The lazy Hollywood cliche that is the female journalist has been a staple of cinema for many decades, and is back again in the form of a simpering Maggie Gyllenhaal in Crazy Heart. SINEAD GLEESON reports…
In Crazy Heart, it’s the turn of Maggie Gyllenhaal – looking a little too young for a grizzly Jeff Bridges – as Jean, a single mother and fledging music journalist. Jean also happens to have a sizeable home for a newbie writer and willing coterie of on-demand babysitters. All of which prove handy when she meets Bridges’s fading country singer Bad Blake. Barely has the tape recorder been switched on before Jean is simpering in Blake’s direction and jumping into his bed.
But then, why be surprised when so many newspaperwomen are portrayed this way? Take Lois Lane in Superman. One minute, she’s a wise-cracking newshound; the next she ditches her yellow power suit for a floaty, chiffon number to beguile Superman on her rooftop. The last flicker of Lane’s ballsiness is extinguished by her “Can you read my mind?” interior monologue as she heads off night-flying with her caped beau.
Lane’s personality in the original DC comics was based on Torchy Blane, a female reporter who appeared in a series of 1930s films. There’s a certain irony that at a time when women journalists were rare, there was no shortage of films about them. Predictably, these women were presented as firecrackers and pushy, have-it-all types – except that in order to get ahead, they were expected to act like a man without losing the sense of being a woman.
In Woman of the Year, Katharine Hepburn played a political columnist married to Spencer Tracy, a sportswriter in the same paper. Conflict arises when Hepburn tries to have it all and is challenged for, well, forgetting to act like a woman. In His Girl Friday, Cary Grant tells soon-to-be-retired reporter Rosalind Russell: “You can’t quit. You’re a newspaperman.” Russell replies, without missing a beat: “That’s why I’m quitting. I want to go some place where I can be a woman.” A career and independence, it seems, are something to be jettisoned at the first sniff of a husband.
A closer look at these representations reveals few, if any, women in the media who are married, let alone those who dare to have children and a job. The flipside of the girl who gives in, is the über-bitch, personified by Barbara Stanwyck, who twice played a journalist – in Meet John Doe and To Please a Lady. Both films portray her as a ruthless, ambitious schemer, who uses her words to get her job back and destroy a man’s career, respectively.
And where are all the female reporters in Citizen Kane? Women – be they hacks or not – could count on being idealised in film roles of that era, but 70 years on and the hackneyed image of female journalists as so-called “sob sisters” hasn’t disappeared. Forget good copy and Pulitzer prize-winning articles, these women are either: valued for their attractiveness (Gwyneth Paltrow in Sky Captain of the World and Tomorrow); ditzy (Renee Zellweger in Bridget Jones); relegated below male colleagues (Helen Mirren and Rachel McAdams in State of Play); or prepared to use sex to get a story (Katie Holmes in Thank You For Smoking).
With such inauspicious credentials, it’s not a shock to discover there are virtually no films about female foreign correspondents. Tight skirts, falling for your subject and no female equivalent of All the President’s Men make for a dreary canon. There are a couple of exceptions – Glenn Close as the ferocious Alicia in The Paper and Meryl Streep in Lions for Lambs, who has opinions and – gasp! – principles in the face of unobjective political reporting (although Streep also played an icy magazine editor in The Devil Wears Prada, who only rose to her position of power by abdicating having “feelings”).
Lest girl journos ever forget their cookie-cutter place in film, think on Champ Kind’s words to Brian Fantana in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy: “It’s AnchorMAN not AnchorLADY!”
This article originally appeared in The Irish Times on February 20th, 2010.