Imitation of Life (Sirk, 1959): Analysis of Women in Cinema

            Film, a medium in which separate images are put together to create an idea, is a powerful force. It’s defined generations, waged wars, and influenced culture. But depending on the creator, film could be used to artistically express complex ideas or it can reinforce certain groups of people to remain oppressed. Women, who are part of half of the population, have been for the most part portrayed in the same manner, as if they are not individuals with unique abilities, experiences, and characteristics. When studying the history of cinema women mostly serve one purpose, that of the other, the figure that is there to satisfy male’s desire. And sadly, for the longest time films that focus on women as breathing living individuals have been thought of as “niche” movies.  In the case of the Imitation of Life (1959) directed by Douglas Sirk we get to examine as an audience two mothers and two daughters as center figures in the narrative, but their realities are vastly different. Lora (the mother) and Susie (her daughter) are white, and Annie (the mother) is black while her daughter Sarah Jane is mulatto. Even though they are all women experiencing the stereotypes that come with being females, for colored women racism makes them even more invisible and less desirable to the male gaze. 

            This does not mean that white women do not experience hardships. As we observe in the beginning of the Imitation of Life, Lora, a widow, finds herself struggling to obtain a job. She dreams of becoming an actress and is objectified as she pursues her dream. In minute 27:24 she is told by Mr. Loomis an acting agent in New York that to be successful she must “eat and sleep with producers” and “accommodate nudes”. Her disgust is evident and well understood. It reflects the argument made by Claire Johnston in Women’s’ Cinema as Counter Cinema that women in Hollywood are a “spectacle” rather than a “woman” (33). Lora is distraught by this reality claiming that Mr. Loomis made her “feel so cheap,” reflecting Johnston’s argument that “the repression of the image of woman as woman” is a “celebration of her non-existence,” making woman rather than a human “shaping history,” as men do, an “ahistorical and eternal” “fetish” (32&33). 

            However, the white woman who is an object of the male gaze and desire does receive the attention of the male individual, and it is this attention what keeps her from becoming fully invisible. Sarah Jane especially understands this reality, unlike her mother, she passes as a white woman and is desired by white men, that is, desired until they discover her mother is black. Bell Hooks in her book Black Looks explains that the woman “to be looked at and desired is white” (118).  Furthermore, she says that “the obsession to have white women film stars be ultra-white was a cinematic practice that sought to maintain a distance, a separation between that image and the black female Other” (119). This is especially true with Sarah Jane, who’s pain is born when she’s othered because her mother is black. There are many instances where this plays out but the most difficult moment to watch in the film was when her own boyfriend beat her for not telling him that Annie was a “negro.” This is such a contrast when compared to Susie whose concern is how to kiss boys, not whether the boy’s parent will accept her mother. 

            The treatment black woman receive is despicable, and white women could never understand how ingrained racism is in culture and how this reality makes them even more othered. From the moment Annie and Lora meet we can see fundamental differences in their lives because of the color of their skin. Lora though struggling, has a place to live in, Annie and her daughter are homeless. Lora and Annie’s relationship begins as a friendship but as soon as Lora gets a chance, she begins to use Annie to advance in her career. At first, she made a remark that seemed to be a complaint of how Annie is treated, and it regarded the man that delivered their groceries who thought Annie was her maid. But little by little as Lora grew ambitious in her career she began, unconsciously, to exploit the benefit of people believing Annie is her maid. In minute 23:13 for example she tells Mr. Loomis, “That will be Annie, my maid, I’ll talk to her.” 

            Lora might be a “victim” of objectification, but the color of her skin helps her get ahead because she is desired, she is desired by Steve, desired by Mr. Loomis, and desired by David Edwards, the writer. All three men provided Lora opportunities to become a successful actress. In contrast, Annie did the hard labor, the cooking, the cleaning, and she took care of Susie. Those are the jobs for a black woman; to dream to get ahead in the way that Lora did was not possible, and we can see this in Annie’s surprise and excitement when she got calls for Lora regarding work. If it weren’t because Annie was there doing the domestic work, Lora would have never been able to accomplish her dreams, instead she would have probably married Steve. Hooks includes an insightful passage by Toni Morrison that further explains this idea and we can see this playing out in the Imitation of Life; it says, “white men take such good care of they women, and they all dressed up in big clean houses” (121). 

Sarah Jane, unlike her humble and hardworking mother, lives between two worlds and it is this reality what makes her fully aware of how fundamentally othered black women are. It is the act of being othered what makes her hate the color of her mother’s skin and what causes her to deny half of who she is. Sarah Janes lives up to what Hooks explains as the “oppositional gaze,” she is aware of the oppression and invisibility of her color and resents being othered. She unlike Annie, fights back while at the same time she is denying her blackness. There are many examples of how Sarah Jane denies her blackness, an interesting moment where she does this is right before she shoots the oppositional gaze at Lora and her guests. In this moment Annie, is preparing food for Lora’s guests, and tries to persuade Sarah Jane to go to a party at the church, of course Sarah Jane rejects her offer for all the “nice young folk” she was going to meet where black “bus boys, cooks, chauffeurs!” She wants to date white men to overcome the oppression that comes with being black.

In minute 1:14:20 we can see the scene where Sarah Jane shoots the oppositional gaze. Of all the scenes in the film this is my favorite because she rebels against Lora’s unconscious ways of treating them like servants rather than friends or equals, which is how their relationship started. In the scene Sarah Jane grabs the plate of shrimp and mockingly mimics the southern accent, immediately Lora picks up that she’s being sarcastic and says, “that’s quite a trick,” in which Sarah Jane replies with a cold stare how she “learn it from her mami” “before she belonged to you.” This moment really is a moment of resistance and power for Sarah Jane, right in front of important producers she faces the white woman that though treats them as friends has them entering through back doors and the kitchen. The back doors and the kitchen clearly state that they are different and do not belong among the rich in society. 

            The Imitation of Life is a wonderful film that awakens audiences to the pains of being woman. Black women are othered to greater extents than white women, for she is not desired nor seen as beautiful. However, this film also gives us insight on how women over all are cut short from being human. We see Lora, an actress being objectified, being turned into a puppet that has little to no control of her schedule and becomes such a slave to men’s demands and her dreams that she cuts herself away from developing a relationship with her daughter. Her daughter Susie feels the pain of not having a real mother that she can go to for support. We also observe how women of color are invisible in a white supremacist culture, which deems whiteness as the standard of beauty. Annie who is black suffers as she watches Sarah Jane navigating two worlds that cast her aside. These are four very different experiences within the same gender, which is incredible because it just proves how an individual woman can be so different and complex in comparison to another, the total opposite of what films have us believing.  

Works Cited 

Hooks, Bell. “Chapter 7 The Oppositional Gaze.” Black Looks: Race and Representation, South End Press, Boston, 1992, pp. 115–131.

Johnston, Claire. “Women’s Cinema as Counter Cinema.” Feminist Film Theory: A Reader, Sue Thornham, ed. NYU, 1999, pp. 31–40.

Sirk, Douglas, director. Imitation of Life. 

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