“Soldadera”: perhaps the film’s most interesting episode but problematic due to its incomplete status. Only Eisenstein’s scenario, his random notes, and his drawings assist one in determining the structure of this episode. Here Alexandrov shows a few rushes actually filmed.
Benshoff wonders “whether this sequence would have proven to have been one of the earliest statemnts of feminist action to be seen in Soviet film.” I think “Soldadera” likely would have represented an “anti-feminist” Bolshevik position that saw women’s liberation as intertwined with but subservient to the larger class struggle rather than independent from it.
The women of “Soldadera” utilize an interesting mixture of “masculine” / “feminine” traits.. They let their children to suck on empty gun cartridges for a lack of candy. They apply tortillas qne fasten them with willow fibers to the men’s wounds. Thus they take military objects (the cartridges) and domesticate them while seizing on the domestic (the tortillas) for military use. This mixture of the domestic and the public suggests that “masculine” / “feminine” spheres in revolutionary action must be fused for social progress to take place.
“Soldadera” also exposes a “double burden” of work for the soldaderas by having them tend to both domestic labor and fighting in the revolution, and the episode seems more aware of this as a problem. Eisenstein’s describes Pancha, the main characte: “a machine-gun ribbon hangs across her shoulder, a big sack containing household utensils weighs heavily on her back.”
This double-burden is a temporary hell that the women must go through in order to create revolutionary change. While recognizing women's deprivation and suffering, “Soldadera” also suggests that revolutionary activity nonetheless will transform traditional gender and familial roles to create a more egalitarian future.
Conflating “masculine” and “feminine” realms is also seen in “Fiesta,” here with the “feminine” preparation of David Liceaga, a matador, for a bullfight. David is having his hair done by his younger brother.
Liceaga dresses in his elaborate costume.
Even during the bullfight itself, Eisenstein uses thousands of feet of film to chronicle Liceaga’s dance-like move, the butterfly pass. Jay Leyda’s footage reveals the amount of film taken of this action.
Similarly, in “Maguey,” Eisenstein cuts between the hacendado’s daughter doing her hair before hunting down the peons ...
...and the hacendado’s men dressing for violence. These images focus mainly on men engaging in “feminine” tasks before doing what seem exclusively “masculine” pursuits: bullfighting and the posse. Men become spectacles, encouraging a homoerotic vision of their bodies and pursuits. “Soldadera,” on the other hand, mainly focuses on women merging “masculine” / “feminine” realms in war. It is debatable if the women’s bodies would have been as spectacularized as these men’s.
Day of the Dead plays an important role in the film’s epilogue, which shows how the festival can create ecstasy: a moment when the self is no longer divided from its surrounding.
The holiday highlights the Mexican “vacillada” where the ridiculous and the sublime, the masculine and the feminine, the spiritual and the animal intermix.
By challenging the categories and logic of patriarchal, capitalist Mexican society, Day of the Dead provides the potential to access collective ecstasy where people can re-vision society as a totalistic whole and where more equitable and pleasurable structures can be established. The recurrent motifs of the trinity and the circle dominate the epilogue, suggesting both (political and personal) resurrection (trinity) and a totalistic outlook (circle).
Instead of seeing death and life as opposed to one another, the festival shows how birth and death are interconnected, as is seen with the little girl eating the sugar skull.
Through its totalistic vision, the epilogue shows how the fiesta turns traditional norms and structures upside-down.
The fiesta exposes the military...
... the police ...
... and the bourgeoisie as life-denying forces, merely skulls of humanity that lack any life-force of their own.
The fiesta also exposes how those in power attempt to prevent the libidinal desires of those under them. (Yet this image has a potential to be an inside joke: Eisenstein’s own desire to reject normative heterosexuality that usually predominates in films).
The final image of the epilogue was to be of a smiling child looking out to the audience. As Eisenstein writes, “A gay little Indian carefully removes his death-mask and smiles a contagious smile — he impersonates the new growing Mexico.”
As we can see from my close analysis of Que Viva Mexico!, U.S. Left film critics were correct in asserting the importance of montage in their columns since it did indeed offer a more complex and radical structure for Eisenstein’s film than Hollywood continuity editing could provide. As stated before, when Upton Sinclair and Sol Lesser released Thunder Over Mexico, Left film critics denounced it as reducing the complexity of the original film into “a single unconnected romantic story” by making “Maguey” into Thunder Over Mexico’s central focus rather than having it be only one of six episodes as Eisenstein intended. Although “Maguey” is a pivotal episode in Que Viva Mexico! in that it suggests the emergence of revolutionary perception and consciousness, it is still only a brief episode in the overall film. Thunder, therefore, tends to over-individuate the episode into a melodramatic structure between “good” peons and a “bad” hacendado without accounting for the wider socio-historical processes that led to the forms of exploitation that we witness. And in regards to gender issues, the male gaze that Que Viva Mexico! represents and questions is no longer understood within Thunder as historically class-contingent, but it is established as a transhistorical gendered norm. Because alternative socio-economic structures and looking-relations are not addressed (as the episodes of “Sanduga” and “Soldadera” would have done), the masculine gaze is unproblematically naturalized.
But despite many 1930s Left film critics’ perceptive analyses of how Hollywood’s reliance upon continuity editing, spectacular mise-en-scène, and limited characterization would efface the radical politics of Que Viva Mexico!, they largely ignored the significant role gender played in the film’s structure. One might argue that 1930s U.S. Left film critics simply did not possess a theoretical outlook that would enable them to clearly articulate the ways in which patriarchal capitalism constructed “female” identities. However, as one searches through the archives of New Masses and Daily Worker, one notices women writers such as Meridel LeSueur, Josephine Herbst, Martha Millet, Mary Heaton Vorse, Rebecca Pitts, and Grace Hutchins who attempted more complex connections between gender and Marxist politics than U.S. Left film criticism implies. Ella Winter traveled to the Soviet Union and reported on the abolition of sex discrimination in her 1933 book, Red Virtue: Human Relationships in the New Russia. Grace Hutchins offered a survey of women’s labor in the United States in her 1934 book, Women Who Work, where she distinctly linked her work with that of a Marxist tradition:
Meridel LeSueur reported on the travails of unemployed women within New Masses and American Mercury in the early 1930s, suggesting that the Depression has affected them as significantly as men. Such writings are important since, as Paula Rabinowitz points out, although no historic Left institution of the 1930s, whether it was the U.S. Communist Party, the AFL, or the CIO, ever emphasized a feminist program within its structure, “the early years of the decade had seen a surge of demands resonant with feminist goals …” Yet such feminist goals were entirely absent from most U.S. Left film critics’ columns at the time, suggesting either a disconnection between these critics and the, mainly women, writers who investigated gender issues more thoroughly at the time, or a failure on Left film critics’ part to see how a focus on gender might benefit their ideological analysis of film.
Rebecca Pitts’ article, “Women and Communism,” written in a 19 February 1935 issue of New Masses, is particularly remarkable in the way that its Marxist analysis of female exploitation parallels the same observations made within Que Viva Mexico! Pitts uses Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and The State to explore the importance of female labor in establishing women’s equality within the community. Similar to “Sanduga,” Pitts states,
And as “Maguey” follows “Sanduga,” Pitts likewise follows with the observation,
Removed from the workforce and regarded now as an exchange value between men, women are seen as men’s “own property, made for his personal use and pleasure.” She continues, “From an end in herself she became a sexual commodity, a means to an end,” an observation echoed in “Maguey’s” focus on the rape of Maria. Communism, for Pitts, is the only answer to help women regain their status as an ends in themselves since it is the only political system that acknowledges that both new economic and psychological foundations need to be created in order for women to truly realize their full potential. Pitts looks to the Soviet Union not as an embodiment of communist principles but as offering “embryonic hints of the future,” just as Que Viva Mexico! looks to Day of the Dead as offering hints of a new future where both the economic and social order must change, in order for both class and gender equality to take place. In essence, Pitts’ article tracks the exact trajectory that Que Viva Mexico! takes, even though it is unclear if Pitts was even familiar with the film.
Pitts’ article is important in the way it highlights how some members of the early 1930s U.S. Left were familiar with Engels’ text and had access to a sophisticated Marxist analysis of gender, which could have served as a productive theoretical tool for analyzing the gender implications of Que Viva Mexico! Yet such analysis remains largely absent within U.S. Left film criticism on the film. Pitts’ article was published a year after the Que Viva Mexico! debates subsided, so U.S. Left film critics could not use it in their analysis of the film. However, one can safely infer that at least some women on the U.S. Left were discussing this issue prior to Pitts’ article based on the books written that concerned an analysis of gender from a Marxist point of view: Agnes Smedley, Daughter of Earth (1929), Grace Lumpkin, To Make My Bread (1932); and Tillie Olsen’s, Yonnondio: From the Thirties. Yet U.S. Left film critics show no evidence of engaging in a dialogue or even being familiar with such feminist discourses.
The closest U.S. Left film criticism comes to noticing the importance of gender in Que Viva Mexico! is Morris Helprin’s 1934 article for Experimental Cinema. Helprin actually spent several months in Mexico to observe Eisenstein, providing him with a more in-depth knowledge of the film than most other Left film critics possessed. In this article, Helprin claims that Eisenstein discovered “the importance of woman’s position in that country,” which moved the film “from [originally being] a dimensionalized fresco to the presentation of a socio-logical problem” about the role and influence of women in various Mexican epochs. Helprin cites “Sanduga” as representing female labor in a matrilineal society. Woman “tills the fields, barters in the market place and rules the home. Her husband is a procreative force and no more.”Furthermore, he notes the drastic change in gender focus in “Maguey,” “Here a phallic symbolism is engaged to emphasize the complete masculinity of the terrain” and episode. His use of the term “phallic” to describe the episode is surprising since it indicates a vague awareness that gender is not merely limited to human bodies but to milieu— that gender is a part of the environment and its ideologies as well as of the characters. Ultimately, Helprin notes that Eisenstein “has recognized the part that woman plays in the social and economic life of the country and around this has constructed his film.” Although her physical presence might not dominate all of the film’s episodes, “her influence is as subtle as the Indian’s overconquest and swallowing-up of his Spanish conqueror.”Helprin’s last statement is revealing since it connects women’s presence within the film to an anti-colonial struggle, suggesting that at least one U.S. Left film critic saw how the two themes were intertwined.
The question remains: How could other Left film critics, especially Seymour Stern, who spoke to Eisenstein more frequently than Helprin and who saw more outtakes than Helprin, barely notice the importance of gender at all? Their almost complete silence about gender within the film suggests a more systemic problem since Helprin’s article and the film’s synopsis published in Experimental Cinema in 1934 clearly showed Left film critics that gender was central to the film. One possible answer might be that many male Left film critics could only see, at best, the film’s metaphoric use of women to represent revolution, thus supporting Paula Rabinowitz’s observation in her book Labor and Desire that the 1930s male Left often considered gender issues as subsidiary to class issues. When gender was brought to the forefront by the male Left, it was usually used metaphorically to represent class conflict by juxtaposing a masculine proletariat against an effeminized bourgeoisie.
U.S. Left film criticism seems to support Rabinowitz’s general observation about the historic Left’s metaphoric use of gender, with one important difference. On the rare occasion when these critics did mention women’s importance within Eisenstein’s film, they highlighted her as a metaphor for revolution, thus inverting the traditional way in which the historic Left often associated the “masculine” with the proletariat and the “feminine” with the bourgeoisie. In other words, Eisenstein’s film provoked Left film critics to invert women’s metaphoric role, while at the same time Que Viva Mexico! failed to make the critics notice the more complex ways in which women operated non-metaphorically in the film’s episodes.
For example, in regards to “Soldadera,” Seymour Stern highlighted women’s metaphoric role by seeing its central character, Pancha, as representing the growing revolutionary consciousness of Mexico in traditional “feminine” ways. Pancha initially marries a man of Pancho Villa’s regime. But Eisenstein viewed Villa as a problematic revolutionary figure since he revolted more for his own self-interests than that of Mexico as a whole. Unable to submit his egocentrism for the Revolution, Villa warred unnecessarily against Zapata’s troops for the spoils of victory. After Pancha’s husband dies about three-quarters way through the episode, she immediately marries a Zapatista soldier and gives birth to a child. Pancha’s new marriage represents, for Eisenstein, “the conception that strength does not reside in dispute, but uniquely in the union of all the people against the forces of reaction.”  Stern emphasizes Pancha’s role as child-bearer by indicating that the climax of “Soldadera” “is the birth of a child by one of the soldadera hiding in a freight car, intercut in parallel montage with the triumph of the 1910 revolution in the desert through which the train is speeding.” Not even mentioned by name in Stern’s article, Pancha’s “motherly” role as child-bearer effaces her complex actions that challenge the mutual exclusivity of “masculine” and “feminine” realms. Because Pancha hovers between gender binaries, she occupies a liminal position that most working-class women held and the male historic Left had difficulty identifying:
Left film critics' effacing women’s more complex roles in Que Viva Mexico! is representative of their common belief that gender must function in a traditional or in a limited metaphoric way, in order to serve class solidarity. If it became a point of investigation in itself, it risked disrupting its metaphorical use in defining social classes. Pancha must remain unnamed in Stern’s article, since to assert her individuality would de-emphasize her metaphoric role in the Revolution.
But more often than investigating the metaphoric role of gender in the film, Left film critics metaphorically gendered their own description of the film. Sol Lesser’s editing of Thunder Over Mexico was considered, “THE RAPE OF ‘QUE VIVA MEXICO!'” making Thunder Over Mexico into “an emasculated fragment of Eisenstein’s original scenario…”Reduced from a potentially “manly” status, Que Viva Mexico! had been violated to become the (ef)feminized Thunder Over Mexico. Yet other critics considered Que Viva Mexico! as originally an object of feminine beauty despoiled by Lesser’s editing. Herman G. Weinberg in a June 1933 article for The Modern Monthly believed that Que Viva Mexico! possessed “ravishing physical beauty” that “‘died of an abortion’ performed by murderous hacks.” Yet Weinberg continues to describe those “murderous hacks” as people “who had no more feeling for its [Que Viva Mexico!’s] greatness of conception than so many mercenary ‘mid-wives.’”
The various uses of “feminine” language in Weinberg’s article indicate that the “feminine” could be metaphorically applied both positively and negatively by Left film critics. The “feminine” is both violated and violator. It is the pristine object to be gazed at, but it is vulnerable to violation due to its objectified status. But if the “feminine” becomes active, it is then deemed a “mercenary mid-wife.” Within these descriptions of the film, we notice the assumptions made by many Left film critics who want to associate the “feminine” with the objectified and also see it as a threat when it takes on an active status—hence the threat of the bourgeoisie, which is deemed “feminine” by the Left yet nonetheless actively controls U.S. politics and economics.
The concern of many male Left film critics to pose the “feminine” in such limited positions suggests a desire by them to pin down “woman” and the “feminine” in reductive ways in response to the newly predominant discourses of Hollywood, fashion, and the cosmetics industry that destabilized gender identities. By asserting women’s ability to purchase a certain gendered look, these materialistic discourses undercut the older belief that gender was “naturally” connected to one’s sex. As various feminist scholars like Kathy Peiss, Janet Staiger, Nan Enstad, and Shelley Stamp have shown, women became a central focus for the new consumer culture arising between 1880 and 1920. Sarah Berry notes how Hollywood marketing became intertwined with the fashion industry in the 1930s, which “contradicted older notions that a woman’s social status was defined by her father’s or husband’s social position.” A few Left film critics were well aware how Hollywood’s growing links to other materialistic industries actually destabilized traditional representations of women on the screen. Lewis Jacobs observes in his 1939 work The Rise of the American Film how
Although Jacobs’ observation suggests more of a role-reversal than an ultimate destabilization of the categories themselves, he indicates how “masculine” gender positions were open to women because of consumer discourses found on the Hollywood screen. Yet, despite consumerism’s ability to emancipate women from “passive” roles, 1930s Left film critics realized that such “independence” came with a price: Self-commodification precluded collective action and a systemic understanding of capitalism’s processes as a whole.
Because they saw it as asserting individual desires over collective action, many Left film critics found the “women’s independence” asserted by consumer discourses as a conservative ideology. With a consumerist ideology, one could safely focus on individual wants and needs because such an attitude left the social processes that create such desires and the very concept of the “individual” unexamined. Yet these Left critics largely failed to see the dialectical nature at work in consumer discourses’ appeal for women. On the positive side "women’s embrace of style, fashion, romance, and mixed-sex fun could be a source of autonomy [from patriarchal familial structures] and pleasure as well as a cause of their continuing oppression.” And, in regards to working-class women, they could use aspects of commercial culture to productively inform their political practices and foster a politicized community as well as escape from addressing larger socio-economic issues.
Despite some of their legitimate ideological objections against a consumer-based practice of liberation, U.S. Left film critics were also personally unsettled by the numerous representations of powerful female figures in women-centered films that challenged their patriarchal authority and heterosexual assumptions. As a result,
Mike Gold, who reported on Hollywood during the late 1930s, vented his frustration in a May 1937 column for the Daily Worker, where he critiqued the mothers who dragged their little girls to Hollywood to become the next Shirley Temple. Instead of learning proper “feminine” roles, these girls have “been taught all the worst mannerisms of a ham actress—to be consciously coquettish, vain, cute, and cunning.” Hollywood infuses these girls with a sense of “artificiality,” as Gold deems it, a knowledge about the performativity of “femininity” that Gold supposes does not exist outside the culture industry’s influence. But Gold’s real concern is not for the girls’ well-being but for the men who have to deal with them later in life. He asks:
Similarly, Robert Forsythe, normally one of the more sophisticated of U.S. Left film critics, throws a veritable tantrum about Mae West in his revealingly titled article, “Mae West: A Treaty on Decay.” According to Forsythe, West’s overt sexuality represents nothing less than “the breakdown of capitalist civilization … [and] symbolizes the end of an epoch.” Forsythe does not represent female sexuality and desire as anything of value in themselves, but only representative of a decaying bourgeois age where “real” men have lost control. His column continues in an increasingly homophobic bent by seeing West’s sexuality opening the door to homosexual license. He writes,
Therefore, anything other than heterosexual male desire is deemed as aberrant and symbolic of all that is wrong with capitalism. One can perhaps better understand, but not defend, Forsythe’s volatility when one keeps in mind that, he is writing at a time when heterosexual males feel most vulnerable and disempowered both economically and socially, at least, in terms of filmic representations. For during this time, as David Lugowski has analyzed gay representation in depression-era U.S. culture,
I highlight Gold’s and Forsythe’s articles not because I think that they are necessarily representative of U.S. Left film criticism’s attitudes towards women and gender issues as a whole. Instead, the articles represent extreme examples of a general male anxiety that permeates the columns of U.S. Left film criticism. As I have shown, there were other critics like Lewis Jacobs and Morris Helprin who held more accommodating attitudes towards the analysis of gender in their writings. Yet by juxtaposing U.S. Left film criticism with insights made by Rebecca Pitts and the representations within Eisenstein’s Mexican footage, we can see that U.S. Left film criticism never accessed more sophisticated discourses available at the time that interwove gender and class analysis.
Although U.S. Left film critics could identify the reified ways in which leisure discourses asserted women’s “independence,” their reluctance to adopt a more materialist understanding of gender might also be related to their own fears as men. At a time when many men were displaced from their traditional breadwinning positions due to mass unemployment, at a time when new consumer discourses emphasized women’s independence from home and men, at a time when Hollywood offered its most queer representations of gender within film, one cannot help but feel that the absence of gender in male Left film columns might have been an intentional silence to ignore how these historic conditions challenged their very sense of “masculinity.” And, in order to distance Eisenstein’s anti-Hollywood film from such practices, these critics might have, consciously or unconsciously, minimized in their own columns the importance of gender, and homoeroticism, found within the film’s scenario and footage.
In this article, I have tried to emphasize three distinct but interrelated points:
By juxtaposing my analysis of Que Viva Mexico!, U.S. Left film criticism, and Marxist women writers, I hope to have offered an initial understanding of how gender played a much more multivalent role in the cultural and political workings of 1930s Left than has normally been assumed. Much more work needs to be done in placing the 1930s in our historical and cultural Imaginary, as well as in developing our understanding of Eisenstein’s works from this time. Like Eisenstein’s uncompleted film, I have assembled some fragments from this rich decade into a hopefully productive assemblage in order to indicate where more in-depth scholarship might want to follow.