’s wardrobe (skirts, cardigans) which, understandably, Brigitte thought was going a bit far. Brigitte may be characterized as a bit flaky these days, but she was no fool. Actually it was her box office weight that got the film finished Godard’s way, rather than Italian producer, Carlo Ponti’s way. Godard freely acknowledged this.

The thing is Karina was a terrible flirt, a somewhat manic extrovert and apparently had several affairs during their marriage. Le Mepris, is in some respects about confronting an unwelcome suspicion like that, feeling despised for it. Their marriage, famously did not last. His films were never the same, hers a slender affair.

And yeah it takes two to tango, and however we draw the rules, there’s no legislating against assholes.

Leaving "Contemp" (or Le Mepris or Il Disprezzo) aside for the moment, I attended a transgenerational discussion of feminism recently in Chelsea and what I came away with was shock at the essence of the discussion, which was, "Do we still need to use the word feminist?"

Uh, hell yeah.
It's not post-feminist. It's not "para-feminist." It's still feminist. It still needs to be feminist.

Some things have changed but many have not. I recently visited the new contemporary wing of the Chicago Institute. Judging by who's represented, you'd think that female artists died off after the first cave paintings were made. (Same thing at the Met.)

Thanks for this, Carol. It used to be that the younger generation was pushing the issue. Now it's an older generation. But it's the same women (and good men) fighting the fight.

I have female students who think sexism is over. Then I ask them to name 10 famous artists off the top of their heads.

What a timely reminder that "it ain't over yet." When I worked in a huge medical center in California, I was shocked at how ruthless and vicious women were to each other - esp. younger (pretty) women on their way up the corporate ladder. The men didn't have to worry about keeping us "old bags" in our place. They had women to do that for them. A lot of women "got it" when they turned 30 and were now deemed too old but they sure did a lot of damage on their way up. I was talking to a gallery owner in SF the other day who firmly believes that women artists now have as much opportunity as male artists. How do you counter such lethal ignorance except by continually keeping the dialogue open. Younger women who think that feminism is dead and that they are "above" such things are in for a horrible surprise - every tiny gain from jobs, housing, child care and health insurance (!) is under attack.

Thankyou for this post, Carol!
When I returned to art school in 2003, I was stunned that the young women students were so down on Feminism. I felt almost apologetic and outdated with my desire to make feminist art - I felt like a dinosaur. Then I took a philosophy class where we were asked to write a paper on one of five topics. I was excited to see that one of the topics was How has living in a Patriarchy affected you? Like you, Carol, I had many experiences of sexual harrassment. And now I had an invitation to write about it. I let it rip. Same crap - high school teachers, a married college professor 20 years my senior, a pervert gynocologist, a pervert dentist (when pulling on the side of my face to give me the novacain shot he'd say,"Oh, what tight cheeks you have! Now don't go telling your husband I said that!" He would also tell dirty jokes when my mouth was full and I couldn't respond. Jerk.) A co-worker in a corporate office (he used to make lewd comments while I ate. It got so bad that I didn't dare to pack a banana in my lunch! When I complained to my boss, he said, "You know that I am required to report this to HR, and this man will lose his job. How about if we pretend you didn't tell me, and YOU talk to him and tell him to stop? If that doesn't work, come back to me..." This was only 7 years ago....)
I have a history of sexual abuse as well - my father was the perpetrator.
No, it ain't over yet.

Rebecca West, in 1913, said: "I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is; I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from ... a doormat ..."

Unlike very many other women I know, I have never experienced overt violence or abuse from any man (maybe it's because I'm bigger than they are) but I was raised with 5 sisters and 4 brothers and a mother, who had been a defiant, unrepentant "tomboy," so adoring of her sons but so filled with hatred and disgust for anything female that it amounted to the same thing.

What societal imperative makes women turn against each other?

Submitted by j.ed (not verified) on
Feminism is an ism. Isms are ideologies. Ideologies kill spirit and flesh. The proper word is,femina-centric. That is a locution appropriate for our present condition.

Thank you for this. For someone not having grown up in those times I do enjoy seeing a program that so overtly shows the sexual and racial injustice as well as the changing of times that are occurring. Although when I watch this with my male friends they usually are indulging in the lifestyles of the men in the show and it wouldn't surprise me if cigar smoking and daily whisky drinking has gone up as a result of the program.

I grew up being told that I lived in an equal rights society a society that had the first female president and was proud of the way it treated its women. I realized how wrong this image was the second I got my first job. I thought this would change when went into the arts and with the more I educated myself but of course it doesn't. There has been a wave of feminism in iceland during the last 10 years and I think it has had an effect but it still isn't midfield. I feel both in sweden and in iceland where I have lived there is a high regard of feminism but also a neglect for the injustices still at play.

As for the arts I can say that I have been thankful to the network of women that I have met and that have held up the importance of these struggles and have created networks for women within the arts.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on
Thank you for this. It was very eye-opening. I am a young woman who has not experienced those times and it is somewhat shocking at what overt sexual harassment used to go on without consequence. I also enjoyed your perspective on feminism. I have really only known it as a political movement, but to think of it as a movement stemming from the cultural mores of the time puts it more into perspective.

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