Apr/May 2012

The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice

Rhonda Lieberman


"Taylor has had many biographers. Yet their books often reveal more about their authors than her," observes M. G. Lord, author of Forever Barbie and this new meditation, The Accidental Feminist. "Some [biographers] dish," she writes, "some fawn." And some turn their targets into feminist teaching tools. An icon known for beauty, bling, and bridegrooms makes an unlikely women's libber. Yet Lord interweaves readings of Taylor and her roles to serve up a cultural history of femininity—its abuses and uses—that is at once amusing, wrenching, and inspiring.

Starting with Virginia Woolf, whose Three Guineas (published when Liz was six) "urged women to question patriarchal authority—to ridicule its trappings," Lord presents the lavender-eyed megastar through a filter of feminine subversion. In National Velvet (1944), Liz is a "twelve-year-old warrior against gender discrimination." A Place in the Sun (1951), in which Liz is the ultimate dream girl, Lord says, "is hard to view as anything other than an abortion-rights movie . . . [dealing] with the tragic consequences of stigmatizing unwed pregnancy." Giant (1956), meanwhile, "anticipated the activist she would become" by showing her stepping away from the "ranching elite" to "make common cause with the sick [and] serve a community of outsiders"—namely, Mexican workers. In Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), Liz's character crusaded against lobotomies for inconvenient women. (If that sounds far-fetched, Lord offers as context the appalling story of Rosemary Kennedy, who in 1941, at the age of twenty-three, was lobotomized at the request of her parents, Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., for being "disruptive.")

Even as Liz was "electrify[ing] viewers with primitive feeling" with her beauty, she was, according to Lord, an accidental women's studies prof, introducing millions to core elements of feminist thought. Dispensing with the gnarly issue of intentionality, Lord makes fashionable appeals to "brain science." "I doubt [director George] Stevens planned to short-circuit the audience's prefrontal cortex," the author argues, yet only Liz's beauty could "override" cognitive control to embody "values of the right brain: empathy, compassion, and a belief in social justice"—and thus deliver stealth feminism to fans along with their popcorn. She glamorized resistance; and resistance is futile against glamour.

"Actors both shape and are shaped by their parts," Lord observes. With a deceptively light touch, her take on Liz's oeuvre provides a highlight reel of everything that made feminism necessary. Discussing Suddenly, Last Summer, Lord notes with a historian's deadpan: "A woman who asserted herself sexually—or rebelled against her second-class societal role—was likely to be labeled crazy and locked up." While the Production Code demanded punishment for hanky-panky, Liz played a satin-slipped floozy named Gloria in BUtterfield 8 (1960), making her "what in the 1980s would be termed a 'sex-positive' feminist." Watching The Sandpiper (1965), Lord admits she felt "happy and alive" seeing Taylor's artsy, free-spirited earth mother prevail against Eva Marie Saint's goody-goody housewife, "stunted . . . from all those years of chirpy servitude." Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)—a fiesta of ridicule—resonates, for Lord, with Woolf's 1938 manifesto ("To me, the film's feminist message could not have been more specific. Patriarchy crushes men and women alike"). Even Ash Wednesday (1973), about a middle-aged wife who hopes to save her marriage with a face-lift—is redeemed, Lord argues, as a consciousness-raising text about the limits and payoffs of plastic surgery. Only Father of the Bride (1950) is, in Lord's view, unredeemable: A "vile movie, but happily, Taylor's part is minor."

Lord includes just the right amount of vintage Hollywood gossip and pop-culture history to remind us what women (and men and Elizabeth) were (and are) up against, providing context for her astute readings of the flicks. We learn all about the notorious Production Code (through which the Catholic Church meddled with "morals" on-screen), the studio system, the wedding-industrial complex, homophobia, and the 1950s vogue for lady lobotomies. While keeping Liz as her through line, Lord deftly glosses midcentury race, class, and sex anxieties. Later, starting in 1985, after a personal nadir as an overeating, unhappy political wife—to a Republican, no less (Lord fast-forwards through this unglorious phase)—Elizabeth made her fabulous comeback as a pioneering activist and fund-raiser for AIDS research. She used her star power at a crucial moment, thus culminating her career as glamorous champion of the underdog.

Lord's Liz informs and entertains. I've always found Liz a particularly sympathetic superstar. So assured of her potency as a beautiful object, she had the luxury of actually being a subject! Using Professor Liz to highlight women's (and men's) struggles against social injustice, Lord has done a public service and added nuance to the megastar's legacy. Glamour can distract us from what's really going on. It can also wake us up.

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