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Question for Discussion: What does Mildred Pierce
tell us about women's lives and social roles in the
late 1940s and 1950s

Reading:  Mintz and Roberts,  pp. 181-186; “Where the Girls Are” handout; Film Noir: An IntroductionUnderstanding Film Noir

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    Critical Reviews of Mildred Pierce

Film Noir in the 1940s and 1950s

American women in the 1950s

The Women's Rights Movement

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1.  Why do you think Mildred Pierce spoils her daughter, Veda ?  What causes  Mildred to always give up herself and her interests to spoil and protect her daughter?

2.  Would you agree that Ida (Eve Arden) serves the role of "the Greek Chorus" in Mildred Pierce?  Just as in a Greek Tragedy or Shakespearean play, Ida's jokes and wisecracks serve to reveal the larger dynamic of the movie.

3. Do you agree with Sochen's statement that: 

Mildred Pierce, a successful businesswoman, failed miserably in her maternal role. Who was to blame? Individualistic American values, reflected in the movie suggested that the blame belonged upon Mildred's shoulders.  Because justice prevailed in Hollywood movies, Mildred lost her business as well as her children. Defeat became her fate: ambitious women beware. (185)

4.  What do you think were some of the larger causes of Mildred's failures?  Was Mildred entirely responsible for her failure and ruined family?

5.  Why does Bert Pierce, Mildred's first husband, leave Mildred and her daughters?  Is Bert a flawed character as well?  Does the film suggest that Mildred is the cause of Bert's flaws?

6. Why does Monte call out Mildred's name after Veda shoots him?

7. What do the characters of the three men in this movie--Bert Pierce, Wally Fay, and Monte Beragon--tell us about the nature and role of men in American society?

8.  How does the argument between Mildred and Bert at the beginning of the movie lay the foundation for the larger tragedy that will overwhelm Mildred?

9.  What drives Veda?  Is she a selfish, evil, greedy person?  Is Veda right when she tells Mildred that, "It's your fault I am the way I am"?

10.  Why is Veda so contemptuous of her own mother and her working-class roots?  Why does Mildred throw Veda out of her first home?

11.  Why does first Bert and then Mildred try to take the rap for killing Monte Beragon?  Why won't Mildred let Bert take the rap for killing Monte?  It would have saved Veda's life.

12.  Why does Monte Beragon insist on selling out his third interest in Mildred's business, which causes Mildred to lose control of her company?

13.  Why didn't Mildred kill Monte herself when she had the chance?

14. Do you agree with Tim Dirks' interpretation of the meaning of the last scene of Mildred Pierce?

In the hallway as Mildred exits, two washwomen are down on their hands and knees scrubbing the floor. At the end of the hallway, Bert is waiting. The two walk out of the shadows, down some steps, and together they exit through a bright, sunlit arch into the approaching dawn. Now that Veda has been purged and can no longer poison their relationship, they are restored to each other. A bright, positive future is implied for the couple when Mildred realizes she had always neglected her husband for her daughter.

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"Any change in the nature of male and female roles thus automatically affects the home, the economy, the school, and perhaps above all, the definition of who we are as human beings."
......William Chafe, A History of Our Time (224)


During World War II, millions of women entered the labor force. They were encouraged to work in industrial factories to help the war effort. The United States government even created a propaganda campaign to convince women they should now work in what were considered "men's jobs," because the same skills they used doing housework would allow them to work in factories. During the war years, millions of women discovered that they could do "men's work" and could earn the higher salaries usually associated with that work. After discovering that they could work in high-paying factory jobs, the majority of women did not want to give these jobs up after World War II. This worried American leaders, business leaders, and returning American veterans, who wanted to return to their traditional high-paying factory jobs.

Faced with the resistance of many women to voluntarily give up their jobs to men, and return to their traditional, low-status sales and clerical jobs, government and business leaders created a campaign to convince women that they should be patriotic and give their men their jobs back. Television and radio ads told women that they would be much happier if they went back home and had children and gave men their jobs back. Women were told that now that the war was over they should return to their more traditional roles as housewives and mothers. Women didn't really need these jobs, but men did. In fact, from the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s there was tremendous pressure on women to accept their more traditional roles as wives and mothers, dependent on their husbands, and committed to living their lives for their families, children, and husbands.

But this campaign to encourage women to return to traditional roles often went too far. As Chafe notes:

"Yet the shrillness of the campaign went too far, suggesting the schizophrenia of American culture and society as much as any uniformity of purpose. While countless suburban housewives (and husbands) carried out their roles as written, there were just as many others who sought new options and wanted to go on changing the world."(The Paradox, 188)

Examples of this campaign going too far were ads telling women that they should enjoy doing the laundry and that they should take classes on how to be good housekeepers. We can also see the American obsession with the traditional housewife in television programs such as Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. Indeed, June Cleaver, in Leave it to Beaver, is never shown as having a life of her own; she is always there for Wally, Beaver, and her husband. How do we then explain this obsession with convincing women that they should remain in their traditional roles in the 1950s?

The answer lies in the dramatic changes women experienced in World War II. Many married women discovered that they could work in men's jobs, could earn a good salary, and could do much of the work that men were traditionally responsible for in the family. During the war, many married women were not only forced to work to support the war effort, they were also forced to do most of the tasks that men had done around the house. With their husbands gone to war, many women discovered that they were smart enough to balance a check book, maintain the car, and run the household as their husbands had always done. When their husbands came back from the war, they discovered that their wives were more assertive, confident, and less dependent on them. This troubled many American men, who did not like the changes they saw in American women and their wives.

Faced with the threat from changing women's roles, American men, government, and business went on a campaign to convince women that they should go back to the way they were before the war, they should forget all their experiences and changes that took place during the war. They argued that it was women's patriotic duty to give their jobs back to men. If women didn't stop working, then there would be an economic depression. Just as women were scapegoated for the Great Depression, with many men charging that there wouldn't have been a depression if women had not taken the jobs that rightfully belonged to men. But, in addition to giving up their jobs, American women and wives should also respect the wishes of their men who sacrificed so much during the war and return to their more traditional roles as wives and mothers, dependent on their husbands.

Ironically, despite the increasing success of this campaign to convince women to return to their more traditional roles, millions of married women in the 1950s continued to work, and millions more entered the workforce in the 1950s and 1960s. Why were white, middle-class women, married and with children, entering the labor force in record numbers in the 1950s if the larger society was telling them that they should stay home and be traditional wives and let their husbands support them? More middle-class wives were entering the workforce than working-class wives, who might need to work to support their families. Why, if their husbands were earning good salaries, did middle-class wives begin to enter the laborforce in record numbers? After World War II, these very same women were told to give up their jobs to men. But now they were rushing into the workforce.

In the 1950s, middle-class married women were taking jobs soon after their children started school and worked for the rest of their lives. Despite working, these women were still responsible for doing all their traditional work as wives and mother in the home. Despite the pressure to stay at home and be good wives and mothers, American women were increasingly forced to work in order to keep their families middle class, and allow them to have big homes, nice cars, send their children to college, and take long vacation. Thus, at the very moment when women were told that they should ignore the changes they were experiencing as a result of World War II and their increased presence in the workforce, women were struggling to reconcile their traditional roles with their expanding confidence and independence as working wives. Studies in the 1950s and 1960s demonstrated that women who worked has a greater say in the finances, in the marriage, and in the family that women who didn't work. So clearly working women were expanding their roles, demanding more equality and respect from their husbands and families.

Despite these growing changes in women's roles in the 1950s, Americans were told that while some wives might be working, their work wasn't important and it shouldn't get in the way of their responsibilities as wives and mothers. Many Americans were thus trying to benefit from women's increasing participation in the workforce while at the same time denying the social and cultural changes that women's expanding roles were creating. It is this contradiction, I believe, that explains the excesses of the campaign to convince women to be happy in their traditional roles in the 1950s. This campaign for traditional women became more determined and visible as more and more women entered the workforce in 1950s. It was as if Americans were trying to convince themselves that despite the growing changes in women's roles and lives nothing was changing, that women were still content being traditional wives and mothers.

In the early 1960s, many married women were increasingly unhappy with the burdens and the contradictions they faced. They were being bombarded with cultural messages that said that good mothers and wives did not work and dedicated their lives to supporting their husbands and children, but at the same time they were increasingly forced to work to make ends meet. Some women also felt the increased burden of now having two jobs, working outside the home and trying to still do all the work that they used to do inside the home. Many women refer to this as the "double shift." By the early 1960s, feeling guilty and confused about their new roles and responsibilities, many women began to question what Betty Friedan called the feminine mystique, which told women that "they could desire no greater destiny than to glory in their own femininity." In her 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, Friedan challenged women to question the social and cultural messages that told women they should accept their traditional roles as wives and mothers. She challenged women to discover who they were, and develop their individual selves as human being, and not just accept what society called their destiny as women to be wives and mothers.

The women's movement in the 1960s grew out of this increasing contradiction between the growing changes in women's lives and society's efforts to convince women that these changes weren't occurring. But the demand by women that they play larger roles in their families and societies also grew out of another contradiction. At the same time that Americans were told that it was a women's destiny to be a wife and mother, society did not value women's work raising children and supporting their husbands and families. Many women came to feel that they weren't doing anything of value with their lives if they were just wives and mothers. Only by getting educated, holding good jobs, and earning high salaries could many women gain the social respect they felt they deserved. This, of course, is a real tragedy. If society more highly valued women's traditional work as wives and mothers, then many women would not feel that, as Friedan charged, the home was "a comfortable concentration camp."

But the rise of the women's movement in the 1960s and 1970s, as we will see, led to the growth of a backlash and a movement by conservative men and women in the 1980s and early 1990s to once again convince women that it is their destiny to be wives and mothers, dependent on their husbands, living their lives through their children and family. This backlash in response to the gains of the women's movement in the 1960s and 1970s once again demonstrates that American society, especially men, fear changing women's roles and will work hard to try to keep women in their traditional places as wives and mothers. It was, in fact, a similar backlash after World War II that tried to convince women that their changing roles and lives weren't in fact changing at all, they were still happy being traditional wives and mothers. Why, then, does America tend to be so obsessed with limiting women's roles? What is it about women's traditional roles that is so important to the workings of American society and culture? We will look at the struggle over the women's movement and the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the 1960s and 1970s to get a better understanding of this.


. Their conversation becomes a vicious argument, especially since it reflects on Bert's own struggle and inability to provide for the family:

 

Bert: Where'd you get the money?

Mildred: Baking cakes and making pies for the neighbors. That's where I got it. I earned it.

Bert: That's right. Throw it up to me that I can't support my own family.

Mildred: I'm sorry Bert, but I don't say half as much as most women would say with nothing but bills staring them in the face.

Bert: Go ahead, keep it up. Maybe you wouldn't have so many bills if you didn't try to bring up those kids like their old man was a millionaire. No wonder they're so fresh and stuck up. That Veda! I tell you, I'm so fed up with the way she high-hats me, that one of these days I'm gonna cut loose and slap her right in the face.

Mildred: Bert, if you ever dare touch Veda, I'll...

Bert accuses Mildred of buying Veda's love with blind adoration, and of channeling all her devotion to her children, especially to the demanding and taunting older daughter. Veda has been indulgently showered with gifts, nice clothes, and piano lessons, provided by Mildred's sacrificial baking of pies and cakes. Mildred's love for Bert has been unnaturally displaced and misguided to their daughter:

 

Bert: The trouble is, you're trying to buy love from those kids - and it won't work. I'm no bargain, but I make enough to get by. But no, that isn't good enough. Veda has to have a piano and lessons and fancy dresses so she can sit up on a platform smirking her way through a piece any five-year-old with talent could play.

Mildred: Veda has talent. Just ask any of the neighbors.

Bert: Yeah? She plays the piano like I shoot pool. And Kay, a nice normal little kid who wants to skip rope and play baseball. But she's got to take ballet lessons! She's going to become a ballet dancer so you can feel proud of yourself.

Mildred: All right, what of it? What if I did want them to amount to something. I'd do anything for those kids, do you understand? Anything!

Bert: Yeah? Well, you can't do their crying for them.

Mildred: I'll do that too! They'll never do any crying if I can help it.

Bert: There's something wrong, Mildred. I-I don't know what. I'm not smart that way. But I know it isn't right to...

Their conversation is interrupted by a phone call from Maggie Biederhof (Lee Patrick) - another sore point in their relationship. Bert has found consolation with this 'other woman' and Mildred wonders if he is a philanderer: "She won't play gin rummy with you anymore. It is gin rummy, isn't it?" The unhappy marriage dissolves on account of the unbalanced, smothering, obsessive, insistent maternal love of Mildred for the daughter:

 

You might as well get this straight right now once and for all. Those kids come first in this house. Before either one of us. Maybe that's right and maybe it's wrong, but that's the way it is. I'm determined to do the best I can for them. If I can't do it with you, I'll do it without you.

Bert threatens: "Let's see you get along without me for a while. When you want me, you know where to find me...I go where I want to go." Mildred breaks their marriage, calmly and sternly telling Bert to "pack up."


In their second major confrontation, Mildred passively accepts her unloving daughter's mounting, humiliating tirade against her regarding her low-rent, lower-class birth:

 

Mildred: ...I've never denied you anything - anything money could buy I've given you. But that wasn't enough, was it? All right, Veda, from now on, things are going to be different.

Veda: I'll say they're going to be different. Why do you think I went to all this trouble? Why do you think I want money so badly?

Mildred: All right, why?

Veda: Are you sure you want to know?

Mildred: Yes.

Veda: (with gritty intensity) Then I'll tell you. With this money, I can get away from you.

Mildred: Veda!

Veda: From you and your chickens and your pies and your kitchens and everything that smells of grease. I can get away from this shack with its cheap furniture, and this town and its dollar days, and its women that wear uniforms and its men that wear overalls.

Mildred: Veda, I think I'm really seeing you for the first time in my life and you're cheap and horrible.

Veda (venomously hateful): You think just because you've made a little money you can get a new hairdo and some expensive clothes and turn yourself into a lady. But you can't, because you'll never be anything but a common frump, whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing. With this money, I can get away from every rotten, stinking thing that makes me think of this place or you!

Now passionate and enraged, Mildred grabs for Veda's purse, extracts the pay-off check, and tears it into pieces. Veda slaps Mildred across the face, knocking her down. With a glaring, hateful look, Mildred rises and stands face to face in front of Veda. With her face set in a furious expression, she commands:

 

Get out, Veda. Get your things out of this house right now before I throw them into the street and you with them. Get out before I kill you.

Veda hesitates for a moment, and then rushes up the stairs to pack. To escape the confusion and hurt of her domestic life, Mildred travels and escapes to Mexico:

 

I went away for a while. I traveled. But not far enough. Something kept pulling me back. Finally I gave in. I went home.

Mildred tries to forget about her daughter, but cannot. At the Beverly Hills Restaurant office, as Mildred lights Ida's cigarette, her hand trembles and Ida notices. Appearing bitter over failures in her personal life, Mildred has degenerated to the point where she needs a drink regularly.


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*Copyright 2001 by Chris H.  Lewis, Ph.D.
   Sewall Academic Program; University of Colorado at Boulder
   Created 20 Dec. 2001  Last Modified: 3 Feb.  2002
   E-mail: cclewis@spot.colorado.edu
   URL: http://www.colorado.edu/AmStudies/lewis/film/war.htm