I remember that when I was in high school, I was fashionably anti-feminist. I say "fashionably" because this was the early '90s, the height of a particular kind of political correctness, and it was becoming fashionable, in response, to talk about how much feminism sucked. I talked about it, and several of my fellow teenage males talked about it too. We snickered at gender-neutral language and referred ominously to the evils of bra-burning (we'd never seen a bra burnt, but we'd heard about it being done somewhere). It was a time when our culture was making the transition to the over-masculinized culture of today -- where men are basically paranoid about doing or thinking anything that might be considered "girly" -- but we didn't realize it; we thought, as paranoid people still think today, that feminism and feminization was taking over the world and that we needed to fight back with all the bluster we could muster.
I don't think I ever got as deeply into the feminism-sucks movement as some of my classmates, and was pretty much done with that by the time I graduated from high school. But I think what really turned me over to the other side -- to the point that I am, if not precisely a male feminist, at least a fellow-traveller of Phil Donahue -- was one dialogue exchange in the movie The Courtship of Eddie's Father.
In this 1963 movie, Dina Merrill plays a successful fashion consultant who almost winds up marrying Eddie's widowed father (Glenn Ford). The movie pretty much marks her as an undesirable match because she's a career woman; Eddie (Ron Howard) doesn't like her, and we're supposed to be relieved when Ford ends up with a woman who'll be a totally devoted wife and mother (Shirley Jones, natch). This idea, that a woman who's devoted to her career is undesirable, is annoying enough. But the kicker was in a scene midway through the movie. Merrill explains to Ford the way she wants to live her life: she wants to be her own person, defined by her work and accomplishments, rather than being defined by her relationship to a man. Ford replies, re her aspirations: "Well, I think you'll have to settle for having the vote. I don't think it'll ever become a national movement."
The line ought to be a camp classic for its bad prognostication, but think of what Ford is saying: it is weird, bizarre, impossible, wrong for a woman to want to define her life and identity by something other than her relationship to a man. And the scene, as well as the way the movie plays out, doesn't suggest that Ford is wrong. There's something wrong with Merrill because she's not willing to let herself be swallowed up in the role of wife and mother.
When I saw this scene, and the movie, I thought: if a male character said that he wanted to be defined by his work and accomplishments, and not by his relationship to a woman, would anybody think that was weird or wrong? The answer was, of course not. There are tons of movies where the male character is defined mostly by his work and romance is secondary or nonexistent; most Westerns, for example, are hardly about the kissy stuff, and while John Wayne may have a love interest, he's basically John Wayne the guy who shoots people, rides horses, saves the town, not John Wayne the husband and father.
So from that one scene in that movie, I started to understand the concept of double standards and all those other things that we'd made fun of in high school: it made sense, because that movie was a snapshot of 1963 cultural norms (I'd seen enough pop culture from the same era to know it wasn't an outlier in its attitude toward women; it was just a little more obvious about it), and it was casually assuming that what men take for granted should not be available to women. I understood, in a way that I hadn't before, why there was a need for that "national movement" that Ford scoffs at as an impossibility.
Ever since then, I've always had an appreciation for movies and other works of art and popular culture that treat women the way Dina Merrill wanted to be treated in Eddie's Father -- as being defined by something other than their relationship to romantic partners or children. But works like that are hard to find. Women characters are usually defined by their relationship to men; whether it's a play/movie like The Women or a show like Sex and the City, you'll usually find that the female characters spend most of their time thinking and talking about men. Women are usually portrayed as having a job, but the job never really seems to matter much to who they are, the way the male character is defined by his job as a cop or a robber or a doctor or a lawyer or an Indian chief. The idea that a woman just is who or what she is, rather than somebody's wife or girlfriend or mother, is as foreign as it was in 1963, even though things are obviously better now than in 1963 (feminism has made it possible for single career women to go on TV and talk about how feminists ruined everything).
Are there movies and TV shows that I consider really feminist in that admittedly limited sense -- the sense of portraying female characters who are defined indepdendently of their romantic and maternal relationships? A few. I've said this before, but the movie Stage Door (not, repeat not the play it's based on) is one of the most genuinely feminist movies ever made, a movie entirely about women who don't define themselves or their achievements by whether they can get a man, or even what men think of them. It's not a man-hating manifesto; the Ginger Rogers character has a boyfriend and one character, played by Lucille Ball, leaves to get married -- but every woman in the picture is as much an individual, independent of romantic or parental relationships, as any John Wayne character.
Among TV shows, "Remington Steele" looks better all the time as a portrait of a woman who is involved in a quasi-romantic relationship with a man, yet is clearly her own person, defined by what she is and not by her romantic relationships. There's even an episode where she explicitly says that she doesn't want to have her own identity swallowed up in her relationship to a man: "I'm afraid of losing myself in you until there's no 'me' anymore."
And of course "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" eventually became the story of a woman who is defined the way the male characters are -- by her work, by her personality quirks, by her way of living. Though when it started out, a lot of the stories revolved around Mary's dates or around the question of why she didn't have a man, so the men-obsessed, Sex in the City type of vibe was there for a long time until they really got comfortable with the idea that Mary didn't have to apologize for being independent.
There must be other examples, and I'll add them if I get a chance; but there aren't a lot of examples; there's really no female equivalent of the Western hero, whose independence is just taken for granted without special pleading. There are a lot of ass-kickin' chicks in movies today, but the fact that they can kick a guy or swing a sword doesn't change the fact that many if not most of them are ulitimately just The Girl: the love interest, the mom, the damsel in somewhat less distress. The really feminist stories are the ones that take someone like the Dina Merrill character from The Courtship of Eddie's Father and treat her as the good guy. They don't come along very often.