Friday, July 17, 2009

The myth of the mad housewife

In Revolutionary Road, adapted from a book by Richard Yates, the 1950's housewife goes crazy and kills herself. Up until the moment when the blood is staining her skirt from a self-induced abortion, I was loving the rich psychological life of the husband and wife. But when she punctures her womb in her suburban CT bathroom, I thought here we go--- yet another suicidal heroine.

In literature and film, the woman, the wife, who rebels against her role in society is in deep trouble; Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina are the most famous. And Kate Winslet's character, brilliantly played, is not happy. Obviously not happy about the pregnancy, not happy with her husband--- she wants OUT. The role of suburban wife is suffocating her, and why wouldn't it? Now, she has only two choices; she can go crazy or she can kill herself or do both.

So, I loved the wife in Revolutionary Road, but the cliche of her suicide was disappointing. Actually its worse than a cliche, its a stereotype. And I am so sick of it. Now, in contrast, I watched A Woman Under the Influence; directed and written by John Cassavetes. 1974. This time Gena Rowlands is the "mad housewife." She too is a lovable and compelling character--- but her insanity is right on the surface.

The story allows her to be wise and crazy. Her husband is forced by well-intentioned doctors and family to institutionalize her, but when he brings her home its like a fairy-tale. He tells her, I'm on your side! I want you to go back to who you were. At first this seems unlikely--- electro shock seems to have sapped her soul. But all he has to do is sock her in the jaw and before you know it, she's back. Body and soul. Still fragile, but still kicking it.

Of the two housewives, I'd pick the latter. At least, the 1974 housewife gets to go home, make love to her husband, and kiss her children good night.

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