Sex, Pills and Crazy Women in American Movies
Scott Winfield Sublett
Apart from Covid vaccines, the big pharmaceutical story in the US these days is the saga of Purdue Pharma, which has filed for bankruptcy and sooner or later will pay an enormous settlement to compensate for their wildly addictive pill OxyContin. It’s basically opium, peddled by street-level dealers in lab coats known as physicians. Historically, psychotropic drugs have been marketed preponderantly to women, and usually the upper strata. Queen Victoria used opium tinctures (that is to say, opium-and-booze cocktails), and chewed chewing gum spiked with cocaine. ‘Double your pleasure, double your fun.’
Recreation aside, drugs, doctors and psychiatry have also been helpful in procuring women’s cooperation, especially in sex. That wasn’t necessary when the cooperation was compulsory (before the 20th century there was no such crime as ‘rape within marriage’, so Rhett Butler was perfectly within his rights when he carried Scarlett up the staircase in Gone with the Wind). Meanwhile, the economic disenfranchisement of 19th-century women left just one alternative to wedded bliss: selling their bodies at prices that were remarkably affordable for the average cowpoke (see Clint Eastwood’s 1992 western The Unforgiven for an unforgettable portrait of working girls in the Old West). In the 20th century, women enjoyed greater economic freedom and therefore the option of sex if they wanted it and none if they didn’t. Something certainly had to be done about that, so psychiatry invented a new mental illness: ‘frigidity’, which basically meant ‘women who don’t want to have sex with me’. Crazy!
As seen in American movie houses of the 1960s, frigidity was a real and serious threat to women’s mental health. Interestingly, when its utility to the mostly male psychiatric establishment waned, frigidity went the way of other obsolete lady-brain problems like hysteria, neurasthenia and penis envy. But, oh, frigidity was campy fun while it lasted. In The Group (Sidney Lumet, 1966, from Mary McCarthy’s novel), Jessica Walter’s archly bitchy performance as frigid Libby firmly established that frigid females are simply not nice people: gossipy, brittle, and so stingy. Miss Walter’s portrayal arrived on the spiked heels of Tippi Hedren’s career-making performance in Hitchcock’s campy 1964 masterpiece Marnie, where Sean Connery attempts to cure Marnie’s maladjusted unwillingness to have sex with men by raping her. How did that not work! He finally cures her frigidity, as well as her kleptomania, by discovering that her mother was a Protestant—er, prostitute—and they live happily ever after in suburban Philadelphia.
The iconic Hitchcock blonde was a woman who looked frigid, or at least cold, but was in fact heaving and seething with lust just under the ice. Hitchcock saw Tippi Hedren as the ideal exemplar of that and famously tried to manipulate her into loving him. His weirdly childish gambits failed so pathetically that, were he not so sadistic (nobody likes being pecked by birds), one would almost feel sorry for him. Hollywood is full of men just as homely as Hitch who regularly get girls into bed. Hitchcock didn’t want girls. He wanted ‘The One’.
That monomania was tangled up with genius. Hitchcock’s keen understanding of the ruthlessness and specificity of male sexual desire came through most dizzyingly in Vertigo, where Jimmy Stewart used Kim Novak as his personal Barbie doll, selecting her clothes and hair with breathless, leering eagerness – just as Hitchcock specified the personal wardrobes of the actresses he had under personal contract. As the Master of Suspense once said, “To dress a woman is to undress a woman,” meaning that to control a woman’s grooming is to turn her into your private, erotic fantasy.
Obviously, your private erotic fantasy has a knockout figure, and fortunately, medical science can help there, too. Wife too fat? Have your trusted, hearty, avuncular family physician prescribe a fistful of the colorful ‘diet pills’ that fueled America’s amphetamine epidemic from the 1940s through the 1960s. (Daddy, why is Mommy so mad?!! Well, because she’s on speed, Princess. She’s tweaking her ass off.) Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream would, in 2000, finally look at women and meth. Ellen Burstyn was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar as an older woman who just wants to lose a few pounds, but by then the subject of women and meth had been ignored for much too long.
The quintessential women-and-pills scene is in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, which might today be titled The Man Who Mansplained. Jimmy Stewart plays a trusted, hearty, avuncular family physician, married to a woman who used to star in stage musicals, but she gave it up for the role of doctor’s wife because, after all, in the 1950s you wouldn’t think of unmanning your husband by working outside the home. The woman (Doris Day’s best performance outside comedy), suspects there’s something fishy about the suave Frenchman that they just met while on vacation in Morocco. Her pompous doctor husband pooh-poohs her suspicions, so when hubby finds out spies have kidnapped their adorable little boy, he’s understandably chagrined about informing the little woman. Rather than face her wrath, he decides to give her a super-strong sedative, so she’ll conk out right after she hears about the kid getting snatched. That way he won’t have to listen to her nagging. But how to get her to take the pill? She doesn’t want it. Oh, I know—gaslighting! “You’ve been talking a blue streak and walking around in circles,” he gaslights.
She denies it because it isn’t true. He pulls rank: “I make my living knowing when and how to administer medicine.”
“Six months ago you told me I took too many pills,” she points out. Oh! And guess where she’s been getting them. Obviously, he’s been feeding her uppers and downers like she’s Judy Garland and not dancing fast enough. Faster, Judy, faster! People like to paint Hitchcock as an anti-feminist villain but who else, in 1956, was illuminating the dark corners of the psychiatric manipulation of women?
It was rampant. In full-page ads in medical journals, doctors were alerted to women ‘suffering from recurring states of anxiety which have no organic etiology,’ which is to say that these women felt things, and complained about it, and obviously all that yakking had to be stopped before it gave Doctor a headache! The newly minted tranquilizer Miltown was just the ticket, and later, in the 60s, ‘benzos’ such as Librium and Valium would be dubbed ‘mother’s little helper’ by The Stones. Today, the pill du jour is SSRI antidepressants.
All of the above drugs have been prescribed to women considerably more often than to men. Are women unhappier than men? Or do they merely talk about it more? Do men just not want to hear it? Whatever the case, Jimmy gave Doris that pill in The Man Who Knew Too Much for no other reason than to shut her up. Watch the movie. It’s great. It’s all about silencing women. Not for nothing does Miss Day play a star who has given up singing – the use of her voice – for housekeeping. In this film, at least, Hitchcock is a presciently feminist filmmaker.
Probably the best American movie about the relationship between women and psychiatry, because it’s the most ambiguous, complicated, and self-contradictory, is the 1974 John Cassavetes indie masterpiece A Woman Under the Influence, starring his wife Gena Rowlands. She got an Oscar nomination as Mabel Longhetti, a blue-collar wife-and-mother who’s either genuinely mentally ill, or just desperately self-conscious, or both. Her husband, Peter Falk, is maybe her jailor, maybe her savior, and probably, yes, both. Her undeniably weird behavior causes him to have her committed, but during the many months she’s away, Daddy makes a mess of things with the kids, and when she finally gets home, she’s not really any better. The movie leaves us wondering, who’s the crazy one? Is there even such a thing as crazy? Or is it just that the people we really are (women, gays, visionaries, whatever) don’t fit into the roles society has made for us?
Those rules are enforced by doctors and pills. In a very real way, it’s a history of mind control, so is it any wonder that the USA is currently full of paranoid nutcases who refuse to take a world-saving vaccine because they distrust the medical establishment? Interesting factoid: according to at least one medical historian, it was 1930-something before a visit to the doctor was likely to do you more good than harm. Corrupt doctors and their greedy pals at the rapacious drug companies have a lot to answer for, and Purdue Pharma, for one, is answering. Somebody should make a movie about it.
Volume 35 no. 6 July/August 2021