Gender, Genre, and Class Politics in Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970)

by: , May 23, 2019

© Screenshot from Wanda (1970) dir. Barbara Loden

Barbara Loden’s indie road movie Wanda (1970) came out at a time when the genre was becoming highly visible in the Hollywood industry. It was also thematically and stylistically representative of the New Hollywood era, but it initially suffered from severe disregard, which only decades later gave way to some serious reevaluation of Loden’s film by critics and academics. In my approach to Wanda, I broadly consider how a feminine sensibility can be viable within a masculine generic category. The road movie in itself is derivative of a trajectory of masculine traditions, both cinematic (the western, the gangster film and film noir) and literary (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, Heart of Darkness, and the more contemporary novel On the Road).

Here, I will discuss how Loden’s semi autobiographical film engages in representing class politics to decolonise the genre from traditionally romanticised notions of lone men (the heroes on the road) by replacing them with a woman on the run. When compared to two other road movies with female leading characters, Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People (1969), Wanda demonstrates a characteristically ‘realistic’ treatment of its subject matter by exposing the extremely limited options of the contemporary working-class woman of the time once she refuses to participate in the domestic life patriarchal society reserves for her. In this sense, the film is a document of the social reality of an era during which, as far as filmmaking goes, the road movie became a vehicle of opposition to second wave feminism in the hands of most male filmmakers. The question, thus, is how the genre-bender Wanda reconfigures the generic attributes of the road movie and shapes the path of its underprivileged lead Wanda.

Wanda is a very personal film and it is very political, too. It is the story of a woman, based on autobiographical elements combined with a true story/event, portrayed in the fictional character of Wanda. It has most of the elements of the New American Cinema–location shooting in natural light, shot on 16mm in documentary style, use of improvisation and unprofessional actors combined with a small budget and crew–but what makes it a special case study is its powerful and dynamic interplay of the personal and the political. From this interplay derives a story about a woman on both sides of the camera, who is building a portrait of a female who does not have a life of her own. This problem with no name is never uttered; yet the viewer infers that it is the problem of patriarchal social structures which define and confine the woman’s experience, and leave no available alternative options for her. Thus, my primary question and starting point here is this: ‘if men go on the road to escape feminine civilisation, can women ever in their turn effectively escape patriarchal society?’ (Roberts 1997: 64). The film seems to revolve around this simple question of whether Wanda can escape patriarchal society; and if not, why? It is a visualisation of the question Marion Maede asked back in 1971: ‘where do you go after you reject the only life society permits?’ The two questions that accompany this first starting point are: 1) What happens to the genre when the protagonist behind the wheel is a woman? 2) What happens to the woman when she enters a genre that has traditionally been claimed as masculine? Finally, what do these recuperations bring to the surface?


Historical & Social Background

A consensus seems to have been reached about the undeniably pervasive influence of feminism as a social phenomenon on American culture of the 1970s. There also seems to be a consensus about the correlation between the emergence of the second wave women’s liberation movement and the wave of road movies (closely associated with the buddy film), a genre which ‘has received its most complete expression in the post-1960 Hollywood cinema’ (Michael Hammond, 2006: 14). Bonnie and Clyde (1969) and Easy Rider (1969) are invariably cited as the two legendary road films that signalled the arrival of the Hollywood Renaissance along with the wave of movies with heroes on the road, pursuing the American Dream.

What has become common ground for theorists and critics is the explicit idea that the road–the journey itself as the quintessential American experience–provides the necessary and appropriate ground for reflecting upon American culture of the time. Neil Archer, for instance, has suggested that ‘somewhere along the way a consensus of opinion has seen this film in particular [Bonnie and Clyde] as a defining moment in the development of the road movie as a genre’ (2016: 4); given that it inspired other films of the 70s to take up the theme of the rebellious couple, most notably Badlands (1973) and Sugarland Express (1974), who run across the country either to escape the constraints of their present or in vain pursuit of a utopian future, this assessment would seem to be accurate. Barbara Klinger suggested that ‘Easy Rider and other US road movies of the 1960s carried a certain message about America during a time when the nation’s identity was contested’ (1997: 181). It is, indeed, the quintessential road movie that problematises the idea of national identity through the visual rhetoric of landscapes and also portrays the hippie ethos with clarity. Cynthia J. Fuchs claimed that ‘the buddy film negotiates crises of masculine identity centred on questions of class, race, and sexual orientation’ (1993: 195). In the same vein, Molly Haskell wrote back in 1974 that ‘the sixties and particularly the seventies may go down as the time when men, released from their stoical pose of laconic self-possession by the ‘confessional’ impulse and style of times, discovered each other … They could now live out relationships and feelings that had remained below the surface’ (362-3).

Looking back at some of the titles of the period, a plethora of road films with various pairings, not necessarily of couples, came out right at the end of the 1960s and served as a prefatory stage for a number of road movies to come in the next decade. 1969 seems to be a memorable year for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Midnight Cowboy (1969), Alice’s Restaurant (1969), which were followed by The Getaway (1972), Scarecrow (1973), The Long Goodbye (1973), California Split (1974) and Thieves Like Us (1974), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) and Paper Moon (1973).

It is no coincidence that the genre of the road movie would assume such a central place in the industry of the particular historical moment given its flexible nature and specific function in times of anxiety. A true heir to the classical ‘masculine’ genres of the western, gangster film, and film noir, the presence of the road movie amid the turbulent historical moment of the 1960s and 1970s confirms the function of the genre as an indicator of the tensions and complexities of the particular industrial, economic, and cultural context.

It is neither surprising nor strange to see this contemporary genre flourish in the countercultural spirit of the 1960s/1970s movements in America given that one of the most significant principles, and pertinent to my overall study of post-classical Hollywood films as melodramas, is the Manichean ethos that runs through all road movies–be it male buddies on the road, or romantic couples on the run from the authorities, or trios on the road to freedom with pursuits, which built on a clear cut opposition between tradition and progress. If we accept David Laderman’s assertion that ‘the fundamental core impulse of the road movie [is] rebellion against conservative social norms’ (2002: 1), we can appreciate its significance within American culture and the kind of mythic element it carries in its various incarnations in different historical periods. The fundamental narrative motif of rebellion against convention Laderman describes here–which the journey itself promises to sustain–already provides a melodramatic Manichean structure that traverses the narratives of films that have invariably fallen into the category of the road movie. It also provides a strong narrative lineage with the genre’s both literary and film traditions.

This rebellious, transgressive attitude, which the genre demonstrates time and again through its themes of quest and self-discovery, as well as through its visual structures, has also been the cornerstone of literary traditions that go back to ancient times (Homer’s Odyssey), as well as in the literary tradition of more recent times which portray the Journey as the quintessential American, male narrative (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, Heart of Darkness); and of course Jack Kerouac’s iconic novel On the Road in 1957 marked the new incarnation of the male journey motif in contemporary American culture. As the true offspring of such classical genres as the western, gangster film and the film noir–which carry a Manichean ethos and qualified as ‘pure melodrama’–this genre’s main preoccupation has been the adventure of the (American) usually male psyche against the authority of conservative conventions. Examples come primarily from John Ford’s landmark western Stagecoach (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940, an adaptation of the novel by John Steinbeck), but also from other classical Hollywood productions such as Fritz Lang’s outlaw couple movie You Only Live Once (1937) and Frank Capra’s comedy It Happened One Night (1934).


The Female Road Movie

In the post-classical era, however, road films are predominantly about male buddies who hit the road away from the constraints of marriage and family life, or about couples in which women usually occupy marginal positions. Then comes this peculiar form called ‘the female road movie’. Coppola’s The Rain People (1969) and Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) are two glaring examples of how the movie brats’ grappled with the idea of a woman itching for her escape and how they eventually fail to do justice to the real drama of the woman’s predicament in those melodramas of psychology. In a final analysis, they reveal and embody the fundamental difference between the male and female road movie: the former is mostly about men on the road, the latter is about women on the run. And, perhaps this is the main reason why road films with women in leading roles such as Coppola’s and Scorsese’s are mostly discussed as women’s pictures rather than as road movies (although in both films, female leading characters embark on journeys of self-discovery and escape from the constraints of their socially determined domestic duties). It is also worth looking at these particular films because they raise an important question regarding the nature of the genre itself. If it is a direct derivative of such male-dominated and male-oriented film genres as the western, gangster film and film noir, why is the road movie the only genre that allows a leading role to the woman and what does this actually entail?

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People (1969) is the story of an unhappy pregnant, very likely middle-class housewife who runs away from home, possibly to have an abortion, only to be stuck with a brain-damaged ex-football player nicknamed Killer; she takes care of him until he is eventually shot dead by accident at the end of the film while trying to save her from the unethical intentions of a crude cop named Gordon. The film is very elliptical (in terms of full character development), fragmented (in terms of background material and social context), and crowded (in terms of how many side stories evolve parallel to the woman’s story); the narrative which begins with the premise of the wife running away from the husband, progressively turns hostile to the leading character, her quest and what she represents, and ends with her plan of running back to him.

Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) is another female road movie (Sotinel 2010), a woman’s film which tells the story of a recently widowed mother who is forced to learn how to become independent and self-reliant, but can’t help but fall for the charms of the classical Hollywood handsome for whom she will reconsider her childhood dream of returning to homeland and becoming a singer. In both cases, the treatment of the heroines behind the wheel reveals a conservative sensibility which drives the women literally back to domesticity. Compared to Barbara Loden’s Wanda, Natalie and Alice are very conventional, conservative representations of the woman of the time: as road movies they do not welcome the woman in the driver’s seat–as women’s films they are contextually irrelevant as they both fail to address realistically the genuine challenges and consequences of women’s predicaments.

Wanda, however, tells quite a different story. With its highly pronounced autobiographical element it at once brings politics, society, and identity to the same place. Loden re-inscribes the female body onto the landscape, not as a glamorous transgressive figure, but as a hidden, displaced, invisible figure that is estranged because she has been confined for too long. She brings the real woman on location in real time and produces a ‘specifically feminine language for cinema’ (Kuhn 1982: 172) in terms of narrative, character, and iconography. According to Thomas Elsaesser, ‘the significant feature of this cinema is that it makes an issue of the motives–or lack of them–in the heroes’ (1975). If the ‘unmotivated hero’ within a non-linear, fragmented narrative with a journey motif is the reference point of the American Cinema of the 1970s (Elsaesser 1975: 28), then Wanda is the quintessential American film of the 1970s (although Elsaesser does not include Loden’s work in his study). If the outlaw couple was on the comeback trail in the 1970s (Kinder 1974), then Wanda is part of that wave of films about the return of the outlaw couple (although Kinder does not include the film in her study). If the New Hollywood poses as the anti-myth to the myth of classical Hollywood as Robert Brustein has suggested, then Wanda is the anti-myth to the pretentious nature of that newness. If ‘the glamour queen is unpinning her hair, exposing her faulty skin and puffy eyes’ (Burstein 1959: 23) then Wanda is the anti-myth to Bonnie.

In that sense, Wanda is the journey of demystification: not all heroes (or anti-heroes) are men, not all women are Bonnie, not all landscapes are beautiful and inviting, not all journeys are glamorous and not all of them lead to self-discovery. Wanda is a film that reconfigures the basic tenets of the road movie–narratively, thematically and stylistically–while at the same time it challenges our perception of genre and especially the woman’s film. It is an independent film, personal, experimental and avant-garde, oppositional, reactionary and counter-cinematic, which at its core unabashedly treats a significantly important social problem through a personal, autobiographical story which gave Loden the chance to make a film of her own. The confluence of Wanda, the underprivileged woman and Barbara, the independent director makes Wanda a progressive film. Ultimately, it is a film about the second-class status of women as gendered social subjects and women as gendered directors.


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