Throughout motion picture history, women have experienced more transition in their roles, as a result of changing societal norms, than any other class. At first, both society and the movie industry preached that women should be dependent on men and remain in the home, in order to guarantee stability in the community and the family. As time passed and attitudes changed, women were beginning to be depicted as strong willed, independent minded characters, who were eager to break away from convention. The genre of the crime film represents such a change in the roles handed to women. Two films that can be contrasted, in order to support this view, are: The Public Enemy by William Wellman (1931) and Bonnie &Clyde by Arthur Penn (1967).
In The Public Enemy, women are portrayed as naive and/or objects of carnal pleasure by men. In this period, women were often categorized as mothers, mistresses, sisters, or ladies. Ma Powers (played by Beryl Mercer), the lead character Tom Powers”(played by James Cagney) mother, is easily fooled by Tom”s fake stories about where he get his money and doesn”t believe that her “baby boy” could be a vile gangster. At one point during prohibition, when Tom brings home a barrel of beer, she doesn”t even question where he obtained it, but rather takes a drink for herself. Ma Powers is the prototypical mother of the 1930”s. She is blind to the ways of the world and doesn”t see the danger of things, even in regard to her own children. She is a widow who does not work, but is supported by her sons. She is even blind to the fact that her sons hate one another. Even though, her Tom was sadistic killer and gangster, she always welcomes him back lovingly with open arms. At the end of the movie, she gets a phone call saying that Tom will be coming home from the hospital, where he had been treated for a gunshot. She rushes upstairs to make his bed and get his room ready, when the doorbell rings and the rival gang drops of Tom”s gun riddled body.
The other women who appear in the movie are portrayed as fast women who are sexual object to be enjoyed by Tom, until he gets tired of them and then throws them away. In one famous movie seen, Tom doesn”t appreciate what his mistress moll Kitty (played by Mae Clarke) said to him, so he wickedly squeezes half of a grapefruit into her face. She is left there belittled, too afraid to stick up for herself.
With the 1960”s, came confusion in the dominant culture about women”s roles in the cinema. Women were now being portrayed as powerful, unpredictable, and possessing a mysterious sexual power, which they used to elude male control. The 1960”s also brought with it his tensions that resulted the escalating war in Vietnam, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, black ghettos going up in flames, the women”s liberation movement, the youth anti-war rebellion and free love theme, and the Civil Rights movement. It was safe to say that the American public had violence on its mind and the movie industry capitalized on the public”s apprehensions. Director Arthur Penn used Bonnie & Clyde as his medium to imprint the rebellious tone of the 1960”s and the uncertainty of the dominant values and norms of society.
When we”re first introduced to the character of Bonnie Parker (played by Faye Dunaway), the camera focuses on her as she is admiring her naked body in the mirror. She then falls back on her bed and the camera views her from the outside of her bed rails, in order to give the viewer the impression that she feels imprisoned by her everyday life. Then, she looks out her window and sees a man attempting to steal her mother’s car on their front yard lawn. She calls out to him and hurriedly puts on clothes to meet him outside. He quickly intrigues her curiosity by saying that she looks like a movie star stuck in a boring waitress” job, while telling her that he is a bank robber. She asks him to prove that he is not a “faker”, so he shows her his gun and, immediately turned on by it”s erotic dangerousness, dares him by saying, ” you wouldn’t have the gumption to use it.” To impress her, he lets her witness a robbery of a small town country store.
As they make their getaway in a hot-wired car, he introduces himself as Clyde Barrow (played by Warren Beatty). She instantaneously smothers him with kisses so that he has to pull over on the country road and tells her to “slow down.” Clyde informs her that he is “not much of a lover boy”, but instead challenges her mentally by offering her the possibility of leaving the routine behind and becoming someone special and notorious when he says:”You wake up every morning and you hate it. You just hate it. Them truckdrivers come in there to eat your greasy burgers and they kid you, and you kid them back. But they’re stupid and dumb boys with the big old tattoos on them, and you don’t like it. They ask you on dates, and sometimes you go but you mostly don’t because all they’re ever trying to do is get in your pants whether you want them to or not. So you go on home and you sit in your room and you think, Now when and how am I ever gonna get away from this?’ And now you know.”
Appealing to Bonnie”s sense of rebellion and discuss with social norms, she decides to leave with Cylde and start robbing banks. The next morning, Clyde teaches Bonnie how to fire a gun by using an old spare tire. There is great significance in this scene because Bonnie takes her first step towards self empowerment. The gun also serves as a diversion from sex. She is satisfied, almost obsessed, with the phalicness of the gun and becomes sexually charged by using it; the gun becomes her substitute for sex because of Clyde”s impotence.
On their way across Texas, the duo stop at a gas station where they meet C.W. Moss (played by Michael J. Pollard). They decide to recruit C.W. because he is a good mechanic with the car and stole money out of the cash register for their excursion. Later, the pair are joined by Clyde’s older, ex-con brother Buck (played by Gene Hackman) and his stereotypical, subservient wife Blanche (played by Estelle Parsons). They join forces and become the Barrow Gang and head out through Texas. While stopped, the group decide to take pictures with Blanche”s camera and Bonnie poses in arousing style with her leg resting on the stolen Ford”s bumper with a cigar in her mouth and holding a gun in her hand. Awakened by her new found sense of power and sexuality, she attempts to document the endowed women she has become, as well as, effectively capturing the mood of the women”s movements of the 1960”s. This is also the first time we start to see tension between Bonnie and Blanche. Bonnie resent the type of women that Blanche is and calls her an “ignorant, uneducated hillbilly.” This also further goes to support the ideas of the feminist movement of the 1960”s and the attitude of many of the woman”s liberators toward the “conventional” women in society.
During one pivotal scene in the movie, the gang , now in Missouri, is parked by a lake, down a deserted road while Clyde goes out into the woods to relieve himself. Not knowing that they are being followed by Texas Ranger Capt. Frank Hamer (played by Denver Pyle), Clyde shoots the gun out of his hand when he is about to fire at them. They capture the Ranger and handcuff him with his own handcuffs. Bonnie suggests that the humiliate him by taking his picture with the Barrow Gang, this way all of his friends will know that he was captured and that they were “just as nice as pie” to him. Bonnie puts her arm around the Ranger, coyly strokes his mustache, and then she posses for Buck to take the picture while she puckers up and kisses Hamer on the lips. Hamer spits in her face with disgust, and Clyde almost drowns Hamer in anger, but then sets him adrift into the lake in a rowboat while he is still handcuffed. This scene is especially important because it shows the arrogant rebellion of both women and the youth in America, during the 1960”s. Bonnie shows that she is not afraid of the system and attempts to portrait herself to the public as the benevolent one. She also attempts to degrade the system for trying to take control and castigation over her life, one theme that was also very prevalent with the women”s and youth movements of the 1960”s. She shows the Texas Ranger that she is a liberated women who is free to taunt male authority. She is a radical women, like many of the women in the 1960”s who were disgusted with the system for attempting to repress their sexual and political expressions.
During their temporary rest from police chase, Bonnie writes a poem about her adventures with Clyde, called The Story of Bonnie and Clyde. The novice, melodramatic poem, which Clyde sends into a newspaper to be published, compares their gang to the Jessie James gang. It depicts them as a pair of sympathetic, modern day folk heroes with a “Robin Hood” cause that is at odds with an amoral society. In light of the 1960”s mindless violence, the film rang true and gave a logical explanation that the criminal was the product of a warped government and society. With her poem, Bonnie established Bonnie and Clyde as a modern day myth, on that so perfectly foretold their demise. Clyde promised that he would give Bonnie the opportunity “to be somebody” and she gave him a legacy in return.
Although there aren”t any direct religious symbols in Bonnie &Clyde, it is interesting to note that before the end of the film, she picks a piece of fruit out of the bag she has just bought, takes a bite and gives the rest to Clyde. In the following scene, Bonnie and Clyde are ambushed by Texas Ranger Hamer and local law enforcement and shot multiple times, ultimately causing their deaths.. This is the second time that we see Bonnie in the role of Eve and Clyde as Adam. The first time she “tempted” him was when she first met him and dared him to use his gun. This act lead to the crime spree that would follow, ultimately foreshadowing their inescapable death. The second act of “temptation”, by Bonnie to Clyde, imminently foreshadows the death of the pair. This gives the viewer the impression that it is Bonnie who controlled their destiny, she is the one who uses her seductively to gain power.
In conclusion, it is obvious to argue that genre ideology had undergone immense change from the 1930”s when The Public Enemy was released to the 1960”s when Bonnie & Clyde first premiered on the big screen. The female roles in The Public Enemy were stereotypical of the roles handed to women in the 1930”s and also conveyed the zeitgeist of society. During the 1960”s, as indicated by Bonnie & Clyde, there was the emergence of the women”s role as a central character of the plot, one who was just as capable and omnipotent as the male lead character. She was a character that would not be controlled by society”s norms or be held captive to male authority. It is safe to say that Bonnie & Clyde, helped redefined the role for women in crime and action films. Many recent films, such as Basic Instinct (Paul Verhoeven 1992), Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone 1993), and The Long Kiss Goodnight (Renny Harlin 1996), have emulated the strong, seductive leading role that Bonnie & Clyde helped define. It also helped further that idea that women can hold their own in the crime film genre, both in the box office and by public opinion, and through its innovation may have supported the production of such preceding all-women crime films such as Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott 1991), Set It Off (F. Gary Gray 1996) and Bound (The Wachowski Brothers 1996).