does Mildred Pierce
tell us about women's lives and social roles in the
late 1940s and 1950s
Mintz and Roberts,
pp. 181-186; “Where the Girls Are” handout;
Noir: An Introduction; Understanding
of Mildred Pierce
Film Noir in the 1940s and 1950s
American women in the 1950s
The Women's Rights Movement
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
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.
"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
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
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?
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
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,
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?
Veda: (with gritty intensity) Then I'll tell you. With this money, I
can get away from you.
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
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.