This is point of inquiry from Monday, April 30th, 2012.
Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Indre Viskontas point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reasons, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots.
Despite multiple effective waves of feminism, women remain underrepresented in the media, in movies, in corporate leadership and in science, technology, engineering and math careers. In fact, a study recently conducted by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research suggests that women have lost ground to men in the past decade in all but one of the science, technology, engineering and math fields. Now, just as much as ever, strong female role models are needed to convince girls to stay the course, get educated and choose the careers in which they can excel. But do women need to play down femininity in order to succeed in some of these male dominated fields? Perhaps today’s girls might find an unlikely heroine in one of the most beautiful women of the 20th century, Elizabeth Taylor. To explore this possibility, I talked to cultural critic M.G. Lorde. She’s the author of The Accidental Feminist How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice. Lauren is also the author of Astroturf, a family memoir about aerospace culture during the Cold War and Forever Barbie, The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll. She’s a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review, as well as many other publications, including The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The Hollywood Reporter and Vogue magazine.
Welcome to Point of Inquiry MGE, Lord.
Hi, NRA. It’s great to be here.
It’s wonderful to have you on the show. And I have to say that when I first heard that you had written a book that really documented the feminist aspects of Elizabeth Taylor, I was incredibly surprised because I’m among those people of that generation that you describe who really saw Elizabeth Taylor really as a beautiful figure, as an icon of beauty and many things that seem against the feminist grain.
Well, I never thought I’d write a book about Elizabeth Taylor, but what happened was Memorial Day in 2007. I was held hostage by much younger friends. I was born at the end of the baby boom. Friends who were Gen X and Gen Y who invited me to join them in Palm Springs, where they had rented a mid century house for the long weekend and for entertainment. I brought along two box sets of Elizabeth Taylor movies that I’d received as a present. On the first night we were there, we thought, you know, we thought we’d have this not guilty, campy, cheesy pleasure. The Tenix people had no idea who Elizabeth Taylor was. They just knew her from killing rivers fat jokes in the 1980s, more kids and a Chinese phone book and the Gen Y people like you in gray. Didn’t you knew he had some vague connection to film but knew her as a gay icon and an AIDS philanthropist. So we put that we put National Velvet the first the first movie in chronological or order into the DVD player, and we were blown away, absolutely gobsmacked. First of all, by the quality of her performances. And then in movie after movie by the UN relenting feminist messages and National Velvet, her character challenges gender discrimination. She wants to rates her horse in the Grand National. This, you know, the greatest steeplechase in England. And he’s excluded because of her candor. So he poses as a boy and wins the race, exposing the pure bigotry of not allowing women to ride her next big movie, A Place in the Sun, is an abortion rights movie. The next certainly watched Butterfield eight in that movie. Her character isn’t censored because she’s a prostitute, but because she chooses the man with whom he’ll she’ll sleep. He she controls her sexuality, a core tenant of feminism, especially a third wave feminism. And you know, even who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? Her best known movie can be viewed as a film that shows what happens to a woman when the only way society permits her to express herself is through her husband’s career or children. And her husband is unsuccessful and she can’t have children. It’s a movie about female rage.
You know, let’s just back up for a second. What you just said about her being censored and that that when she’s paid a prostitute, she wasn’t censored. One of the surprising things that I learned when I was reading your book, The Accidental Feminist, is just how much censorship is going on in Hollywood at the time in which she was acting in her films. It surprised me. I really didn’t realize that it was that prolific.
I didn’t either. I mean, I knew that I. I had read about the so-called production code, and I thought it was some quaint set of rules designed to, you know, designed tests to keep sex out of movies. But I discovered it was something much more sinister and something that had been put into place by American Roman Catholics in a really sinister way. In 1934, in the depths of the Depression, the Roman Catholic Legion of Decency and its mouthpiece, the Common Weal, threatened an organized boycott of all so called immoral movies made by American movie studios. And a boycott not just by Catholics, but by church goers of all stripes. A boycott of this magnitude would have absolutely destroyed every single movie studio in the depths of the Depression. And in order, in order not to have this boycott occur, the studios had to agree to allow this body of Roman Catholic censors. The Hays office. I mean, it was supposed to be secular, but in fact, the enforcers were ardently Catholics. And the code itself was written by a Jesuit priest, Father Daniel Lord.
No, not a relative, though. I did have to check it.
And it’s a very alarming document because it sort of preserves the the kind of the bigotry of the age in which it was written. So odd to say Lord’s goal. But Father Lord’s goal was to shore up what he considered the pillars of a of a strong, healthy, authoritarian society. Those pillars were the church, the government and the family. And the code wasn’t just about eliminating sex from movies. It was also about ensuring that the films displayed, for instance, respect for the government according to the code. Improper display of the U.S. flag was as severe an infraction as sodomy. And of course, it also it also enshrined the prejudices of the 1930s. It was forbidden by the production code for a movie to show interracial marriage or an interracial relationship of any kind. Because in you know, at that time, in most of the American South and much of the American West, states had laws against so-called antimiscegenation laws against interracial marriage. It was a frightening document. And the censors held absolute control over over what was said in the script. And they could. They could prevent a movie from being distributed. If it didn’t meet their guidelines so long.
Huh. In amazing. I mean, so I’m just trying to still wrap my head around how it would actually work. Practically, studios would have to send they would have to send scripts.
And, you know, a place in the sun if I mentioned is an abortion rights movie. Well, when we saw it, we thought this is an abortion rights movie. And then, you know, because it was the year 2007, we thought, well, maybe we’re projecting onto this film. Maybe the abortion aspect isn’t as important as we think it is. Just to recap, the movie is is an adaptation of Theodore Ricers novel, An American Tragedy, which did which which is a fictionalized account of of a Real-Life murder case in which a working class man goes to work in his rich uncle’s factory. But his uncle doesn’t allow him to socialize and live in the fancy upper echelon social circles. However, he’s also forbidden to socialize with them with other assembly line workers in the factory. But he’s lonely and he looks like Montgomery Clift in the movie.
So, of course, of course, he is lonely for long and he inadvertently, out of loneliness, impregnates a fellow factory worker played by Shelley Winters. And he does this before, however, falling in love and really falling in love with a beautiful, wealthy girl. Now that if the if the press. No pregnant mistress. No American tragedy is kind of the short version. And and the production code. People absolutely realize this as far as they were concerned, based on the course, there’s like a telephone book of of memos between the production code administrators and the the producers of the movie.
It was made at Paramount. Actually, Paramount had a head of censorship with whom the production code dealt. And then this method of censorship, that was his actual title as head of censorship, dealt with the director and the writers on the film. But they there’s a scene where the Shelley Winters character, the pregnant mistress mistress, goes to a physician to ask for an abortion. And they demanded rewrite after rewrite of that scene. So that winter’s kind of. Communicate via telepathy.
That the acting in this film is really extraordinary. It’s a remarkable movie that I hope millennials see. And the acting kind of had to be extraordinary because the dialog couldn’t be explicit. This is also where Elizabeth Taylor comes in before a place in the sun. Dreiser’s novel had been adapted twice previously as films, and those films had tanked horribly because they, like the novel itself, seemed to be nothing more than anticapitalist agitprop in the sense that the working class man was a cad and as a no good social climber, the factory girl was sweet and the rich girl was just he wasn’t even of any interest at all. He just wanted her for her money and cured. Stevens, the brilliant director of this incredibly successful movie, realized that in order for it to work, audiences had to be convinced that that the Montgomery Clift character had had truly fallen in love with the rich girl in in passionate love, not just with her, not just with her money. And he had a list of about 30 actresses that he wanted for the factory worker part that eventually went to Winters. But he had only one actress who he thought could convince an audience that the man had fallen in love with her and that the mistress who is who drowns in an accident, that the man may or may not have caused. The man is sympathetic because you you understand the the profound feelings that he has for her and you understand his his conflict.
Do you think the audience knew about the censorship? And were they looking for those cues in Elizabeth Taylor’s performance or.
Well, just Time magazine review actually said it was all about abortion, even though the word abortion is never mentioned in their page after page of memos where, you know, they they can’t they can’t ever say anything directly to the characters.
Mm hmm. So you even mention one of the quotes from the production code administration in your chapter about a place in the sun. And it goes like this.
You understand that the foregoing suggestions are made merely in the hope that we can be helpful to you in salvaging what we realize is a very tense and dramatic scene. We must again say, however, that we cannot accept any suggestion of the subject of abortion. Amazing, right?
And there were letters like that over and over and over again in which this one scene is rewritten and rewritten and written by Michael Wilson, the screenwriter. But I mean, peop people understood what it was about in the movie was a huge success. And it it portrayed that, you know, the moral complexity of an unwanted pregnancy.
It’s a great movie.
Now, you know, reading your book makes me want to watch all of these movies immediately because of course, I never you know, I’m I’m I’m admittedly ashamed to say that I really didn’t I never thought of Elizabeth Taylor as a particularly great actress. So I thought of her as a particularly beautiful actress and one who had a lot of success and a lot of husbands.
And then, of course, later in life was a real prominent figure in the in in the movement against AIDS and for gay rights.
But, you know, I guess one of the reasons that women, some women in my position have this tendency to stereotype Elizabeth Taylor as not being particularly at the forefront of the feminist cause is because she is so beautiful.
And it reading your book reminded me of some of the I guess I wouldn’t say tribulations, but some of the moments in which I’ve experiences as a female scientist where I have consciously felt the need to tone down my femininity in an effort to become one of the guys, because, of course, surrounded by a predominantly male faculty and male colleagues, there’s even if it’s not an overtly conscious choice, there does seem to be that tendency to masculine eyes, a woman in academia.
And Elizabeth Taylor in some ways could be a model for the exactly the opposite, where, you know, you foudy yourself up a little bit, you know, so little so that you’re taken seriously. And in some of her films, in fact, in some of the clips that you sent me to watch, which we can play. I’d love it if we could.
I’d love it if we could talk about that scene from Giant, because that’s I think that’s another George Stevens movie that was made in 1956. And it’s about the feminization of the American West. And there’s a scene where she challenges the exclusion of women from politics. And she has a monologue that was just astonishing to the middle 1950s and also astonishing because women who are assertive in that way usually did. Daoudi themselves up. Let’s listen to it. Would you start a business?
Just business. Oh, please don’t want me to go on. How quiet is the little mouse? You’d be bored.
This is dull. I’d be fascinated.
Leslie, we’re talking about politics.
You married a Washington member dying. I live next door to politics, brought up with. Please do go on talking. I’d love it.
This is men’s stuff. Leslie, how about a cup of coffee or a drink or something?
Not nurse said at my spinning wheel, girls. I’ll join the section and there he is.
Don’t worry your pretty little head about politics.
You mean my pretty empty here. Don’t you, Judge?
Could I get the coffee for you, Leslie? You, too, Brutus.
You don’t feel well, Leslie. I feel just great. My adrenaline glands are pumping beautifully. If I may say so. Before retiring. You gentlemen date back one hundred thousand years. You will be wearing leopard skins and carrying clubs. Politics business is so masculine about a conversation that a woman can enter into.
Leslie, you’re tired.
Perhaps I am. Hmm.
Yeah, I mean I mean, it’s that kind of define and also the fact that he’s viewed and George George Stevens shot it so that when he’s delivering the most strident parts of the speech, you don’t see the front of her. You see the back of her because he knew what he wanted the audience to see was the reaction of the men to her. They both desire her and they’re aghast at it. Ed, you know, at the firm way that she’s some rebutting their assumptions about their primacy, it’s just a fantastic scene.
And even, you know, even if women didn’t leave the theater humming that feminist tune, they filled the theater and they were exposed to these messages. You know that. That’s what’s so great about Elizabeth.
I think, yeah, it’s interesting because even though she seems like a particularly male object of affection, affection, because she’s so beautiful that she really did bring women back into the theaters to watch films.
Absolutely. And also, she broke, man.
You know, I mean, men wanted to look at her, but they were all exposed to these subversive ideas. Mm hmm.
Was she conscious necessarily? And she was very young. I mean, she didn’t direct the movie. She didn’t write the movies. But directors saw in her the, you know, the ability to portray a character, a character that was both very sexy and very attractive to men, but also very strong, very independent and very committed to women’s independence.
Mm hmm. It’s an amazing quality of hers to really just draw the audience in no matter where she is on the screen and what she is doing.
Well, I think it made Richard Burton very cross, huh.
But that brings me back also to the question of so how long did the censorship last? And, you know, did she have any other run ins with the censors?
That’s what makes it such a fabulous story in a way, the Roman camp. I had no I really didn’t know about the extensiveness at all. And also the fact that the censors were so closely affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church. She triumphs over them ultimately. I mean, they they dog her in all of her movies in Butterfield eight, where she plays a prostitute and she’s incredibly powerful and sexy. That makes them really nervous. And they send all these memos out saying it’s important for the screenwriters to make sure that she appears sick. That’s a quote, quote, unquote, sick because she controls her and her own sexuality. So after running an after run in, I mean, she ultimately triumphs in the movie in which she triumphs with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in part. I mean, the times they were a changing it wasn’t just, you know, this. This movie is a showdown. But but she I think she did very much want to participate in this kind of a showdown.
And she knew that the movie was important. Both he and Richard Burton were in it. And at the time, they were the most highly paid movie stars in the world. And they took a pay cut for this. And they also the movie is set on a college campus. It was filmed at Smith College. The weather was bad. The shooting extended an extra month beyond the original schedule. And the Burtons didn’t put in for any overtime because they felt it was such an important project. And this was the project that broke the production code. Mike Nichols directed it.
And Ernst Layman who who produced it, made a decision not to. Not to. Not to paraphrase the strong language in Edward Albee’s play, even though by the letter of the production code, almost every word had to go. I mean, the first the first annotations on the script from the production code administration basically just want the whole script put on out. I mean, all the goddamned have to go, all the humble hostess, all the plowing pertinent faculty, wife, Everet, you know, the whole script would have to go, but but in layman and Nichols didn’t didn’t shoot any any cover being material with some with some insipid paraphrases. I mean, they decided to make it a test case. And again, the Catholics discerning which way the wind was blowing in the middle 1960s.
This was the time of Vatican two. They at the Legion of Decency also realized that maybe they didn’t want a showdown over this. So they had they invited either 60 or 80 college educated lay Catholics to view the film and to weigh in on whether they thought it had artistic merit. Which, of course, you know, most of the Catholics did. So the Legion of Decency made a decision to approve the film for mature audiences, which always strikes me as kind of amusing. I mean, it was okay for the four adults to see the film as long as they first asked the church if it was okay for them to see the film.
But they know that’s another important point, that that that Father Daniel Lord, who wrote the code made about the code. He really didn’t care about about books or plays because he said on the record that if, you know, if an adult is is educated enough to find a novel with challenging content or to go to New York and see a play with it, with challenging content, that that person was already, you know, was already lost on the path to intellectual autonomy.
But movies were ubiquitous and movies were very powerful. You know, I mean, all those people sitting in the dark, the spectacle, the music, it was precisely the same devices that the church itself drew upon in its masses and religious ceremonies. I mean, they knew those things were powerful and they knew they had to keep their flock away from things that challenge their primacy.
Mm hmm. There, you know, it just reminded me of this controversy that just came to light in this past week, which I’m I’m sure you’ve heard about where the Vatican reprimanded America’s largest organization of Catholic nuns, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, because I. Have you heard about this?
Yeah. I was going to say it amazes me that those women stick around. Yeah. And, you know, they started clamping down the only people doing any decent work while the men are covering up and hiding the pedophiles. It’s probably best not to get me started, although skeptics program.
My name is Mary Grace Lord, in my unique experiences with the nuns as a child, have prepared me well for my role as an assailant on the Catholic Church.
Oh, it’s just I just found it particularly interesting that when I was reading your book about, you know, these feminist themes in her movies and yet, you know, some of the very things that she was fighting for, this group of nuns have been accused of going against the party line because, of course, there they are.
They have, I guess, presented or worked on the gay and lesbian rights issues, issues of contraception and abortion. I’m sort of against the official doctrine of the church. And yet, you know, these are people who are very much entrenched in in in the church itself. There they are the representation of women within the Catholic faith.
Yeah. Well, they’re I mean, they’re doing great things in a in a faith that completely degrades women. I want to know that the Catholic Church really had an in for Elizabeth. I mean, it’s not usual for the Vatican to weigh in on the private lives of movie stars. And it certainly was not usual in the 1960s, but in 1963. Well, Elizabeth had a rather kind of kind of a checkered romantic career. She tended often to wind up with other people’s husbands. And then in 1962, when she was filming Cleopatra, she was she was married to Eddie Fisher, who had been alive. It’s such a it’s such a long story. You had been married to Debbie Reynolds.
I want to build up to the fact that she’d been through a lot of husbands and he fell in love again with Richard Burton, went when she and Burton were filming Cleopatra and he left Eddie Fisher and Burton left his wife, Sybil Burton and Elizabeth and Richard were together. And this the Cleopatra was shooting in Rome. And this drove the Vatican just insane. Insane in a sinister way, though, Richard and Elizabeth were in the process of trying to adopt a German baby who had severe birth defects.
And because of the severe birth defects, the child needed to be adopted by a very wealthy person, because in order to in order in order to be repaired, I mean, he was going to need hundreds of thousands of dollars in 1960s dollars of surgery. And the Vatican just put it it’s it’s heavy foot down and. And it pronounced it pronounced Elizabeth an erotic vagrant. I’m not mad. It just wasn’t like some priest meandering around the courtyard in the Vatican. This was Vatican. This was the ad. This was the Vatican weekly newspaper. And its radio station referred to her, her relationship with Burton as the caprices of adult children. And they tried to stop the adoption, but Elizabeth prevailed.
He adopted the child and the child then. And actually, in the end, the medical attention was so excellent that that Maria Burton, the child, you know, as a grown up, became a model. I mean, it’s it’s it’s it’s amazing. You know, the Judeo-Christian monotheists had it in for her and her movie The Sandpiper, which no one at the time read for it. I mean, no one at the time really saw its content. They just saw these two megastars, Elizabeth and Richard Burton, on screen. Mm hmm.
But in fact, as a metaphore in the sand, the Sandpiper is about the triumph of God centered paganism, embodied by Elizabeth over a Kewdale over arid Judeo-Christian monotheism, embodied by Richard, who plays an Episcopal minister who realizes that his faith has lost its meaning and who falls in love, not with his goody two shoes, long suffering Christian wife, but with Elizabeth. And it’s not a it’s a grown up movie, too. They don’t. The two of them don’t walk off illicitly and happily into the sunset.
The minister character goes off on his own because he has to figure out, you know.
Now that the the lack of meaning in. Faith and marriage have been exposed. What will he do next? It’s a sophisticated, really interesting movie that was dismissed at the time.
I’d love to actually listen to a clip from that film, which you start your almost I think you start your book with. And can we. Can you do you want to just put a set, set the scene for us and tell us what we’re about to hear?
Well, I mean, one thing that’s interesting is by 1966, the concerns of 1951 about women having children out of wedlock were were different. And Elizabeth plays a character who made a decision not to have an abortion, but also not to marry her child’s father because she didn’t love him, but instead to keep her child and bring him up on her own as it was a free spirit living in Big Sur. As an artist, as a as as someone who doesn’t believe in any of the traditional religions. And I think that there she and she and Richard RPN, Panpan Burton, who play the character named Edward Yuet, are on the beat. And they’re talking about, I guess, what gives meaning to their lives. And she expresses the frustration, I think, of many women in the 1960s before the formal second wave feminist movement kind of took off in the early 70s with the publication of News magazine. But but she expresses the frustration of so many women. Right. You know, by the by the way, that they were. Disregarded as intellectually serious people by men.
Well, let’s let’s listen to that clip. It’s no bridge. I just want to find out what you want from my pencil. Oh, aside from raising Danny.
Most of all, I want to know myself, to be myself.
I won’t have a chance to do that if I spend my life playing the matrimony game which was raised before I was even born. Great. Cause it’s rigged. It always has been. First 20 years of a girl’s life, she gets so, so used to going to the same schools as the boys, taking the same classes, living in the same world with him. She can’t get it through that square little head of hers that she isn’t his absolute equal. Which, of course, she is. Just wait till they get married and then see what happened. The man and his into a professional life. The woman becomes an unpaid domestic servant. So there goes your equality. What good does all that education do except make her unhappy?
Or perhaps it’s something to fall back on when a beauty fades and her husband turns to a younger woman.
I wasn’t talking about you or any individual man. I was talking about men as a group. I know.
But most women become homemakers and not necessarily a miserable miserable.
I say they’re unfulfilled.
Look, a man is always a husband and a father and something else like a doctor. A woman is a wife and a mother. What else? Nothing. Nothing is the thing that kills you.
You don’t care. You wanted to stay just the way she is fertile and unfulfilled. Then in her place.
It’s amazing to me just how how relevant that those thoughts are even to today in the controversy about Hilary Rosen’s comments about Ann Romney. You know, it’s it’s. It’s right in our consciousness even today.
Absolutely. And not only that, but the fact that certain employers refuse to play for for contraception. I mean, it’s it’s a wee bit. I think many millennials are are are smug. I don’t want to hang it on millennials. I think many women are smug about the rights that we earned. But I think those rights could disappear at any minute. I think, you know, the Roe v. Wade decision, where were an or another case challenging those abortion rights to to reach the Supreme Court?
Now, who knows how it would go? And again, watching these movies reminds viewers of of a time before so many important rights could be, you know, could be counted upon.
You know, it’s it’s interesting to me because I often feel sheepish about asserting any, you know, sort of feminist rights because I feel like I have them all. And in fact, I’ve been the beneficiary of scholarships that were written specifically for women in science. And I know that my being a woman certainly helped in a lot of ways in terms of getting, you know, these awards and being promoted.
And so, you know, I do also believe that I had the work to back it up. But it’s hard for me to complain about any gender inequality when I’ve been the recipient of these sort of affirmative action activities.
Well, don’t worry. There are plenty politicians who want to take him away for that from the next generation. Treasure what we have.
Yes, worth. So it’s worth for the millennials to go back and watch these films and make sure that we don’t go back there as a society.
Yeah. I mean, I guess even again, the you know, the the issue in Butterfield eight where, you know, then it’s a very powerful scene. Elizabeth takes the. Takes a lipstick and scrawls, no sale on the mirror, on a mirror and her married lover’s apartment because men at that time viewed women as objects that you could own. And there were two ways of owning. Well, not owning. But, you know, if you were a prostitute, you were rented. And if you were a wife, you were essentially owned by the man. It’s it’s frightening. And religious extremists, by which I don’t mean the Taliban. I’m thinking of, you know, fundamentalist Christians and well, the fundamentalists really of all stripes want to return women to the subordinate position. We you know what? Well, we live in kind of an unreal world. The world of higher education and opportunity, annual and opportunities for women in the in the in the broader world where. Where are these fundamental religions have their sway? Women are still subordinate. And I think one way to secure women’s rights is through the you know, it’s through increasing not necessarily secularization of society, but just great vigilance about a separation between church and state.
Mm hmm. Well, on that note, I’d like to let listeners know that M.G. Lord’s new book, The Accidental Feminist, How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by her beauty to Notice, is available through our website.
Point of inquiry, dawg. M.G. Lord, thank you for being on point of inquiry. Thank you. Andre.
Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to join the discussion about today’s show on the accidental feminist visit point of inquiry dot org. You can also send questions and comments to feedback at point of inquiry, dot org on Twitter, at point of inquiry and on Facebook at slash point of inquiry. Views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations.
Point of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Wailin. Today’s intro featured Debbie Goddard. I’m your host Indre Viskontas.