Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Gentle Sex

This afternoon I was able to indulge in spending the afternoon watching a black and white film, something I have always enjoyed doing. On this occasion Film 4 were showing a second world war propaganda number called *The Gentle Sex", which used seven women's lives to show the contribution women were making to the war efforts.

Like many such propaganda films of the period it was well made, well acted, and although it was no Brief Encounter it was engaging and gently educative. The periodic "set speeches" in which characters earnestly discussed the themes of women's role in the war and what the war was fundamentally being fought for did jar at times, and with the hindsight we now have over the seventy years that have elapsed since then gave some of their idealism a tragic irony. Despite the horrendous ills of Nazism, their defeat has not, alas, meant that the world has become necessarily a better place; new sources of evil have sprung up. Truthfully no human war could end evil in the war, it is too deeply in ourselves.

However, the film was right that the war would change women's place in society, it did, perhaps not quite as far as the idealists would have liked, but like their mothers in the first war, they had an impact. I liked the film's emphasis on how women were needed to win the war, were essential and showed them working alongside men in a variety of occupations: manning anti-aircraft guns, driving and mending lorries, working capably and hard.

So... why then, after a stirring finale showing our heroines helping to shoot down an airplane, were the closing credits presented the form of a cross stitched embroidery? I found the juxtaposition interesting and frankly startling. Perhaps one could argue that they were comparing women's peacetime, decorative, fairly useless role and occupation with their wartime, utilitarian, essential role? Perhaps it was just a lazy way of demonstrating the film's feminine subject matter? Certainly in that portion of the film I saw no woman embroidered anything, though many knitted and this is by no means the first time I have seen knitting stand for the new role in society that the war had given to women. For example, in Daphne du Maurier's 1943 play The Years Between there is a contrast made between the main protagonist's pre-war embroidery, when she was "just" a wife and wartime knitting, when she is active in politics. Interestingly du Maurier's play was written in the same year as this film was released and both share a pre-occupation with winning the peace as well as the war.

To the women of World War II

One could question why this film was felt necessary in the first place, but then to expect women's role automatically to be considered as important as a man's, particularly back in the 1940s, is perhaps to be as hopelessly idealistic as the film's characters were about the purpose of the war. Its very title says a great deal about the attitudes the film was seeking to challenge. To an audience today the sight of a woman in military uniform is everyday; in 1939 it still had the potential to shock, although as the film points out, through the memories of an elderly lady of driving an ambulance in the first war, women taking an active, rigorous role in war was not new to this conflict. Yet the contribution of these women to the war effort is still little discussed and it is only comparatively recently that any kind of memorial to them was erected in London, so perhaps this film should have shouted louder?

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