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women in imitation of life February 26, 2007

Posted by jenniferlewk in Uncategorized.
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I was disappointed in the female characters in this movie. Annie Johnson character is the good natured, trusting in the lord, responsible black maid in the movie. She “likes taking care of pretty things,” and thus, does not mind taking care of the beautiful Lora Meredith or her adorable daughter. Indeed, while the plot intends this line to be directed at cleaning the house, Annie is looking wistfully at Lora while she says it. She calls Lora “Ms” the entire movie, even though she is not a servant but hired help. Annie Johnson is the Aunt Jemima of the movie. I refer to her as an Aunt Jemimah because Jemimah’s picture on the syrup bottles refers to the negative portrayal of a black woman–the kerchief, the round body, the warm and welcoming smile that looks as though it will obey any order. According to Urban Dictionary, an Aunt Jemimah is the female equivalent to an Uncle Tom (urbandictionary.com).  Indeed, Annie Johnson is the least developed character in the movie. Until her death, we as viewers do not even know of her passions, her friends, or her desires (other than her desire to be a good mother to Sarah Jane, Susie, and, I would argue, to Lora).

Lora represents Cooley’s concept of the looking-glass self. Much like Mulvey’s mirror, Cooley’s looking-glass self is a concept about identity. For Cooley, humans view themselves (and gain identity) through the perceptions of others in society. Thus, Lora’s dream to be an actress and her fulfillment of her goal only proves her weakness–she views success by how others view her. She gets her jobs by how others view her and her sexuality. While she might deny their sexual advances, she still uses the lure of them to achieve fiscal and personal gain. The first time Steve admits his attraction to her, he does it through the camera: “the right camera could have a love affair with you.” Furthermore, the first time she is truly happy is when her agent reads her the reviews from her first part (thus showing that her identity is shaped by those around her).  We as the audience think that she is not the best mother and that she is putting her work ahead of her family because of the way we view her as pitted against Annie. Throughout the entire film, she does not make one decision that is not immediately reinforced. She is childlike through her inability to deviate from the looking-glass and thus has little or no agency in the film.

The girls are also represented poorly in the film. Susie is a chatterbox who takes after her mother with respect to her agency. When she speaks as an adolescent, it is only about boys, love, or nonsense. Her wide-eyed innoconce is pitted against Sarah Jane’s overt sexuality. Sarah Jane exudes sexuality and uses her body to gain independence.  I believe her “bad-girl” character is a social commentary on the dangers/ social taboo  of miscegenation. Sarah is a brat in her early years and has no concept of the sacrifices her mother is making for her. She is jealous, mean, and can not fit into society. There would be little drama in their lives if she would accept her fate as a black woman instead of trying to  thrive in a society that will not accept her.

The women in this film are 1950s era- based women; however, I left the film with very little respect for any of them, except of course, for Annie (the one character who is not really a character at all).

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1. andyw - February 26, 2007

Remember that the title of the movie is Imitation of Life, and not life. Imitation plays a very important role in the movie in the obvious form of Lora’s acting, Susie’s “imitation” of her mother’s love for, Sarah Jane’s imitation of being white, etc (very potentially including an imitation of the stereotypes outlined by Jennifer). I think that the characters are much less static then Jennifer’s post makes them out to be, and also a lot more than mere caricatures. To give a quick example, Annie isn’t simply Aunt Jemimah. That account for her explains a great deal about her character, but it doesn’t explain the elaborate funeral that she so desperately wanted (or at least, if the Aunt Jemimah stereotype does explain that desire, it does so in a way that allows for a great deal of character development beyond the notion of a female Uncle Tom). That simple account also doesn’t explain her death as being one of the two most important moments of her life (her death being interestingly distinct from her funeral, which she seeks to make very extravagant). Indeed, on the day of her death she clearly leaves behind the stereotype of obeying orders (Lora ordering her to stay alive, when she refuses) and gives orders, issuing what is basically a will (in both senses of the word). That we don’t learn about her character until her death isn’t to say that there is no character development or depth to Annie, but that there is something very important about her death (in a movie at least ostensibly about life) that the audience should pay attention to.

My point isn’t to explain what that importance entails, or even to claim that the movie allows agency for women. My point is simply that the movie is more complicated then the simple stereotyping that seems to constitute it at first glance.

2. joannawasik - February 27, 2007

I also think that the characters in this movie are a little deeper and more problematic than they seem to be at first. I had a completely different reading of Lora– for me, it was interesting that she seemed to take on the ‘male role’ in her family (I’m calling the 4 females living together a family). She was the one struggling to find a job each day, and returning home exhausted each night. I actually saw a lot of power within her character, stemming not only from other’s perceptions of her; remember, she refused to perform favors for directors in order to succeed, she turned down a marriage proposal (and thereby monetary security) in order to pursue her acting dream, and later chose an Italian director over her American director friend who had written a play specifically for her. I think that when she says, “I want more, everything…maybe too much”, the sentiment expressed in that line is very loaded and important. I don’t know if this was one of the first movies to take on the idea of a ‘career woman’ seriously; however, I think that Lora truly wants to succeed because of an inner ambition, not simply a need for acceptance by those watching her, although she is an actress.


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