Is Mildred Pierce a feminist?

Until HBO started promoting its new miniseries starring Kate Winslet, Guy Pearce and Rachel Evan Wood, I’d never heard of Mildred Pierce.

The central charcter of James Cain’s 1941 novel of the same name is a sexually liberated divorcee who owns three restaurants in the Los Angeles area during the Depression.

By specializing pie and fried chicken — and booze, when Prohibition ended — Mildred blossoms into a wealthy working class entrepreneur with far too much generosity and tolerance for a bratty teenager.

With men, she was for the taking. With Veda, the daughter played by Evan Wood in the miniseries that aired last month, Mildred was blindly enamored.

It’s a fascinating book that’s wildly different than the 1945 film adaptation that’s decidedly more noir than Cain’s original version and features a murder plotline that doesn’t exist in the book. (Michael Curtiz directed it just three years after releasing Casablanca. Joan Crawford plays Mildred)

I haven’t seen the miniseries or the original movie, but the Todd Haynes version — you’ll remember him from “Far From Heaven” and “I’m Not There” — apparently follows the book much more accurately than the 1940s version. (Zap 2 It points out three other ways the films are different.)

The Mildred Pierce in the book and new miniseries is a lot like Keri Russell’s character in the 2007 film “Waitress.” They are both hard working women who find themselves in a predicament that involves love and pie, but are they feminists?

I’ll leave the “Waitress” post up to my friend, Tolly Moseley, who has had dibs on it since before the Feminist Kitchen was even a reality.

But I’ll give you my take on Mildred Pierce, whom the 1945 film described as “a woman who refused to live by the rules”: It’s pretty easy to lose your feminist card when you allow yourself to have such a demented relationship with your daughter.

Veda is her mother’s downfall, but her parents are to blame for creating such a monster in the first place. Ultimately, it’s Mildred’s fault for allowing herself to be so manipulated and deceived by her offspring.

In every other area of her life (mostly), Mildred tackles problems head on and has no problem challenging the status quo. She thrived financially in the most difficult economic years of the century, but an unwillingness to stand up to her own daughter caused her empire to crumble.

We all have our weaknesses, which in life, we aim to overcome, but Veda is Mildred’s Achilles heel. The ultimate weak point that when tapped the wrong way triggers a self-implosion. You defend it, you protect it. In the back of your mind, you know it’s there even though you might not be able to put your finger on exactly where it is.

No matter how sexually liberated or business savvy you are, you have to know when you are being taken advantage of.

Otherwise, whatever is preying on you will just keep taking until there’s nothing left to take.

That doesn’t sound like much of a feminist to me.

9 responses to “Is Mildred Pierce a feminist?

  1. Hello!
    I just read the Wikipedia of the book, and a couple of amazon reviews, so I am by no means an expert on Mildred Pierce, but my first reaction was that it seemed like a really anti-woman premise. A woman goes against the grain, but is ultimately punished for it, like she should have just stayed with her cheating husband. I don’t mind that in the end Mildred wasn’t a success, but I would’ve rather seen her go down on her own terms. Granted, this is just the story the author chose to write. I just wouldn’t in my mind classify the story as feminist just because there are females as lead characters. Also, just to reiterate, I haven’t read the book, and maybe I’d have a different opinion about it if I did.
    Also, I have never commented here before, so Hello (again). My name is Mica Sue, I live in TN, and have a job that allows me to read the internets all day long.

    • Hey, Mica Sue! Thanks for commenting, and I think you have a good point that she seems to be punished for going against the grain. The book, in my mind, definitely takes some big steps down a feminist path, with her kicking her husband out and building up her restaurant business in an era where women did not do that, but it all spirals out of control at the end. This being said, I really did enjoy the book, though.

      Thank you again for the comment and for stopping by! You gotta love jobs like that…

  2. Men transgress and suffer a fall, and it’s called epic tragedy (think the Greeks, Shakespeare, Emily Bronte). Women transgress and fall, and too many call it anti-feminist. Such interpretation does not help feminism.

    And, hmm, it’s Mildred’s fault that she let Veda deceive her. So all the deceptive individuals out there get a pass because the deceived should have known better? Like I say, hmm. A variant on blame the victim.

    Oh well, Monday break during cooking dinner, an every other day switch off with my husb.

  3. Thanks for your comment, Sherry, and I definitely respect your take on this post. I guess I was choosing not to see Mildred as a victim. I’d love to watch the miniseries and see if I’d come away with the same perspective, but this post is really based on the book and in it, there are so many clues and opportunities for her to see how she’s being swindled by her daughter. I was disappointed that Mildred chose not to see her daughter for what she was.

    I commend her (well, James Cain, the author) for pushing this character beyond the limits of what was socially accepted for her time, but for her to be considered a feminist heroine in my book, she would have had to conquer the challenge presented by Veda. Failure is part of life, but so is standing up for yourself when you’re obviously being taken advantage of.

    I really do appreciate your thoughts, Sherry. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I’d agree with Sherry: just because you make mistakes doesn’t make you “un-feminist.” Women and men can be equally blind to the shady sides of the people they love. It doesn’t make them bad people, just human. I would also ask: what makes someone a feminist–or not a feminist–anyway? If we agree that it’s not just about having a vagina, then what defines feminism, and what absolutely excludes a woman (or man) from calling themselves such?

    • Great comment, Laura.

      I didn’t respond earlier to Sherry’s comment about me saying Mildred was “anti-feminist,” which I don’t necessarily agree with. There’s a difference between being being anti-feminist, un-feminist and “falling outside my own personal definition of feminism,” which as you suggest is going to be a different definition for everyone.

      What if Veda were a physically abusive husband and Mildred kept going back to him throughout the book/movie only to watch her career plummet because of it?

      In retrospect, I’m remembering that by the final few pages, Mildred and Veda (mostly) part ways and Mildred gets back together with the husband who had cheated on her in the beginning. What’s interesting is that I have less of a problem with her getting back together with him because he had clearly changed his ways and proved his loyalty to her. Once Mildred finally stopped eating her own tail trying to chasing Veda’s love, I could make an argument that she was realigning herself with what I would define as a feminist. One day, I’ll try to put into words what that is (especially before I do another post with a title like this one….)

      Thanks, Laura!

  5. I don’t think that Mildred fully recovered from her obsessive and narcissist love of Veda. It was Veda who left in the end. I think that one of the reasons Mildred was so obsessive about Veda was because she saw the younger woman as an extension of herself. She saw Veda’s success as a singer and a possible member of the upper-class as her success. Mildred’s narcissm (which Veda has inherited) is what made her such an enabling mother in the first place.

  6. nothing says “I’m a feminist” like judging which other women deserve to lose their “feminist cards”.

    Also, I suppose the fault of women who suffer rape or domestic violence lies with the victim, for allowing herself to be so manipulated and deceived.

    Also it’s awesome fun to watch you review something you didn’t watch and then draw conclusions.

    I hope you are a better cook than a feminist. You aren’t helping the latter group at all.

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