Piercing the Working Woman’s contributions to the workforce:
How Mildred Pierce condemns the businesswoman
Leading up to the release of Mildred Pierce (1945), there was a steady period of films released where workingwomen were admired and honored for being independent and not backing down to men. This is seen in films like Gone with the Wind (1939) and His Girl Friday (1940), both of which showcase strong women who are able to fend for themselves in a male-dominated society. Largely, the public saw this approach as a positive since women were needed in the workforce because families were still feeling the negative effects of the depression, production throughout the country was at an all time high, and many speculated America would soon be fighting in the war causing many able-bodied men to leave the workforce. However, five years later, as the war concluded in Europe and started to dissipate in Asia, men began to come back home to the United States and demand their jobs back. Now used to working outside of the house, many women were not quick to give up the progress that the war had given them in the workplace. As a result, a divide rose between the young women in the workforce and the young men coming home from war.
Only twenty-three days after the Japanese signed the Instrument of Surrender, the written agreement that effectively ended the war, Mildred Pierce (1945) was released. The protagonist, a successful business owner named Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford), balances staying afloat in a misogynistic workforce with her complicated home life. In order to push women back into their domestic roles, Mildred Pierce asserts the outdated ideas that women cannot be successful in business without the help of men, that women have designated roles in the workforce, and, most importantly, that dangers could befall a woman’s household as a result of her ambitions causing her to prioritizing work over family duties.
Before the film begins to tackle why women should not strive to be more than just help in the workplace, Mildred Pierce makes clear to the film’s audience that, without the aid of men, women would not even be allowed to work outside of the house to begin with. In the first act of the film, Mildred and her first husband, Bert (Bruce Bennett), are in serious financial trouble, yet Mildred is limited to only selling cakes to friends and acquaintances instead of finding a job that would help support the family. It is not until Mildred and Bert separate, that Bert instructs Mildred to find work and support herself. After finding a job as a waitress, Mildred soon masters the position and aspires to open up her own restaurant. Nevertheless, because Mildred is a woman, she has to seek out the help of another man, Wally Fay (Jack Carson), to move forward with her career. While helping Mildred to secure property for her restaurant, Wally often disregards Mildred when it comes to business, explaining that she should sit back and watch him “work his magic.” Wally only includes Mildred in business conversation when he thinks it involves the possibility of her sleeping with him. Therefore, showing that women in this period only exist for sexual pleasure in the eyes of men because they do not belong in business talks.
The idea of Mildred needing a man to improve her professional standing is explored again later in the film through her relationship with Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), the property owner of the location Mildred wants to turn into a restaurant. Initially, Monte is hesitant to sell the land to Mildred since he does not believe her business will be profitable. However, he becomes compliant only when Mildred shows a romantic interest in him. This shows that Monte does not have faith in Mildred as a businessperson, but instead agrees to the deal because it gets him romantically closer to Mildred. Nevertheless, Mildred is oblivious to his motivation and continues to give Monte money even after the deal is complete because, she “owes a lot to him.” Logically, it does not make sense for Mildred to keep making payments to Monte after their deal is complete. However, Mildred believes that she owes something to Monte for doing what most men would not during the period of the film’s release: open the door for a women to have her own business. By constantly having Mildred rely on men for her career advancement, the film promotes the idea that men are the ones in charge of whether or not women can be successful in the workforce and to what extent they should be able to maneuver within the workforce.
Now that the film has asserted the idea that any professional success women achieve is only possible by the aide of men, Mildred Pierce attempts to prove to women that even though men are allowing them into the workforce, they must stick to their “helper” jobs. The film first introduces the idea of “women’s jobs” when Mildred goes to a temporary work agency to find jobs and the clerk only looks in a cabinet with jobs such as saleswomen and cash girls. While the men who are behind Mildred in line will most certainly receive more respectable jobs, since men are allowed to have positions that give them authority, Mildred is sent home with nothing. It can be argued that the film changes its stance on this idea by setting Mildred up as a successful restaurant owner later in the film, but ultimately the men, who, aforementioned, are responsible for Mildred’s success, punish Mildred for this same success by stripping it away from her. The constant money Monte borrows from the restaurant, merged with both Monte and Wally secretly selling their parts in the restaurant, relinquish Mildred of all of her money and professional success as she goes bankrupt. In doing so, the film portrays the idea that if a woman sticks to being a waitress they will be left alone and allowed to make a modest living, but if they take jobs that are not traditionally filled by women and gain authority, men will steal back their power.
If the aforementioned horrors within the business world were not enough to scare women into questioning if they should aspire to be more than housewives, the disasters that befall Mildred’s home life as a result of prioritizing business over family are more than enough. During the period in which Mildred is trying to secure the property for her restaurant, Mildred’s first husband takes her children away on a trip. During the trip, Mildred’s youngest daughter, Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe), contracts pneumonia. Because Mildred is at Monte’s, instead of waiting at home for Bert and her children to return home form the trip, Bert is unable to get a hold of Mildred and tell her about Kay’s illness. Kay quickly dies later that night and uses her final words to call for her mother. Due to the heavy questioning by Bert, who demands to know why Mildred was not home in case something happened, the film implies that Mildred was wrong in prioritizing her business deal over her family. As a result, Mildred is punished by the death of her youngest daughter. Admittedly, this tragedy does not stop Mildred’s ambition, as she quickly recovers and launches the first of her restaurants shortly after Kay’s death. As Mildred’s career progresses, her remaining daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth) continually acts out by disrespecting the working class by insulting the restaurant workers, blackmailing a young bachelor for his money after she is cut of from Monte, and murdering Monte after he marries Mildred and refuses to marry her. During the film’s climax, Veda explains that it is Mildred’s fault she turned out this way due of the lack of parenting on Mildred’s part. Thus implying, that the reason Mildred, a smart woman who was able to open up multiple successful restaurants, allowed Veda to control her both finically and emotionally was because of the guilt she had for not prioritizing Veda’s upbringing, an idea imposed on Mildred by society.
Serving as propaganda to get women to give up on career advancement and get back into the home, Mildred Pierce repeatedly discredits women by attributing her success to the men around her and routinely punishing Mildred’s ambition by having tragedies befall her children as a result of prioritizing work over her family. Regularly, Mildred must rely on incompetent men, who only respect her for her looks, in order to obtain what she needs to run a successful restaurant. Then, when Mildred becomes too powerful, the same men strip her of all the progress she had worked so hard for. Not to mention, Mildred is unable to take solace in her personal life as one of her daughters dies and the other is arrested for murder. Many can attempt to argue that the film’s goal is to highlight the issues women faced post World War II in order to combat such misogyny. However, film historian June Sochen negates this argument by explaining Mildred Pierce promotes the idea that, “Stability is the norm, women must return to the home and removed from all other domains, thus ending the Independent Women and Eve images in the movies.” Which can be observed in the film’s ending when Mildred walks into the sunrise in the arms of her first husband, Bert, who openly cheated on her and kept her in the home, away from the workforce. In conclusion, Mildred Pierce reflects the anti-workingwomen ideology that American society held regarding women in the workforce when World War II drew to a close.
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