What Is It About The Godfather?: Reconciling The “Woman” in Old Movies

11 mins read

Even after 45 years, The Godfather is a movie that transcends criticism. Sure, back in the day, writers liked to pretend that Brando was too “wheezy” as the role of Don Corleone (an actual Ebert quote) or that Pacino couldn’t handle a role as complex as Michael. But for the most part, it was received critically well then and the world’s respect for its legacy only grows.

Of course, The Godfather is not a movie without its victims. In the literal sense, characters obviously die, sometimes brutally and without mercy. In a more metaphorical sense, the movie has a severe blind spot for women, who exist exclusively to bear children, get married, or be beaten on screen.

Any college literature student, tired of reading white male perspective after white male perspective, will tell you that the canon requires constant updating and rethinking to ensure that a variety of voices are heard, respected, and understood. Thorough education depends on it just as much a child’s self-esteem does (I mean, I hope your kids aren’t watching The Godfather right now, but my point stands). Now that film is also being taught in schools and upheld with the same artistic integrity as literature, is our responsibility to update the film canon to include media that shows a variety of perspectives?

It’s unfair to say The Godfather survives just because of the presence of white men working in and on the film; for one, Italian Americans, though some would be considered “white” by today’s standards, have their own history of discrimination that complicates a simple discussion of privilege. The movie makers, aside from many (such as Coppola) being Italian themselves, went to great lengths to ensure that prominent Italian American rights groups were satisfied with the presentation, as it ran the risk of regurgitating stereotypes. Beyond that, the movie is really a masterpiece. There are elements I can never seem to get out of my head: the juxtaposition of light and dark scenes during the epic opening statement that is the wedding, which provides exposition miraculously without any blatant expositing; the uncut screams when the movie director sees the horse’s head; when Michael convinces the baker to posture like he has a gun to ward off his father’s attempted assassin and the baker is paralyzed with fear; when Vito uses his one favor not for a criminal act of vengeance, but to ask an undertaker to clean up his murdered son so that his wife won’t have to see his mutilated face.

There is plenty more to appreciate. Every scene is a favorite for someone, and Brando, Pacino, and Coppola are legends because of this movie. Still, it’s hard not to look back at old movies and want to read them through a modern eye when we know our canon more readily accepts male stories than female ones. Diversifying our canon means eliminating the media that by now is outdated. We have changed; so too should the media we appreciate.

Unfortunately, that the women in The Godfather are treated with little to no narrative respect doesn’t disrupt any norms, even by today’s movie standards. Most of us who watch a lot of films, especially old ones, or ones that are “dark” (or, worse, “mature”), know to expect the inevitable scene where the female character will be beaten. We grit our teeth and try to respect the movie and its creators anyways.

But why, every time I approach a movie and see someone with a body that looks like my body get beat or raped, should I uphold the movie as a cinematic masterpiece? Why throw my own sense of worth under the bus because a man is pretty good at storytelling, you know, besides the scene where the hero slaps his girlfriend? My least favorite scene in The Godfather is when the daughter gets beat, on screen, by her belt-wielding husband. Immediately after, Sonny goes to get her, and to possibly beat her husband in return. He’s immediately killed on the road; the whole point of his brother in law beating his sister was to pull Sonny out of the safety of his home so a rival family could kill him. That context is important, as is the rest of the context surrounding women in the film: the movie opens with a man fuming over the rape of his daughter as Vito’s daughter gets married in the background. In movies about men and their power, women are their subjects and their property, to avenge when damaged or give away untouched.

That said, The Godfather is about men. Sure–every movie is about men. Maybe. I have talked before on this blog about how men don’t always know they’re writing about men–they often think they’re writing the human experience when in reality they’re writing the masculine one. But I firmly believe that The Godfather is transparently, intentionally about men. Not only is the paternal nature of the Don stressed, as if a monarchy, but Vito makes several references to fatherhood and a man’s job as head of the family. At the meeting of the five families, which is portrayed as part business meeting and part chess game, Vito postures himself as a gentle, wise head of house who seeks for his rivals to be smart about how they conduct their business and seeks for the violence to end. Honor is prized in our aging godfather, even despite the cruelty he himself has helped put into the world. And it shouldn’t go unnoticed that the final shot in a movie told largely through the perspective of men is of a woman’s face–Kay, Michael’s wife, played by Diane Keaton–as Michael’s office door closes in front of her. He has just committed unbelievable acts of violence and gotten away with it. She’s just realizing what he’s done, and that he’s lied to her. It’s the kind of terror we could only experience through an outsider to the patriarchal thirst for dominance–a woman.

Themes of loyalty, honor, power, and violence are hardly ever examined in film or TV without the media examining how they also interact with gender. I think of Mad Men‘s Don and Pete, and how their opposing masculinities collided in every interaction. Even when it’s a woman whose narrative surrounds these subjects–say, Disney’s Mulan (honor, loyalty) or Game of Thrones’ Cersei Lannister (power, violence) or Daenerys Stormborn (power, honor, loyalty)–the conversation is explicitly gendered. It’s treated differently based on gender, whether villains or heroes.

But I find movies like The Godfather, which don’t shy away from the explicitly male story, forgivable. I don’t necessarily believe that violence against women can be excused, but I do believe that violence against women is a part of life, and can be portrayed on screen if used wisely. Much of this depends on the actual filmmaking involved as well–the framing of female characters as sexualized or unsexualized, the actresses faces and bodies beautified more than the male characters or the same, the portrayal of the female characters’ experiences outside of the confines of their relationships with men, etcetera. If characters are written to be complete, they will be complete. If they are written as props, they will come across as props.

The Godfather, perhaps with the exception of Diane Keaton’s performance in the last quarter of the movie, treats its female characters as props in order to tell a different story. I’ll admit; some of my favorite media about women treats men the same way. (Orange is the New Black comes to mind, which tells stories explicitly about women, and regulates male characters to love interests, creeps, and/or people who can get you pregnant.) There isn’t anything inherently wrong with sidelining one story so you can tell a different story–that’s literally how stories are told, especially movies. The problem comes when all stories, whether classic or current, regurgitate the same roles for women day after day. I know how to reconcile with the fact that most movies follow this pattern; what I don’t know is how to reconcile myself with the fact that one of the greatest movies of all time–and one of my personal favorites–fits into this pattern. But I do know that we should keep expecting better, and keep making movies that do better.

Rachelle Martin is a writer, media analyst and graduate student at the University of Southern California. You can find her rewatching her favorite kid's shows, writing furiously about gender, and weeping over the ‘folklore’ album. She is always wearing a sweater.

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