Jewish Journal

Elizabeth Taylor as feminist

by Jonathan Kirsch

Posted on Feb. 14, 2012 at 11:08 am

M. G. Lord is a cultural critic with a sharp eye for the hidden meanings in American pop culture.  Two of her previous books, for example, considered the enduring influence of the best-selling doll in the world (“Forever Barbie”) and the semiotics of rocket science (“Astro Turf”). 

Now Lord has turned her attention to yet another iconic figure in “The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice” by M. G. Lord (Walker & Company, $23). 

The book raises Taylor from the realm of parody — remember John Belushi in drag choking on a chicken bone? — and seeks to install her in the pantheon of groundbreaking feminist heroines. “Feminism may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the name Elizabeth Taylor,” Lord allows. “But it might if you share your definition with writer Rebecca West: ‘I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist when I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.’”  By that standard, Lord points out, Elizabeth Taylor deserves a badge of honor: “[She] has been called many things, but never a doormat — not in life and not on the screen.”

Thus does Lord announce the goal of her winning new book — she invites us to ponder the sometimes sensational details of Taylor’s real life, but she also offers a deep reading of Taylor’s film roles, which Lord calls an “under-the-radar challenge” to the assumptions and conventions about women in the 50s and 60s. “[M]any of her roles — the great and the not-so-great — surreptitiously brought feminist issues to American audiences held captive by those violet eyes and that epic beauty,” Lord argues.

“The Accidental Feminist,” like all good film history and film criticism, will send the reader back to Netflix or TCM for a fresh viewing of some old favorites. “ ‘National Velvet’ is a sly critique of gender discrimination in sports,” Lord points out. “A Place in the Sun” “is hard to view as anything other than an abortion-rights movie.” “Suddenly, Last Summer” “portrays the callousness of the male medical establishment toward women patients.” And “The Sandpiper” “pits goddess-centered paganism against patriarchal monotheism.”

Lord concedes that actors inhabit characters that are created and shaped by screenwriters and directors, but she insists that Taylor herself was the source of something crucial that can be seen and heard in the finished work. “Taylor spoke directly to our ancient aft-brain — our amygdala — the repository of love, hate, fear, and lust,” she argues. The way Taylor delivers a line written by someone else “hones in on that aft-brain,” Lord insists, “[l]ike a heat-seeking missile.”

Indeed, Lord is fascinated by what she calls “a vast disconnect between [Taylor’s] shallow tabloid persona and the seeming depths of her real-life self.” Even if the book is not a biography, the flesh-and-blood Elizabeth Taylor can be glimpsed in these pages. But Lord’s admiration for Taylor does not blunt her critical tools: “[Midcentury fans required stars to be moody, unreliable, and petulant,” she writes. “During the making of ‘Cleopatra,’ Taylor worked hard to satisfy them.”

More than once, in fact, Taylor’s own life was the occasion for melodrama or hilarity or both. When Taylor converted to Judaism after marrying Eddie Fisher, the crooner’s former wife, Debbie Reynolds, pointedly “flaunted her Christianity” and penned a book that advised young girls “how to be thin, popular, and keep a boy’s mind off kissing.” One of her tips: “[G]irls should talk to Jesus.” Before he fell in love with her, Richard Burton was contemptuous of his co-star — he dubbed her “MGM’s Little Miss Mammary” — and admired only the salary that she commanded.

“The Accidental Feminist” is built around Elizabeth Taylor’s filmography, and so the account of her life after retirement from the screen is brief and bittersweet.  “When I look back on the last decades of Taylor life, I cannot help but think of Virginia Woolf — not just Taylor’s 1966 movie but to the writer to whom its title alludes,” concludes Lord. Woolf called on women “to stand apart, in a Society of Outsiders, daring to oppose the majority for justice’s sake,” according to Lord.  “In 1985, when Taylor joined the fight against AIDS, she entered into a true Society of Outsiders.”

At one point in “The Accidental Feminist,” Lord considers the brief and troubled marriage of Elizabeth Taylor and Nicky Hilton in 1950.  It’s just a passing reference, but it reminded me that Taylor prefigures the cult of celebrity that is now hard-wired into American pop culture. The whole point of Lord’s book, however, is that Taylor can and must be distinguished from Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian precisely because she possessed much more than celebrity and sex appeal, and her life adds up to much more than fifteen minutes of fame.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at www.jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

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