A Woman’s Place in a Man’s World:
Why “A Star is Born” has overstayed its time in Hollywood and the cultural peripheral
by Sydney Holt
I wrote this essay in early January to help verbalize the issues I had with Bradley Cooper’s most recent version of the film. I recently came across the article “Sexism and the ‘Star Is Born’ Films” by Camille Paglia. I found many of her ideas congruous to mine. Therefore, I am sharing my thoughts on the film to add to the ongoing discussion of “A Star is Born” and its inherently anti-woman message. Please enjoy.
The most recent iteration of “A Star is Born” was released in the fall of 2018. Viewed by many as beloved tale, it managed to gain positive critical attention and multiple award nominations. Bradley Cooper serves as director, actor, writer, and producer on this regurgitated film that highlights the lack of progress that has been made in the entertainment industry in regards to female representation. Cooper’s Jackson consumes the screen. His co-star Lady Gaga as “Ally,” is not given much to explore in her role. A Star is Born (2018) falls short of offering a fully- realized female lead because it fails to allow a woman to achieve her own success, depicts Ally as a victim, struggles to understand the concept of consent, and is clearly more focused on Jackson’s narrative.
The current version of A Star is Born has taken many cues from its predecessors. Tracing back to “What Price Hollywood” the narrative has managed to stay fairly similar despite the many re-makes. The first version with the title “A Star is Born,” made 81 years ago builds on the foundation of “What Price Hollywood,” but furthers the narrative for the films to come. This version is remarkably not a musical. The plot follows Esther Blodgett as she becomes a star thanks to Norman Maine, a once big-time actor whose alcoholism causes him to self destruct.
A few years later, Judy Garland became the driving creative force behind a remake of that film. Her role in A Star is Born is one of the most profound performances in all of cinema and is rightfully so. Garland’s version remains very similar to the original, but closely aligns itself to her own life and hardships. Next came Barbra Streisand’s incarnation of the role, Esther Blodgett becomes Esther Hoffman and the love interest becomes John Norman Howard. The most striking difference in this film is that the landscape changes from Hollywood films to the fast-paced, drug addled music industry.
Bradley Cooper’s version takes most of its inspiration from Streisand’s version, but while it maintains some fundamental ideas that are echoed through the film, it changes the template completely. His protagonist, Ally, comes across his character, Jackson Maine, while performing in a drag bar. He is immediately hypnotized by her essence and begs her to get a drink with him. She is reluctant to agree because he was clearly drunk and had stumbled into the place not realizing it wasn’t his usual scene. She continues to fight off a relationship because of Jackson’s dependence on alcohol. But then Jackson invites her to perform with him at his show and her career takes off. It is important to note that she tours with him for some time before a record label takes interest in her. Once she signs a record deal, she begins to ‘lose her artistic voice’ and seems to be selling-out. Jackson disagrees with this path and condemns her for it.
As Ally finds success, Jackson’s alcoholism and jealousy becomes difficult to control. The most important moment in each of the film is when the female character is called on stage to receive and industry award. In this version, when Ally wins a Grammy award Jackson follows her to the stage so inebriated he can hardly walk. As she gives her speech, Jackson urinates on himself in front of the whole crowd. After the incident he is checked into a rehab facility. When he is released, Ally decides to put her tour on hold to take care of him. Her manager, Res, tells Jackson he is holding Ally back. Feeling like a burden, Jackson hangs himself as Ally performs what was to be her last show before taking time off. She grapples with her immense loss and the film closes with a memorial performance where Ally distinguishes herself as “Ally Maine.” This moment appears is some shape in all of the films. Throughout all the remakes the role of the female protagonist has slightly shifted due to the times, but the most recent version does not shift enough. A Star is Born (2018) is not able to modernize the narrative enough and proves that the film should have been left behind in 1976. Cooper had the opportunity to expand the narrative enough to fit with the modern ideas of female independence and give Lady Gaga opportunity to voice the powerful messages of inclusivity and identity that she has proudly taken risks to defend in her art and life.
The narratives of every version of A Star is Born highlight the limitations of the female character and her inability to find success on her own. Ally begins working at a hotel as a waitress in the most recent version. After seeing her perform “La Vie en Rose” Jackson Maine falls in love with Ally’s voice. He plucks her from obscurity, invites her to a concert, and asks her to perform with him. This adaption of the film prevents Ally from giving herself the head start she needed to begin her career. She is reduced to Jackson Maine’s ‘girlfriend who can sing’ as they first start to tour. She has the talent and voice to make it without him, so why does this narrative become so integral to the film? The previous versions have included some of the greatest female stars to ever grace the silver screen, women full of grit and determination. Yet we are supposed to believe that all of these characters would not have had the ambition or drive to search for the ultimate career. It is disturbing that the newest version of the film is based on the belief that a woman needs a man to rescue her or, or even that her life does not fully begin until a man enters it. Throughout the film, Ally’s huge successes are initiated by male characters. Res, an agent who offers Ally a recording contract, is simply another example of how men dominated Ally’s rise to fame. Res stands backstage during one of Jackson’s concerts and approaches her after their performance. He says he believes “she has something to say,” a sentiment echoed by Jackson constantly throughout the film (A Star is Born). It is concerning that she needs to be reminded of this because it is clear that she has the capacity to advocate for herself and the talent to stand out above others. The other film versions also included characters like Res, sometimes this character was a studio head and the female lead always depended on them for her career. If the character of Res had been a woman, it would have opened up the film to explore important issues facing women today. It would have allowed for a more open dialogue on women working together and aiding each other, but that would have undoubtedly taken away from the development of Jackson Maine, the role which the director saved for himself. The inability to allow Ally to find success on her own is disappointing to me as a woman and seems unfit in today’s environment, where women are viewed as just as capable as men and finding success on their own.
Keeping in touch with the tones of the preceding films, the 2018 version of A Star is Born paints Ally as the victim of men’s mistakes and thoughts. When asked by Jackson Maine why she has not pursued a career in music she says she “just [doesn’t] feel comfortable… cause like almost every single person that [she’s] come into contact with in the music industry has told [her] that my nose is too big and that [she] won’t make it” (A Star is Born). This creates a self- defeating characterization of Ally. She believes she can’t find success because her appearance doesn’t meet the standards men have about beauty. The women protagonists in all the other remakes have also felt limited by their appearance. Perhaps it is idealist to assume that this version would try to move beyond this disappointing limitation. Even the mere suggestion of this being something that could deter someone from pursuing their passion sets a bad example and propels negative stereotypes connecting women’s success to their appearance. In the wake of her husband’s battle with alcoholism, Ally is painted as the victim of his decision. She blames herself for what happens to him. Previous iterations of the film rely on the same theme of self-blame. However, Ally is not the victim because the only victim is Jackson in his battle with addiction. The storyline fails to recognize her power and subjects Ally to this emotional pain. These elements display a clear lack of understanding involving modern women. They are not victims of men’s problems and they do not have to be limited by such a narrow perception of beauty. The film suggesting otherwise only allows these ideas to be accepted and internalized by the viewer. Ally is painted as not only hopeless but also a villain for sending Jackson into a downward spiral.
One of the most striking issues with this film is its inability to comprehend the concept of consent. While nearly all the love making scenes are clearly consensual, Jackson does not understand this concept in regards to Ally’s ability to make decisions about her own life. This undermines women because it assumes they do not know what is best for them, only the men in their life do. From the first scene when Jackson invites Ally for a drink, she politely declines. She offers the excuse that she has to take off of her makeup and presumably has other things to do. Jackson is persistent and continues to offer alternatives just so she will go out with him. He takes it even farther by removing a false eyebrow she had put on for the show, which leaves her in an uncomfortable, vulnerable position. This moment is just one example of Jackson refusing to take no for an answer. As Aja Romano from Vox puts it, “this version of A Star Is Born puts forth the idea that a woman’s “no” always secretly means “yes,” and that even if she does mean “no,” she can be worn down until she agrees, or else put on the spot and pressured into consent.”
Jackson seems oblivious to the concept of consent when Ally is essentially forced to perform her own song on stage with him, after begging him not to, “Jack, no, please” (A Star is Born). He doesn’t leave Ally any choice in the matter because he springs it on her. She can either let a man perform a song she wrote, or perform it with him. This turns her “no” into an unspoken “yes” as she joins him on stage and sets the precedent for their whole relationship. The most troubling time when Ally’s own ability to consent to life-changing decisions, is when Jackson proposes marriage to her. She has come to Memphis to find him after a relapse. Ally threatens to end their relationship because of how much he worried her, but in response Jackson proposes. Without giving Ally time to react or respond, Jackson’s friends offer to set up a wedding that day. Cooper’s tendency to allow Jackson to give Ally the ability to make her own decisions especially in the case of life-changing events like marriage is dangerous. In today’s culture it must be made explicitly clear that no means no, yes can mean no, and no response does not mean yes. Jackson Maine continues to normalize the toxic idea that a woman’s opinion is never definitive and is open to interpretation. These examples are not the worst case scenario of what could happen if a woman’s decision is ignored, but does perpetuate the culture of rape that continues to plague the United States.
One of the most misleading things about the A Star is Born films is that they claim to recognize the lead female character as the true lead. The previous versions at least try to give the role of Esther more backstory than her male opposite, but the most recent version focuses heavily on Jackson Maine’s history. This makes it impossible to view the narrative as Ally’s story. Jackson’s character usurps the narrative and Cooper seems to want to keep the focus on his role. It is not clear exactly what Cooper’s motive was for remaking the film. It’s disappointing that this film missed too many opportunities to reflect how much has been achieved by women in entertainment in recent years. As a result, it appears to have met little applause from critics. Metadiversity, whose rating criteria “reflects how inclusive a program is and should be used as a tool to view media within its broader social context,” gave the film a D. Reasons for this rating include the use of “an unflinching male gaze that’s evident through the idolization of Ally as a moldable ingenue; through flashes of Ally’s naked body; and most tellingly, through the film’s utter lack of interest in Ally’s interior world” (Metadiversityreviews.com). The film passing the Bechdel test is an area of contention for many because it is the difference of a singular scene (Bechdel Test Movie List). When a stage manager named Gail appears briefly to escort Ally from the car to backstage, the criteria is met. However, the rest of the film fails to adequately feature other developed female characters. There is outstanding evidence that this film does a large injustice to the character for Ally and puts forth negative ideas about women. In today’s post #Metoo world, there should be not be vague about depictions of consent in films and victimization of women. The film went into production before this movement but the depiction of women featured is inexcusable. The A Star is Born narrative has been able to continually bring in large box office numbers and high critical reviews, but this version does not deserve these rewards. “A Star is Born” represents some sort of disconnect with reality that such a powerful woman, Lady Gaga, who has given a voice to so many who did not have one, would take this role that limits her ability to give a voice to her own character. It is a step backwards because there was no advocacy in the film for any issue, let alone the issue of gender inequality. Every version has overshadowed its female protagonist with its self-absorbed, chauvinistic male lead and because of this the film has no place now. Advocacy for gender inequality would have been a way to really make this film more current in today’s environment. Instead, this film is a disappointment because it fails to recognize the power that Ally did have on her own and robs her of any voice she thought she had.
Failing to display and advocate for gender equality, A Star is Born (2018) does not allow a woman to achieve her own success, victimizes Ally, does not display an understanding of consent and focuses more on Jackson without revealing the source of his pain. This is dangerous because the future of film is now and if the industry is not supporting the right kind of movies, it will have an impact on our culture. Creators must allow the #Metoo movement to extend its impact to the portrayal of women and men in films to show the viewers realistic and empowering stories. In order to pay tribute to the power of the Star is Born franchise, any future version of this film should invert the power dynamic to offer a stronger depiction of women. However, this film should honestly not be remade again because of the fundamentally unequal power dynamic between the male and female character.
“A Star Is Born.” Mediaversity Reviews, 7 Oct. 2018, http://www.mediaversityreviews.com/film-
reviews/2018/10/7/a-star-is-born?rq=a star is born.
“Bechdel Test Movie List.” Bechdel Test Movie List, 5 Oct. 2018, bechdeltest.com/view/8430/ a_star_is_born/.
Cooper, Bradley, director. A Star Is Born. Warner Bros., 2018.
Romano, Aja. “A Star Is Born Has a Problem with Consent.” Vox.com, Vox Media, 11 Oct. 2018, http://www.vox.com/culture/2018/10/11/17949016/a-star-is-born-gender-consent-criticism- sexism.
Blonde… Not Dumb
Have you ever found yourself questioning why a character is blonde? Why Eve Marie Saint, immersed in an Italian community, in On the Waterfront, was blonde?
Since the conception of Hollywood, writers, studio heads, and producers have looked for ways to make their motions pictures the most appealing. The men in charge discovered two things: sex sells and nothing is sexier than a blonde, bombshell or not. While the trope of the Hollywood blonde limited some, many women have challenged the trope and fought for respect in the male dominated industry of film.
Almost one hundred years after the silver screen became the primary vehicle for stardom and entertainment, blonde sex symbols are still seen regularly in films, but where did it all begin? Jean Harlow was the first Hollywood Blonde and set the mold for all blonde women who dared to follow. Her comedy, her body, and her hair skyrocketed her to fame and her look reflected the recent flapper movement: carefree, sexy, and playful. Jean Harlow’s ascendance can be attributed to one man: Howard Hughes. Howard Hughes was a famed business man and plane enthusiast; Hughes chose Ms. Harlow to star in his first picture, Hell’s Angels, the story of two brothers, a love triangle, and, of course, planes. Ms. Harlow was chosen for this film because of her beauty and “nobody [really] thought she could act” (Longworth). A casting director once described Harlow’s curvy body as “a dust pan” (Longworth). Hell’s Angels was Harlow’s first big break and Hughes could not wait to introduce her to the world. Hughes hired Lincoln Corberg to create a publicity campaign centered around Ms. Harlow and after much consideration, the platinum blonde was born (Longworth). By naming Jean Harlow the platinum blonde, Howard Hughes cemented a demeaning stereotype that would be maintained for decades.
Ms. Harlow had little opportunity for complex and serious roles because she was sexualized from the beginning. She could not have received roles with depth because they were incredibly hard to find and would have probably been told she was not serious enough for a role. In Red Dust, moderately regaled film, Ms. Harlow fails to create a deep connection with her one-dimensional character. Over the course of the film, Clark Gable, the rugged, male lead, choses a worldly, brunette over Harlow’s character, who is nothing more than a seductress. The favoring of a serious brunette over a dumb blonde occurs over and over in films and perpetuates a negative stigma towards blondes and Harlow’s character becomes the punch line of an age-old joke. In Red Dust, she is not a character, but a version of herself. The next film that epitomizes Harlow is Platinum Blonde. In this film, Harlow does not play the lead, but she does play the title role. However, her role lacked serious depth and she was once again cast for her sex appeal. Her director even believed “[Jean’s] character was a pig” (Longworth). This film serves as a disappointing reminder of how others utilized Harlow’s fame for their benefit. Harlow’s roles only existed within strict parameters; her roles could only be comedy gags and sex symbols. She could be famous and ogled by thousands, but never allowed to be taken seriously. After Gene Harlow, other blondes shuffled in and out of her roles, until the most iconic blonde of all time entered the industry.
Marilyn Monroe is THE blonde bombshell. While Jean Harlow may have originated the term, Ms. Monroe is the definition of the term. Marilyn burned brighter and faster than other stars and shot to fame quite suddenly. Discovered while working at a manufacturing plant, Ms. Monroe was the reflection of the American standard. I believe that Marilyn characters reflected a man’s desire to put women back into their place after the war because she was portraying desperate women who could often not survive without a man. While her ascendance can be accredited to men like Joe Skank, David Conover, and Darryl Zanuck, Marilyn believed she was responsible for her sex symbol status. Marilyn said “men expect so much of [her] because of the image they have made of [her] and that [she had] made of [herself], as a sex symbol.” Using her sex symbol status, Marilyn the persona became larger than life and her roles struggled to keep up.
Ms. Monroe had many roles that serviced the sex-pot blonde stereotype mold. For example, Lorelai Lee from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is an alluring woman who is driven by material wealth. She condemns her best friend, played by Jane Russell, another Howard Hughes creation, for pursing love instead of wealth. Her performance ails to grasp depth, but manages to be a successful satire. Personally, this is my favorite Marilyn movie because it is so delightful and comedic. Marilyn truly owns her bombshell status and utilizes the stereotype to her advantage. The movie exists within her brand, but it is more interesting than Marilyn other films. While seemingly one-dimensional roles launched Marilyn to fame, Marilyn was not willing to let her career exist strictly within a stereotype. Marilyn craved what she couldn’t accomplish with her previous roles, to be legitimized as an actor and as a member of the motion picture industry. “She was serious…about wanting to be seen as something other than a sex pot” (Longworth). Her status as a sex symbol was burdensome, especially when Monroe decided it was time to get serious. Marilyn perfect fulfillment of the blonde bombshell limited her opportunities in film, until she decided to fight for more.
Marilyn Monroe found immense success from her films released in the early 1950s and used them as a launch pad for her attempt as a serious career. Monroe began studying at the Actor’s Studio. After her time, there, Monroe transformed her acting style. With a more serious outlook on her career, Marilyn fought to create her own production company, Marilyn Monroe Productions. She co-created her production company with photographer Milton Greene in 1954 and quickly began work on her first production, Bus Stop. The New York Times declared that “Marilyn Monroe [had] finally proved herself an actress in Bus Stop.” This film was a testament to the success that Marilyn could have accomplished and quite possibly would have. The second film her produced under her company was The Prince and the Showgirl. To gain more respecting in the acting world, Marilyn hired Sir Laurence Oliver (Longworth). This attempt was very unsuccessful and his harsh opinions of her broke Marilyn’s confidence on set, which led to a very unsuccessful film. Sadly, Marilyn’s aspirations were stopped short by her untimely death, but she managed to achieve more than many other women trapped by stereotypes. Despite other’s opinions of her work, Marilyn desires paved the way for many women to come. Marilyn was truly a progressive woman and ahead of her time.
With the fall of the studio system came the rise of strong female characters. Faye Dunaway inhabited the film community most prominently during the seventies and she entered the film industry as an established actor. Although Dunaway was not a bombshell or type casted as a dumb blonde, her roles prove that during this time there were opportunities for blonde women to find serious roles. Her incredibly nuanced and professional style of acting gained her mainstream recognition for her first film role in Bonnie and Clyde. Dunaway experience the height of her stardom in a time right after the rise of the counterculture movement of the sixties, which embraced the empowerment of women. Her role Bonnie, from Bonnie and Clyde, seems to be tailored to this new wave of feminism. The first scene of the film features a naked Faye, which serves to imply that her sexuality is her own. This strays from the conventional context of a sexy blonde because her nudity is not in a sexual context, it simply serves the story. Dunaway, which seems to stray from the conventional sexual context nudity. This scene services Dunaway’s role and contributes to the audience’s understanding of the character. Another highly regarded film of Dunaway’s, Chinatown, features one of Dunaway’s strongest performances as a woman caught up in devastating family affairs. Her role, as a victim, stays true to the blonde stereotype, which assumes all attractive blondes are the follies of rich men. Where her role departs from tradition is her performance, she truly gives Chinatown her all and presents a troubled woman who has been totally broken. Dunaway’s deviated path led her to create a respectable name for herself in the acting world and prevented her from being labelled, in the media, as a blonde bombshell.
When people think of the most famous movie title with the word “blonde” in it, depending on when they are born, you will either hear Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, or Legally Blonde. Like Lorelai Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Reese Witherspoon’s iconic role as Elle Woods was a satire. It was a satire on the outdated and degrading opinions society has peddled about blondes. This role is inspirational and playful, but is held up by Witherspoon’s mastery of comedic timing and energy. While this film had the opportunity to be offensive and debasing, it was lighthearted, but carried an honest message: all women and blonde women are more than their looks. Witherspoon’s other roles have continued to go against the grain and to challenge the industry’s expectations. Her role in Election featured a teenage character who was involved in an illicit affair with her teacher, but was the most achieved student in her school. More recently with Big Little Lies, Ms. Witherspoon took on the role of a housewife. While many depictions of housewives tend to lean towards satires, Witherspoon approached her role with intensity and pure genius. Over the course of the limited series, Witherspoon’s character is uncovered. What at first the audience sees as an uptight, pretty, and evil woman blossoms into a heroine who is selfish, but also intelligence and strong willed. Witherspoon was also an executive producer on the project. Big Little Lies proved to be one of her most interesting roles. Ms. Witherspoon is also paralleling Marilyn’s career path in more ways than one. She recently started a production company titled Hello Sunshine, which promotes “female-driven stories” (Variety). This production company and a handful of others like it are creating these female-driven companies to share real stories, not a stereotyped and fragmented version of our realities. Reese Witherspoon has worked to ensure that women have roles available to them with depth as well as finding roles for herself that have unlimited potential.
In conclusion, so much has changed since Jean Harlow graced the silver screen. All this change has had a positive impact on the industry, but women are still stereotyped every day. Women like Reese Witherspoon are fighting to share our real stories and to give women a platform. The trope of the Hollywood blonde limited some, but many women have risen to the challenge and fought for serious roles that did not stereotype them because of their hair color. There is still great progress to be made and many stronger female actresses to lead the way. The future is full of opportunity and men no longer control all the decisions in Hollywood. Women are the future of film and stereotypes have no place in that future.
Hughes, Sarah. “Reese Witherspoon: how she became Hollywood’s most powerful woman.” Tha Gaurdian,www.theguardian.com/film/2017/mar/12/reese-witherspoon-hollywood-powerful-female-star-big-little-lies-sky-atlantic.
Longworth, Karina. “Jean Harlow Flashback (Dead Blondes Part 3).” You Must Remember This, episode 95.
Longworth, Karina. “Marylin Monroe: The Persona (Dead Blondes Part 7).” You Must Remember This, episode 99.
O’Malley, Sheila. Weblog post. Joan’s Digest, www.joansdigest.com/issue-1/monroe.