What You Take for Granted...
Work in a white man's world

by JoAnn Elam

from Jump Cut, no. 29, February 1984, pp. 47-48
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1984, 2005

The Women's Movement consistently criticizes the division of labor between men and women, with women's work being limited to domestic (private) space. For a woman, entering the workforce often means doing more cleaning, cooking, and adult-male-care — the same duties she performs in domestic space — for low pay instead of no pay. The Women's Movement has challenged this with demands for affirmative action and equal pay. Many women, feminists or not, have entered jobs and fields heretofore restricted to men.

Michelle Citron's WHAT YOU TAKE FOR GRANTED… is an explicitly feminist film. Through a truly original interplay of form and content, it accurately shows how the social and political reality of token women in "men's jobs" is reflected in their daily lives and relations. The reality is that it's a white man's world. Women who venture onto men's territory live with male hostility, competition, isolation, and weariness. Citron combines the documentary and narrative forms, creating six fictitious women characters and showing them in documentary-style filmed interviews. The characters first appear in a series of shots that follows a short montage sequence of women working. The words doctor, sculptor, philosophy professor, carpenter, cable splicer, and truck driver, not their names, appear under the images of the six characters as they talk about their jobs, why they chose them and how they cope with them. The interviews are intercut to emphasize similarities and differences in the women's experiences, positive and negative. Nine such sequences alternate with nine narrative sequences in which a friendship between the doctor and the truck driver develops.

Many feminist filmmakers use the documentary form. The idea is to have women speaking with their own voices and controlling their own images, being the subject rather than the object. Feminist documentaries often focus on more than one woman, to de-emphasize the "personal story" and show the political aspects of women's lives, where we have things in common. Thus the slogan, "The personal is political." Without denying the uniqueness of individuals and the specificity of our lives, feminist documentaries try to draw connections between us and our sisters.

One of the first and most widely-used documentaries to come out of the second wave of the Women's Movement was Julia Reichert and Jim Klein's GROWING UP FEMALE (1971), which shows six women, ages 4 to 30, and ways they are conditioned to their social role. The film combines interviews with the women with scenes depicting their daily lives, at home and at school or work. It analyzes the conditions of our oppression in a consciousness-raising way, coming up with no answers but another question, "Now what?"

In the years since GROWING UP FEMALE, many women challenged their female-role conditioning. Some, like the women in WHAT YOU TAKE FOR GRANTED, took jobs that changed their public role. Feminist films such as UNION MAIDS and ROSIE THE RIVETER have re-discovered the history of women in the work force. Network TV and mass circulation newspapers and magazines are full of stories featuring women in "men's jobs." Usually these women say things like

  • "I'm not a feminist; it's not necessary any more," or
  • "I didn't have to burn my bra to get into medical school," or
  • "The men give me credit for being as good as they are."

It would seem that all women have to worry about now is losing their femininity. The women in WHAT YOU TAKE FOR GRANTED tell a different story; their lives are not ideal, they have a new set of problems. Again, Citron comes up with no answers, just another "Now what?"

No film, not even a feminist documentary, offers a transparent representation of real people. No matter how real the people filmed are, the filmmaker creates a character when she makes a film She chooses what to reveal about a person and how to reveal it. The filmmaker interprets the person for the audience. Citron's fictitious characters are well-defined and highly believable. Some viewers may not realize the characters are fictitious until the final credits make it explicit. The characters are composites created out of forty interviews Citron conducted with women in non-traditional jobs. Her six women cover a wider range of experience than six real women, no matter how carefully chosen. As one of the women interviewed, I was pleased to recognize my own contributions when I saw the film.

By using fictitious characters, Citron has made overt her control over the images that are presented to us. Furthermore, she controls the relationship between the two characters in the narrative scenes, Anna and Dianna. GROWING UP FEMALE begins and ends with portraits of a daughter and a mother in a nuclear family. In Citron's film, the nuclear family is out the window. Anna the truck driver and Dianna the doctor are both young single white women who live alone. Dianna is a lesbian; Anna is straight. As their relationship develops, their conversations center on their respective jobs, rather than family problems or love life. By concentrating on the work-oriented part of the two women's lives and simplifying their home lives, Citron can show how the class difference between them is expressed in their relationship. This class difference is a simplified one, determined solely by the jobs the two women do. A more complete portrayal of the issue would take into account the influence of family and the fact that working class and professional women have different social groups and social institutions.

The film never explains how a doctor and a truck driver originally had a chance to meet. In the real world, such a meeting would not occur unless the two had some similar interest, such as the Women's Movement, to bring them together. They could have met at a Holly Near concert. But although Anna and Dianna, as well as the four other women in the film, often speak with a feminist perspective, none of them speaks of the Women's Movement or of their participation in any women's group. My impression is that WHAT YOU TAKE FOR GRANTED is geared to movement women, not obviously and perhaps not intentionally.

Throughout the film the documentary and narrative scenes alternate. Three, four, or all six characters are intercut within the nine documentary scenes. In each scene the characters give their own insights on related themes. We are led to make generalizations about the information they present, an interplay of personal and political.

The camerawork is simple, clean, and unobtrusive, without the abstract imagery characteristic of other Citron films, DAUGHTER RITE and PARTHENOGENESIS. The women are filmed in their homes, sitting on a sofa by a plant-filled window or standing in a kitchen doorway. The camera takes the fixed position of a listener, alternating between medium shots and close ups of their faces. The women face the camera and speak directly to it, thus to the audience. We can easily imagine ourselves in the place of the camera, sitting with these women in their homes and sharing their lives.

In the narrative scenes as well, the camera takes a fixed position and is restricted to zooms and pans, a documentary style. Anna the truck driver and Dianna the doctor ignore the camera and talk to each other. They are filmed in everyday settings — their homes, an alley, a park, a restaurant. Often they face each other from opposite sides of the frame, with a car, ironing board, or table between them. They are talking to each other across a separation.

Citron originally filmed many feet of women on the job, to be intercut with the "talking head" shots. But she decided not to use any of it, except short sequences at the beginning and end, because it fragmented the film. I think that fragmentation reflects the total separation of women's domestic space from "the world out there," including the job. Home is the only place where we can be ourselves, have some control. We do not define ourselves at work, but at home, on our own territory.

The characters do not cover the full range of possibilities of women in nontraditional jobs. There are no policewomen, soldiers, security guards, engineers, computer analysts, business executives, or politicians. Perhaps such women would have a less critical attitude and be less ambivalent about the price they pay for the jobs they have. In fact, all the jobs represented are jobs popular with movement women. Citron's extensive research becomes evident in the documentary scenes, as the characters provide a lot of well-organized information, the result of her many hours of interviews.

The carpenter, cable splicer, and truck driver are working class. As the carpenter describes it, they do shit man's work for more pay than shit woman's work. They belong to unions, work outside, work erratic hours. Their jobs are physically demanding and not designed to allow for women's needs. They must prove themselves to their male coworkers, who are openly hostile to them. The cable splicer describes the breaking-in process for a new worker. She thought they were being hard on her because she was a woman, but it turned out that every new worker was treated the same way. When she gained skill at the job, instead of respecting her more, the men respected themselves less for doing a job a woman could do.

The sculptor, philosophy professor, and doctor are professional class. Their jobs have status and enable them to develop skills and creativity. Discrimination against them is subtler. The doctor describes women medical students being weeded out and not knowing exactly why. The philosophy professor says a woman has to be twice as good as the men, but not threaten them. The professionals must play a role, and their success depends on how well they learn the secret rules.

The carpenter and the philosophy professor are black; the other four women are white. While the black women share the same experiences as the white women, they must combat race as well as sex discrimination. The white women can afford not to speak of race. The carpenter tells of an older black man on one of her jobs, who said to her,

"My mother picked cotton. I know women are tough. You can do it."

The philosophy professor says she lives in three worlds: the worlds of women, black women, and white men.

The carpenter and sculptor are single mothers, the cable splicer is married and pregnant (her husband is unemployed), the doctor and truck driver are single and childless, the philosophy professor doesn't say. No husbands or children appear in the film, except for a picture of the carpenter's son in the background. These are women whose traditional roles have been turned upside down. They work with men and live without them. Men are competitors and women are allies.

Sexual harassment at the workplace, in the usual sense of sexual advances by superiors, is not addressed in this film. Harassment described by the women takes more direct and relentless forms — overt male hostility, dirty pictures, crude jokes. The truck driver and the sculptor describe harassment as an obstacle and a challenge. The truck driver says that going into her "lock device" and hanging tough was good for her. The sculptor describes an incident when she successfully challenged a bully, who changed his behavior. The scenario of the angry woman's triumph over the sexist man produces one of the most positive, empowering moments of the film.

But that's not the whole story. The carpenter relates that to her male coworkers, she's either a good girl or a bad girl, and everything that goes with it. She chooses to be a good girl. When they harass her with pornography, she is angry but afraid to show it. The doctor tells about showing anger when her male co-workers joke about child rape victims, only to be criticized herself for unprofessional behavior. The philosophy professor talks about "fogging," a way of suddenly not being there, to avoid dealing with male power structures, getting angry, taking risks. Dealing with male harassment is not such a simple matter.

As the narrative progresses, a tentative friendship develops between Anna and Dianna. Their class differences create a distance between them, and the stresses each undergoes at work affect their relationship as well. They seek out ways to bridge the distance between them, and find they can give each other support as outsiders in a man's world.

Anna the truck driver is feisty, outgoing, and open. She wears a leather jacket, plays the clarinet, drinks tequila and recites Cervantes. She has back problems and insomnia from working double shifts. A narrative scene shows her coming home from work. The camera slowly pans around her living room as she comes through the door, turns on a lamp, gets a beer from the refrigerator, sits down on the sofa, lights a cigarette, drinks her beer, plays her clarinet uninterrupted. She has a lot of books for a working class woman. This shot occurs as a parenthesis within a documentary scene of Anna enumerating the negative (stress of being on call and working overtime), then the positive (working outside, feeling independent, making good money) aspects of her job. Thus Anna is portrayed as a complex person who has problems but is basically comfortable with herself.

Dianna the doctor is quiet and reserved. She spends her spare time doing her housework and answering the telephone. In her scene alone, she is mopping her kitchen floor when her father phones. He is also a doctor and doesn't approve of the hospital where she has chosen to work. She is framed by the doorway as she talks and listens, trying to justify herself to him. This shot occurs as a parenthesis within a documentary scene of Dianna telling how at first she acted like a nurse, smiling at patients, trying to make them comfortable. Then she learned to be a doctor, not to smile, to keep her distance. She says, "You don't want to have to do it that way." Dianna appears to be hemmed in by the restrictions imposed on her by her father and her (his) career. She is tense and repressed.

In another revealing scene, Anna and Dianna run together in the park. As they do warm ups, start to run, then sit down to rest, they are equals in body. But Anna constantly refers to Dianna's being a doctor, with their secret knowledge and strange ways. As for Dianna, her efforts to be acceptable to the medical profession have resulted in the repression of her emotional side. She evades Anna's questions about her love life and finally just refuses to answer them. Anna reacts by apologizing and criticizing her own behavior, "my big mouth." She assumes that she, as the social inferior, is at fault.

As a result of Dianna's reticence, the issue of sexuality is played down. The fact that Dianna is gay and Anna is straight makes their relationship ambivalent and undefined. If both were with men, they'd be with the men or talking about them. If both were gay, we would expect them to fall in love. As it is, sexuality is one more part of their lives they do not share with each other.

WHAT YOU TAKE FOR GRANTED is an important feminist film on the levels of both form and content. Its unusual location on the continuum between narrative and documentary leads the viewer to contemplate the film as fact and fiction, representation and construction. No men appear in the film; the crew are all women also; throughout the film, the concerns are consistently woman-identified. Citron has designed her film so that many women can recognize themselves and their lives in it: professional and blue collar, lesbian and straight, mothers and non-mothers, married and single, black and white. This recognition aspect makes the film valuable to its women viewers and offsets the undercurrent of discouragement at all the difficulties faced by token women.

Women who work surrounded by men are denied membership as equals; in their isolation and alienation they fall back on individual solutions. The union members in the film think of the union as benefits and work rules rather than as an organization they belong to. All the characters seem to live independent, self-contained lives. The stodgy old demand to "show women organizing to change their lives" may be raised here. On the one hand, Citron insists on creating a realistic picture, not an idealistic one. On the other hand, the carpenters she interviewed for her research are members of Women in the Trades, a support group of women who also go to demonstrations together. Perhaps a reference to such a group could have helped to emphasize the isolation, rather than provoke excessive optimism.

Women need to talk to each other and support each other, particularly when we are struggling to challenge repressive institutions. We must confront our differences and the ways we reflect the power of those institutions, as well as our common interests. We need more films like Michelle Citron's WHAT YOU TAKE FOR GRANTED, which address these issues honestly and thoughtfully.