By Victor Porcelli
On Wednesday, Sept. 20, the Historical Film Series had its inaugural screening. “Reel” History commenced with Norma Rae, a film about a woman who fought for the unionization of mill workers in Alabama in the 1970s. Following the motion picture was a panel discussion which included Professor Esther Duran, Dr. Katherine Grasso and Dr. Sarah Nytroe from the TV/ film, Communication and History departments. The film is based on the story of Crystal Lee Sutton who led a union effort to improve conditions of those working at the J.P. Stevens Mill in North Carolina.
Norma Rae was determined to epitomize this year’s theme of “Women Making History.” Norma Rae depicts mill workers whose hours are long, wages are low and benefits are nearly nonexistent. In this environment, Norma Rae emerges as a strong figure who advocates for worker’s rights. However, one thing makes life more difficult for her than any of the aforementioned conditions: she is a woman.
The impact of Norma Rae’s gender on other’s perception of her is apparent, namely seen through the way her sexuality is emphasized and valued by men over any of her other qualities. For example, in one of the first scenes she is shown to be sleeping with a married man and decides that she cannot continue to partake in cheating. He does not take it well and he goes from congenial and generous to angry and violent.
This trend of expecting and valuing sex continues throughout the film, showing that for women, sex and sex appeal are a fog covering the window into their person; but more so, sex is the native currency in their transactions with men. Men request sex first and become frustrated when it is not used. Yet, when transactions between two men occur, this currency is neither used nor considered. Because of this event, women are led to wonder if they stem from someplace different, if their native land is not the same as that of men.
Norma Rae overcame this flawed perception of her gender to play an influential role in the unionization of the mill workers. After watching this historic feat, the implications, context and history of the film were discussed through the panel of professors.
One topic discussed was how the film was released during a time that films with women protagonists had gone out of style. In the early to mid-1900s there were films produced for women that succeeded in drawing large audiences and often featured a female protagonist. However, as time when on these films were no longer produced and the number of leading roles for women dropped drastically.
Women and Hollywood reported that in 2016, only 29 of the top 100 films contained female protagonists, and only 11 contained female screenwriters. The lack of women in higher positions is also evident in the general workforce. Although many more women are seen working, not many reach higher positions.
Grasso suggested this could be because women leaders “have to behave in traditionally masculine ways . . . of being assertive and aggressive” while also “fulfilling certain expectations we put on females, they have to be attractive, they have to be nurturing.” It’s hard for women to convince men that they are equally capable and strong, while also being the socially acceptable amount of feminine and not damage men’s fragile masculinity.
Here, film, gender studies and history came together to create a fuller understanding of Norma Rae, which “shows how intimately tied together those disciplines are,” Professor Nytroe said.
A similar contingency can be seen in the film itself, as the union contains workers that differ in gender, race and background. Traditionally, these groups are separated or categorized, but the oppression indiscriminately dealt to them by the mill provided them with a source of commonality. It was only through this diversity that they were able to achieve their goal.
Professor Grasso also mentioned that “more diverse stories about women are important, because . . . we don’t necessarily think of women in those roles until we see them and we talk about them.” It is evident that diversity is a way to create a more accurate and complete picture of women as influential historical figures; this will be the goal of the Historical Film Series moving forward. Although female protagonists are often depicted similarly to Norma Rae, there are many different types of female leaders and role models who have made a significant mark on history through their efforts.
The next event will entail the screening and discussion of Hidden Figures (2016) in the third week of February 2018. Race and gender will be key concepts discussed in the context of the space race of the 1960s, and women will once again be shown to be more than capable of making history.