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The Sunday Book Review: Elizabeth Taylor As Feminist Icon

February 18, 2012, 6:39 pm

M.G. Lord, The Accidental Feminist:  How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness (and We Were Too Distracted By Her Beauty to Notice). New York:  Walker Publishing Company, 2012. 211 pp. Index. 23.00, hardbound.

It is inevitable that Elizabeth Taylor’s death, almost a year ago this March, will bring us a number of books reconsidering her legacy.  I’m glad to say that one of the first out of the gate is M.G. Lord’s The Accidental Feminist, a brief interpretive account of Taylor’s cultural and political significance. As the title promises, it gives us not new facts about Taylor — it has got to be too soon for that — but a different way to think about an actress who was celebrated for her beauty and for her numerous trips to the altar (eight husbands, if you count Richard Burton twice.)

Marrying seven different men is not a quality you associate with a feminist?  Well, think again.  Lord is careful with her claim to Taylor’s feminism but, as Susan Ware argued in Still Missing:  Amelia Earhart and the Search for Modern Feminism (1994), there were women who challenged the patriarchy long before we started calling it the patriarchy.  Although they fought their battles on the shop floor, in the fields and in the professions, we may find that many of the achievements of pre-second wave activists were inspired by, or reflected in, popular culture. Prior to the 1960s, female celebrities could be women whose talents, grit, principle, and (as in Taylor’s case) canny business sense, allowed them to conquer worlds that were primarily designed to market and contain them.

Born in England in 1932 to American parents, Elizabeth Taylor began to sing and dance at the tender age of three. The family returned to the United States in 1939 before the war broke out, and settled in Los Angeles where Francis Taylor opened an art gallery and Sara Taylor, who had had a short career as an actress, looked for opportunities. Elizabeth began her career at Universal in 1942 in a Lassie film. When Universal dropped her option, she was picked up by MGM and became a star in National Velvet (1944), a quintessential girl-and-her-horse story in which Taylor disguises herself as a boy to overcome the prejudice that would keep her and “the Pie” out of the Grand National Steeplechase. As Lord points out, Velvet’s participation in the race is produced by many acts of feminist defiance, including that of Velvet’s mother, who gives her daughter a gold medal she won from swimming the English Channel to pay the entry fee.

One of the things that makes Taylor unusual in the Hollywood system so brilliantly described by Jeannine Basinger in The Star Machine (Knopf, 2007) was that after a better than average career as a child and adolescent actress, she transitioned into a career as a major film actress. Popular assumptions situate Taylor as a beautiful and uneducated pawn caught between a studio system determined to wring every last dime out of her (National Velvet grossed $4 million) and a stage mother living out thwarted dreams.  Although Mel Gussow, the obituary writer who predeceased Taylor by six years, asserted that Sara “shared with her daughter a love of movies and encouraged her to act,” others include Taylor on the short list of child stars — Judy Garland, Michael Jackson, Macaulay Culkin — who were driven into unhappy adulthood by scheming parents. For example, citing this 2011 account in London’s Daily Mail, Wikipedia notes that:

The teenage Taylor was reluctant to continue making films. Her stage mother forced Taylor to relentlessly practice until she could cry on cue and watched her during filming, signaling to change her delivery or a mistake. Taylor met few others her age on movie sets, and was so poorly educated that she needed to use her fingers to do basic arithmetic. When at age 16 Taylor told her parents that she wanted to quit acting for a normal childhood, however, Sara Taylor told her that she was ungrateful: “You have a responsibility, Elizabeth. Not just to this family, but to the country now, the whole world.”

This same article asserts that in the interests of promoting Elizabeth’s career and her own good fortune, Sara pimped her daughter out to numerous older men.  She settled on Nicky Hilton, a violent man who Taylor left soon after he, as Lord puts it succinctly, “clobbered her.” (40)

Lord does not attempt to fully untangle these starkly different accounts. She is inclined, however, to see Sara and Elizabeth as collaborators in crafting what became both a legendary career and an unusually independent approach to the industry and to the men who ran it. Although Lord does not make this point explicitly, the fact that Taylor did not stick around to be beaten up a second time by Hilton certainly suggests a kind of agency and pluck that one might call, well, feminist, at a time when society condemned divorce far more than it did the private violence done to women and children.

Lord, whose career as a scholar of feminist mass culture was established with Forever Barbie: the Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll (2004) goes on to document what she calls Taylor’s “accidental” feminism through close readings of the star’s work: Taylor’s  films, her political stances and her philanthropies. In the absence of a written record of what Taylor believed, and what seems like an antithetical relationship to women’s liberation, Lord points us to a set of deeds that reveal a character and determination that were not easy for even a privileged woman to act on in the 1950s and 1960s. Taylor fought for roles that attached her image to those of sexual outlaws, angry women, and seekers of social justice. When she got them she evaded the censorship of the Motion Picture Production Code (or Breen Office) with improvised dialogue and skillful, often counterintuitive, acting and intonation.  In the anti-Semitic 1950s, she converted to Judaism and was a lifelong supporter of Jewish philanthropies. In a homophobic Hollywood, she befriended and fought for gay men in the industry.  This latter commitment culminated in the Reagan 1980s with activism on behalf of AIDS victims.  In 1984 she hosted the first AIDS fundraiser in Los Angeles, in 1985 co-founded AmFAR (with physicians Mathilde Krim and Michael Gottlieb), a leading research foundation; and in 1993, she founded the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.  Upon her death, she left the bulk of her fortune to these charities.

One might argue that in an industry where it is not uncommon for talented and celebrated people to die in debt, if Taylor was ever a helpless little pawn counting on her fingers she grew up fast.  Although she was left in precarious financial straits after the sudden death of her third husband, Mike Todd, she never again allowed herself to become dependent on a man and never stopped working. One article I read last year claimed that she was such a shrewd businesswoman that, between her investments and business interests, she was making $2,000 a minute at the end of her life.

Most importantly, Lord’s readings of the films encourage readers to go back and look at Taylor’s oevre with fresh eyes.  Although there are some duds, she had numerous awards and nominations to her credit, including two Oscars for BUtterfield 8 (1960) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).  We come now to my only serious disagreement with Lord: her dislike for the “bowdlerized” version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) which Williams himself also detested.  In addition to writing Brick’s homosexuality out of the script, Williams, Lord notes, thought it ridiculous that any man would be able to resist Taylor’s great beauty and her “rocket tits.”(64)  I, on the other hand, read the film as profoundly queer, even when I first saw it in my early teens, and have never ceased to do so.  Indeed, it is Brick’s contempt and revulsion for the luscious, perfect woman played by Taylor (in a slip for the first third of the film) that instantly twigs the viewer to the notion that there is something not heterosexual going on in that bedroom.  As Paul Newman played the role of Brick, the desperate seduction conjured by Taylor’s Maggie traps him completely, giving him nowhere to go but deep into a bottle. As the film gathers speed, Maggie begins to explain frantically about her attempt to get closer to Brick by sleeping with his friend Skipper, Skipper’s tears after their lovemaking, and his subsequent suicide. Brick’s vicious response, “Shut up, Maggie. SHUT. UP.” is delivered with barely controlled violence. Subsequently, only the fact that he is hobbling around on a broken ankle keeps Brick from striking Maggie with his crutch.  This told me all I needed to know, even though at the time I was ignorant about the dynamics of adult love affairs and had never (to the best of my knowledge) known a gay man.

Here I am demonstrating that Lord’s method for reading Taylor’s work as feminist comes close to what it means to read some of the same films queerly, a point the author herself makes towards the end of the book. Perhaps her most effective move, however, is to reach out to third-wave feminists, Gen X and Gen Y youth, whose political ideals come out of an expansive and liberatory approach to gender and sexuality, rejecting what they often view as the polarizing ideological approaches of the 1960s and 1970s.  Quoting second waver Katha Pollitt’s assertion that “feminism is a social justice movement,” Lord points up Taylor’s activism, on screen and in the world.  In doing so, she suggests that feminism is not either/or, but reaches across generations as women struggle “to do the right thing.” (168)

Truth in advertising: if you read The Accidental Feminist through to the acknowledgements at the end, you will see that I was one of the scholars consulted when this project was in the manuscript stage.  Read another review by Liesl Schillinger in the New York Times (February 3 2012); this review by Lisa Schwarzbaum at EW.com (January 31 2012); or the review in Kirkus (November 15 2011.)

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