A Vindication of the Rights of Doris

As it happens, I was rereading Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman when I learned the sad news that Doris Day had passed away. Being a long time fan of Ms. Day, I had been disheartened over the years to see her turned into the poster child for a kind of retro view of womanhood, and even for oblivious white privilege (as in the recent Raoul Peck film about James Baldwin).

So I was pleasantly surprised today to read an opinion piece in the New York Times that gets it at least partly right. When you look honestly at the roles that Doris Day played in the 1950s, you start to see echoes of the philosophy of Wollstonecraft, who in 1792 put forth a robust intellectual framework for equality between the sexes.

Doris Day never played “the prize for the man to win”, that clichéd role to which women were largely relegated in 1950s U.S. cinema. Rather, her characters made it clear that the only sort of partnership that interested her was an equal one. And the way she played those parts always emphasized this point with friendly yet firm resolve.

The limited emotional vocabulary of 1950’s cinematic discourse translated this to labeling her characters as perpetual virgins. But if you read Wollstonecraft, you see these performances in a different light.

Wollstonecraft explains that patriarchal oppression works largely by reducing Women to an object of Men’s desire. Since this process of reduction takes the superficial form of a kind of courtly worship, the oppressed often does not realize that she is being reduced to an “other”.

In the end, the result of this flawed transaction is a view of women as decorative objects, rather than as primary actors in the larger stage of world events.

When you watch Doris Day’s films, you realize that she completely internalizes a resistance to this assumed transaction. With unfailing grace and aplomb, but with a hard-edged pragmatism just behind her friendly demeanor, she turns the tables on men who try to flatter her into believing she should be reduced to le deuxième sexe.

You could say Doris Day was ahead of her time. And as is usually the case when someone is ahead of her time, people did not understand what they were seeing.

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