Is Pedro Almodóvar really a “women’s director” as he is so often dubbed? I’ve been doubtful for a while. Yet, I didn’t want to give up on the Spanish director. He was part of the post-Franco countercultural revolution in Madrid, La Movida—after decades of a repressive dictatorship imposed on Spain by Francisco Franco, the 80s were a time for the country to catch up. They had never experienced the protests of 1968 like much of the world, and Almodóvar offered colorful, alternative discourse to Spanish film and the society at large. In 1988, his film Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios (Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown) propelled him into international acclaim, bringing actor Antonio Banderas with him. That year, it was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film and won Best Film at the Spanish Goya Awards. Yet, his reputation as a queer director with a penchant for creating strong, female protagonists has led us astray of the real question: “Is Almodóvar really a feminist?”
Whenever I ask this question, the response is usually, “But what about ¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto!! (1984, What did I do to Deserve This)? Four years before Mujeres al borde de un ataque de nervios, Almodóvar directed a film about an unhappy housewife, Gloria (Carmen Maura) who finally kills her demanding and mentally abusive husband, Antonio (Ángel de Andrés López). Not only is she relegated to the job of taking care of the home and family, but she also works as a cleaning lady to supplement her husband’s meager salary as a taxi driver—a point for which Antonio is spiteful. He thinks it “indecent” for a woman to venture outside of the private domain for work, a set of values that don’t correlate to his current class or decade. In turn, Gloria is visibly anxious and angry at her position, popping pills and casting heated emotions that the stereotypical 1950s American housewife would never have dreamed to emit.
Meanwhile, a young girl lives next door with her austere, widowed mother. In one scene, we see them both in the kitchen as the mother, Juani (Kiti Manver), is forcing her daughter, Vanessa (Sonia Anabela Holimann), to do housework, telling her that if she moves from the dishwasher, she will smash her against the wall. The neighbor, Cristal (Verónica Forqué) warns Juani that she might traumatize her daughter. Juani’s response is that she is also traumatized as a mother and housewife, and that if she has the strength to take it, why not her daughter—an allusion to the apparently abusive relationship between Juani and her now dead husband. In this scene, we see the women also implicated in the socialization of their daughters in their image, despite their own frustrations with their lives.
The film itself is typical of Almodóvar’s morbid peculiarities and implausible plot twists. As Gloria and Cristal return to their apartments, reluctantly leaving Juani to reprimand her daughter Vanessa, they suddenly find Antonio dead in the kitchen. Just moments before Gloria had gone upstairs, Antonio had been getting ready to visit an old lover. He had been demanding that Gloria iron his shirt and make him dinner while he prepared himself to be with another woman. In a moment of frustration, she finally tells him to do it himself. Angered by her dissidence, he hits her and draws blood. In self-defense, she rejoins with a blow to the head with one of the quintessential ham legs that you’ll find hanging in bars and restaurants in Spain. As he falls, he hits his head on the window, breaking his neck and dying. Visiting Juani and entering the apartment again with Cristal has effectively given her an alibi. As Gloria serves the cops soup made from the murder weapon, they cannot figure out “who done it.”
In the end, Gloria is alone in the apartment—her husband dead and her mother-in-law and eldest son having left to return to the village. She’s relieved to finally have the independence that she has been craving. As she looks out onto the other high-rise apartments in their neighborhood of Madrid, she seems to be feeling a mix of emotions. On her face, Carmen Maura represents the amalgam of excitement and fear of finally achieving what you’ve always dreamed and, in turn, the apprehension of whether it will fulfill your expectations. In this final scene, her youngest son returns with the explanation that she needs a man in the house. She seems grateful to be accompanied by a man who actually loves and respects her, albeit her own teenage son.
The film is certainly an example of one of Pedro Almodóvar’s more feminist-minded films, despite the final conclusion of Gloria “needing a man in the house.” In a previous blog entry, I identify a category of “Almodovar-esque female characters” who are “strong yet always the victim; [a] series of women who fall in love with their oppressors and/or captors.” Moreover, his films are laden with sometimes extraneous sexual violence towards women. At least in ¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto!!, Gloria never plays the role of helpless victim enamored by her abusive husband. Yet, this one film cannot discount the countless other female characters painted with misogynist strokes. That said, the misogyny had been less noticeable in recent years, with films like Todo sobre mi madre (1999, All About My Mother), Volver (2006), and Los abrazos rotos (2009, Broken Embraces)—very different films than those of the late 80s and early 90s, such as ¡Atamé! (1990, Tie me Up! Tie me Down!) or Kika (1993). Yet despite all the accolades for his most recent endeavor, La piel que habito (2011, The Skin I Live In), I found myself once again questioning Almodóvar’s feminist tendencies. Next time, I’ll take a critical look at La piel que habito. Meanwhile, the question remains as to whether Almodóvar is really a “woman’s director.” While I can understand the significance of his canon of work to Spanish culture and the enjoyment that his films can offer to a growing international audience, I still remain skeptical.Feminism, Pedro Almodóvar, Spain, Women's Rights