Butches of the Boulevard: The “Masculinization” of Women in ‘Sunset Boulevard’

Film has always served as a limitless medium. Through its characters, through what is said, and most certainly through what is seen, film offers a portal to a foreign time for many viewers. Director Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard is a beautiful example of a film that offers a glimpse into the past and sheds light on the state of gender politics in 1950s Hollywood. As is demonstrated throughout this film, gender politics were a very confusing area in regards to post-war politics. This is largely in part due to the fact that during the war, gender roles had been reassigned to accommodate the needs of everyday Americans. The fact that men were largely absent, as they were off fighting the war, had to be addressed and women had to act accordingly ( ). The role of damsel in distress was no longer fitting for Hollywood’s leading ladies. Women began to receive bigger parts in films and men became increasingly absent. Film was particularly affected by this shift in traditional gender roles, but managed to accommodate the changes. Men were often portrayed as heroic figures abroad in war epics whereas women were illustrated as becoming increasingly independent and began to be viewed as necessary figures in keeping the well-oiled machine that was America functioning. Hollywood had averted disaster and even then the man’s role and the woman’s role seemed fairly clear cut in regards to his/her functions. Sunset Boulevard told quite a different story. It suggested that in the idyllic setting of the 50s, the power struggle between men and women was alive and well and that things were not quite how they seemed. Despite the story being told from Joe’s point of view, women are clearly the most dynamic characters. This is shown chiefly throw several characters in Sunset Boulevard, mainly Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson and Betty Schaefer, the supporting role played by Nancy Olson, and how their dominance plays out in relation to Joe Gillis, who is William Holden’s character.
Even more unexpected, Wilder put his money on the women of Hollywood winning by placing Norma Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson, in a position of power. However, Wilder accomplishes this by creating what is possibly one of the most complex creatures to grace the silver screen. Arguments can be made for both Norma’s power and for her weakness, but most criticisms of her weakness are directed towards the fact that she consistently lies to herself because she can’t handle the truth of the outside world. However, isn’t it also true that she’s successfully structured her life to avoid any contact with the outside the world? She does this by using the men in her life, such as her butler Max (Erich von Stroheim) and Joe as her errand boys and as her protector. She controls them in every sense of the word and isn’t that power?
However, even more interesting than the question of Norma’s power versus her weakness is the traits that Wilder assigns Norma and the characteristics that make her as powerful as she is. Perhaps even more interesting is the seemingly pointless fact of the way that Norma speaks. In the seemingly perfect happy era of the 50s, Gloria Swanson didn’t bring a honey sweet chirp of a voice to this film. Her voice is somewhat gruff and commanding respect. In all actuality, her voice is somewhat masculine compared to the sweet, innocent voice of most female stars of the 50s. It’s as if Wilder uses this to justify his giving so much power to the character of Norma Desmond, by giving her a sense of masculinity (1). Also, the way she barks commands at Max and even the security guard on the Paramount lot is reminiscent of what was expected of men in charge at the time.
However, simply because Wilder assigns Norma masculine undertones does not mean that she is not without her feminine side. In fact her feminine side is present at all times, as is her vanity, but both often take back seat to her sense of order in her own little world. When Norma does revel in her femininity, it is largely just another part she is playing, using her feminine wiles in order to receive something in return. This is evidenced in one interpretation of Sunset Boulevard in which the author states, “When Desmond realizes Gillis is a writer and that she can use him to her advantage, this is when the alluring empowered role of the femme fatale is evident.” (1). One example of this is the rigorous routine she puts herself through in preparation for her return to the screen. She equates her beauty as power in the world of moving pictures. Whether this is true or not is left untouched by Wilder, but the fact remains that he creates a blend of masculine and feminine traits to create a complex portrait of a powerful yet hopelessly tragic faded screen siren.
Another character that Wilder doesn’t spend nearly as much time molding is the young, up-and-coming Betty Schaefer. Betty Schaefer represents another strong female figure in Sunset Boulevard who provides an interesting contrast when compared to Joe Gillis. This character shows a motivation and ambition to move up in the world that movie-goers had never seen before in women (2). Until this point, there were very few instances of women in film being less than content with their lives and Betty Schaefer is certainly one of the most vocal examples of this new trend. This is particularly interesting in comparison to Joe, who we see resist Norma’s attempts to buy him out at first, but eventually comes to terms with her expression of affection as Norma treats him “like he is a toy or a pet” (3). Betty, on the other hand, throughout the course of the film refuses to settle. Even when Joe initially refuses her ideas on how to improve his writing, she is initially resentful upon hearing his refusal to accept her help, but still she persists. When asked why she’s so invested in Joe’s career, she comes flat out and says that she’s not invested in his career at all, it’s her career that she’s concerned about (2).
Betty also shows great ambition in the scene in which she and Joe are walking on the various sets after hours and Betty tells Joe that she had a nose job at a younger age because the studios had said that they didn’t like her nose. She hadn’t even been screen tested and after the nose job, it turned out that they didn’t think she had what it took to be an actress. If her dogged pursuit of Joe wasn’t proof enough of her ambition, the story of her nose job is a true testament to her somewhat blind ambition.
Regardless of whether viewers were mesmerized or horrified by these women, it is most important to understand that this was the beginning of a time where women were taking center stage. They represented a new breed of women for a new age in U.S. history. Billy Wilder characterized this shift in American history beautifully in Sunset Boulevard through the creation of characters Norma Desmond and Betty Schaefer and the role they each play in the humiliation and ultimate downfall of the protagonist, Joe Gillis. Strong women and ambitious women such as the ones seen in Sunset Boulevard may have been first introduced with the film, but their impact lives on long past the rolling credits.

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2 thoughts on “Butches of the Boulevard: The “Masculinization” of Women in ‘Sunset Boulevard’

  1. Great analysis. I actually haven’t seen this one yet, but I love Billy Wilder’s other films. Interesting to note the constantly evolving roles of women in film. I think we’re currently seeing another shift in the interpretation of female characters in film, but especially television.

    • Thanks very much! I would definitely agree with this gender shift you’re talking about!
      I’d be interested to hear what examples you were thinking of, because I’ve definitely got a few in mind

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