fred macmurray and barbra stanwyck



American commercial cinema currently fuels many aspects of society. In the twenty-first century it has become available, active force in the perception of gender relations in the United States. In the earlier part of this century filmmakers, as well as the public, did not necessarily view the female“media image” as an infrastructure of sex inequality. Today, contemporary audiences and critics have become preoccupied with the role the cinema plays in shaping social values, institutions, and attitudes. American cinema has become narrowly focused on images of violent women, female sexuality, the portrayal of the “weaker sex” and subversively portraying women negatively in film. “Double Indemnity can be read in two ways. It is either a misogynist film about a terrifying, destroying woman, or it is a film that liberates the female character from the restrictive and oppressed melodramatic situation that render her helpless” (Kolker 124). There are arguably two extreme portrayals of the character of Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity; neither one is an accurate or fare portrayal.

Despite the fact that the character of Phyllis as the “tough as nails” perpetual, intentional aggressor is a valid attempt to obliterate the image of women as the oppressed, one interpretation of this role is that she ultimately seems to misrepresent herself, and females in cinema, anyway. Janet Todd, author of Women and Film, states that, “Women do not exist in American film. Instead Neff and Dietrichson plot a murderwe find another creation, made by men, growing out of their ideological imperatives”(130). Though these “power girl”characters are strong examples of anything but submissive and sexual females,they still were created as images that misrepresent their existence as independent voices and rather “the knife-wielder on the screen acting as surrogate for the masculine sensibility enraged at the notion of female assertiveness” (Todd 130). Cassie Carter, author of Woman, Red in Tooth and Claw, makes an interesting point stating, “The male avant-garde deliberately adopted the image of the base and violent woman in order to free themselves of the constricting image of the rational and civilized man…while the male avant-garde presents the decadent state as liberating, feminist performance artists who adopt Angry Essentialism often inadvertently reinforcea conception of the ‘feminine’ which validates the oppression of women”(2). Carter then further states, “Whilet hese performances attempt to obliterate the image of woman as the oppressed,nurturing Earth Mother, they merely invoke her mirror image, the Devouring Mother” (2).

Double Indemnity, in its attempt to lend its female character more strength and control, no longer situating her as the secure center of the family, but rather its destroyer, ironically seems to highlight a played-out submissive, weak, abused or lonely and alienated image of Phyllis. The varieties of passive,subordinate or pacified women are classic throughout the history of film. Janet Todd states, “Film teaches us how to see and understand from the point of view of the dominant, male-orientated ideology” (132). Cinema has found an audience for the portrayal of the “weaker sex” (Todd 120). This is an dietrichson and neffexample of cinema’s skewed portrayal of “womanhood” in film,which is often misrepresented as “homely” or “motherly”. Though this may be a characteristic of the female instinct in some instances persey, it is not a good generalization. For example, Timmy’s mother in the popular series Lassie (1954), or Mrs. Cleaver in the classic Leave it to Beaver (1958), are featured almost all of the time in the kitchen cooking or busy with duties around the household. In fact, if these type characters are not featured in the kitchen during the actual act of cooking, cleaning, etc.… they are almost always seen,at any given time, wearing the classic dress and apron attire. Todd also reminds us “Since women constitute more than half that public, we are faced with the troubling reality of an audience passively, even willingly, accepting roles of its own degradation” (131). These are extreme examples in classic film but they do illustrate to viewers how Hollywood seems to be so identified with the maternal and simple values of these women. Molly Haskell, author of, From Reverence to Rape, points out, “According to society’s accepted role definitions, which films have always reflected in microcosm, a woman is supposedly most herself in the throes of emotion (the love of man or of children), and least herself, that is least“womanly”, in the pursuit of knowledge or success” (4). These types of roles are so common we accept that these characters are distressingly naive and so fail to stun audiences,yet again, with the shimmering intelligence and ingenue of an interesting female role in cinema.



The issue of representation has been fundamental in the rising awareness of the portrayal of women in film. It can be argued that roles such as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity are confusing in their attempt to leave viewers with a fare impression of the way women are perceived in the movies. The suspicion of shallowness that goes hand in hand with the sexuality that is so loosely portrayed on screen, the crazed “power woman”-though an exception to the classic sexual connotation- and the deterioration and misrepresentation of womanhood and positive role models in cinema, are examples of the unforgettable imprint women could be leaving on the screen. Characters such as Phyllis do not necessarily aim to capture the shimmering intelligence and wisdom of the woman, solely for what it is and not what money making Hollywood has made women out to be but, can be interesting and even compelling non the less. Whether or not Phyllis Dietrichson is perceived as the “bitch” aggressor or, the repressed waif, indeed weak and dependent, we can safely argue that these two extremes are not a great way to generalize women at all. Still, these narratives are often why we even bother watch film and for some of us, why we love film. It is important to remember that these images speak to our culture, the viewers and most importantly, each other. Ultimately we can only hope that in any context of femininity on screen, we pay to see these women because they are truly lovely in every sense, “and to experience an inner radiance that may find its form in outward grace” (Entertainment Weekly 65).

Return to Volume 1 Issue 2


Works Cited

Cowie, Elizabeth. Representing the Woman: Cinema and Psychoanalysis. Minneapolis, MN:

University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Francke, Lizzie. Script Girls. London,England: British Film Institute, 1994

Haskell, Molly. From Reverence to Rape. Westford, Massachusetts: The Murray Printing

Kulik, Sheila F. Home page. 17 Feb. 2000

Rosenberg, Jan. “Feminism into Film.” Diss. Empire State College, 1977

Sova, Dawn B. Women in Hollywood. New York: International Publishing Corporation, 1998

Todd, Janet. Women and Film. Vol. 4. New York, NY: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1988.