The Accidental Feminist

I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is.  I only know that people called me a feminist when I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.  Rebecca West

As I looked through my red carpet fashion books in preparation for my Oscar day post, I realized that in addition to missing the great Joan Rivers, I was feeling the void of one of my favorite movie stars, Elizabeth Taylor.   She made an appearance in almost every book concerning the Academy Awards, as she was a Hollywood institution.   If there is a game called “seven degrees of Kevin Bacon”, he owes the concept to this great Dame. La Liz was one of the few stars to transcend the movie studio system, paving a path of glamour, diamonds and Oscar-worthy work for over seven decades. Movie star with a capital M, she set the standard for what it means to be glamorous, entertaining and the essence of our Hollywood ideal.

There are so many facets of her life that have been explored; her marriages, her affairs, her philanthropy, her jewels, her fragrance empire and her eclectic friendships (remember Michael Jackson walked her down the aisle).  But MG Lord has chosen a very interesting, although niche, dimension.  In The Accidental Feminist, MG. Lord dissects how many of Elizabeth’s roles were subtly on the forefront of the feminist movement.  While she was living boisterously out loud in front of us, she was planting a flag for the rights of women inconspicuously in her work.  And because our eyes were riveted on her beauty, the roles she made famous snuck under the censors’ radar and became a visual treatise in the progression of women and the issues that affect them.

Artists are rarely as interesting as their work, but that’s an artist.  A star’s persona, on the other hand, often overshadows their work, and Liz was a STAR, baby. That hot-burning flame was integral for Liz to slide issues into the social conscious.  The groundwork began with one of her earliest films National Velvet.  Elizabeth plays Velvet Brown, a young girl who serendipitously wins a horse and not content to leisurely gallop about as good young ladies do, she wanted to compete in the Grand National.  Of course, entry was only allowed for males.  Undeterred, and with the aid of her mother who was once a champion swimmer, Velvet dresses like a boy, but wins like a girl.  Although women playing and competing at the same level as men seems normal, this movie was made in 1944, 28 years before Title IX and 29 years before Billy Jean King won “The Battle of the Sexes” tennis match.  What made this story palatable was the beauty of it’s young star.  Marketed as MGM’s newest child talent alongside Mickey Rooney, the public was taken with her enchanting good looks.  While the attention was pointed at Elizabeth, the role of Velvet Brown became a forever-accessible celluloid heroine for all girls that didn’t want to be excluded, in life or sports.

In Suddenly, Last Summer, as Catherine Holly, Liz exposes the medical community taking liberty with antipsychotic drugs against a woman who’s opinions and mere memory are a threat to the men around her. Posing as fiction, it was actually a very real parallel of the “scientific advancements” that were popularizing lobotomies as an alternative treatment  for mental diagnoses of schizophrenia and depression, both conditions which are disproportionately diagnosed in women. As touchy as the subject was, Suddenly Last Summer ran alongside her infamous affair with Eddie Fisher.  In case you’re not aware, Liz, Eddie and Debbie Reynolds were the forerunner of Brad, Jen and Angelina (Google it). As the tabloids were obsessed with getting any piece of gossip to publish, the filmmakers were sneaking this volatile topic past the censors.

MG Lord does a compelling job of connecting the dots of upcoming feminist rhetoric in many of Ms. Taylor’s most famous and even often forgotten films.  It’s an enlightening experience that makes you want to review her filmography, not just for her immense talent, but for the enormity of the topics they explore.   As MG Lord puts forth, the evidence seems so clear and overwhelming in number that I’m not sure it was accidental, as Liz lived how she wanted without concern for popular opinion. I would like to believe that Liz chose her roles specifically for the context she saw between the lines, but only Liz could really tell, and a diva never reveals her secrets.  After reading this book, MG Lord helps us to see there was foresight Liz’s infamous violet eyes and the jewels where just used as spotlights to attract us into her classroom so she could school us.

                                                                 Recommended Reading:

The accidental feminist     Elizabeth Taylor A Shining On Film       How To Be A Movie Star

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