The film The Little Foxes, directed by William Wyler and written by Lillian Hellman, displays great power dynamics in its female characters. The main antagonist, Regina Giddens, shatters all assumed stereotypes and power roles for women during the time period and location the movie is set in, post-civil war South. The movie also examines the influence other women have on young developing girls, implying the impressionability young girls have. The film utilizes both writing aspects, such as character development and dialogue, as well as technical aspects, such as camera angles and costumes, to convey these messages of unusual power and control in women.
The family examined in this movie is an extremely wealthy Southern aristocratic one. In this time period, women were not meant to be independent in any aspect: politically, financially, or socially. As a result of this social norm of the time, Regina is left to be dependent on her husband Horace while her brothers Oscar and Ben are independently rich. However, because Horace has a severe heart condition and lives in a hospital in Baltimore, Regina is left living alone with her daughter Alexandra. This living situation already sets apart Regina from the rest of Southern aristocratic women in the eyes of the viewer from the beginning of the movie. It gives the audience a background and explanation for why Regina is so powerful and driven; she was forced to become this way through living without the dependency on her husband. The film also sets up a background for the general characteristics of Alexandra’s character through the scene of her riding through town. This scene alone displays to the audience her willingness to grow up despite being babied (through her disdain that David childishly calls her undergarments petticoats), her lack of independence (showing that she has never been anywhere on her own, riding into town with Addie), and her pure and naturally kind nature (through genuinely asking townspeople she comes across about how they’re doing, and asking David how his mother is). The background information given on these characters displays their roles as women in the time period, making the audience better understand why Regina has an unusual amount of power for a woman, how she only got it through the absence of a man, and how Alexandra contrastingly displays the stereotypical role of a young woman during the time period. This contrast set up early in the film makes each woman’s power role more striking to the audience.
Regina seems to be unusually respected and even feared by the men in this movie. Traditionally, the brothers in a family would have all control in a family, especially when it comes to finances. However, Ben and Oscar have a deep respect for Regina’s power, coming to her house and including her in all business negotiations. The several scenes where the family is negotiating in Regina’s living room are by far the strongest display of Regina’s power. She maintains a calm nature and manages to stay one step ahead of her brothers. Normally, women wouldn’t even be included in these types of discussions. Regina shatters that standard as her brothers come to her for the meetings, and she has complete control in them. However, a strong statement is made in these scenes that the only reason she is at all respected by her brothers, or at all seen as an equal, is because she acts like the man in her family. It takes acting like a man would in situations to be respected by other men. Regina has all the power and control a man would normally have in this time period, and is therefore respected by other men. A strong statement this movie makes that she is not respected for just being a woman.
The camera techniques and angles of both the characters and the set also help display various women’s power roles in the movie. There are instances where both Regina and Birdie are sitting in similar fashions in a chair, and yet the camera angles and way the director arranged the rest of the scene give entirely different impressions of these women’s power to the audience. For example, when Birdie sits in a chair she is positioned in the background of the scene, just barely noticeable behind the looming figures of the men in the scene. This makes her come across as a more stereotypical woman in the time period; always literally in the background of men’s affairs, never in the foreground. However, when Regina sits down in a chair during the meetings, the camera places her in the foreground, giving her all the attention in the scene. The other characters, notably all men, are all placed as if they are flocking around her, giving her all the respect and power in the scene. When Regina sits, the director made her chair a throne. When Birdie sits, she’s seen as being cast away and is portrayed as pathetic and unimportant. These very distinct and purposeful direction choices are used to clearly display the strong difference in the expected role of a woman (Birdie) and the strength Regina has when she upsets the power dynamic.
One of the strongest uses of symbolism in this film to display the power of female roles is the staircase in Regina’s house. Throughout the entire film, the stairs can be seen as a visual representation of Regina’s power. She has many conversations with her brothers or daughter from the top of the stairs while they are on the floor. This placement of her being literally above them sends the message of her superiority. It also serves to show her regality, as a queen looking down on her subjects. The stairs can also be used to show the exact points in the film when Regina begins to unravel and lose her power. In the scene where Alexandra is slowly confronting her mother and standing up to her for the first time, she climbs the stairs slowly, representing her gaining power. Regina can also be seen looking extremely wobbly and precariously perched on the steps, which is different from her usual firm stance of power.
Costuming also affects how the female roles are seen by the audience. Regina is mostly seen in long dark dresses with harsh details, dark lipstick, and regal updos for her hair. This is used to show her “evil queen” persona. Alexandra, who has been held down and treated like a child her whole life, wears nothing but youthful frilly dresses, and bows in her long curled hair. This effectively gives audiences a clear sense of Alexandra’s innocence and purity. Birdie is seen in shapeless, bland clothing and more natural-looking hair. This is used in a way that even before Birdie speaks, the audience can make an inference on where she stands in the family and as a woman. Just from the costumes alone, the audience can accurately assume that Birdie and Alexandra represent traditional women for the time period, while Regina is sharply contrasted. The costumes are used so effectively to display the power hierarchy of these women that if an audience simply saw pictures of each character, they may be able to accurately guess which women have more power than others.
The three primary female characters in the film, Regina, Alexandra, and Birdie, are developed and presented all in different ways to give audiences contrasting views of possible roles of women during the time period, and to display a clear power hierarchy in the female characters. Throughout the entire film, Regina represents pure power. She cares only for wealth and control. She is an extremely static character, maintaining a single goal throughout the film. Even without the contrasting characters of Birdie and Alexandra, audiences can easily tell that this woman is not of the norm for her time period. Even with all her flaws and cruelty, Regina’s character is developed as a woman far ahead of her time in terms of power in society. Birdie represents morality. She stirs sympathy in the viewers with her honesty and good intentions, especially when her reward for those good intentions is a harsh assault from her husband. She wistfully wishes for days past, and tries to prevent the same fate she endured from befalling Alexandra. She acts of more of a matronly figure to Alexandra than her own mother. Although she has the lack of power that was typical for a woman in this time period, the audience knows through her actions and character development that she wishes for a different life outside of these stereotypes. Alexandra represents purity and innocence. She is the only dynamic character in the film. The audience watches her transform from a helpless girl who has been treated like a child forever, to a growing young woman pushed into the world on her own and experiencing life for the first time, into a grown up complex character who understands life and those around her. As the film progresses, Alexandra not only gains more life experience, but gains insight into her mother’s true intentions and the power to stand up to her. This power she gains shows the audience that women can have power in a different way than Regina; rather than a dominating, cruel power, women can have a blossoming, kind sort of power.
The film strongly examines the impressionability of young girls, especially from the influence of other women. Alexandra could be seen as a clean slate at the beginning of the film. She is strongly influenced at first by the women around her. There is evidence that she has picked up some cruel habits from her mother, which her father picks up on, asking her, “who taught you to hurt other people’s feelings?” When Alexandra makes rude comments, it comes as a shock to the audience, who wouldn’t expect innocent Alexandra to be anything like her mother. The film makes a statement that a young woman will inevitably be influenced by the other female role models she has, whether those influences be good or bad. She picks up kindness from Birdie, whose main goal in the film is to warn Alexandra of the life she is headed for, the life Birdie herself ended up living. Birdie teaches her independence, telling her not to marry Leo and to stand up for herself. Addie, the housekeeper, is also more of a mothering influence to Alexandra than Regina is. Addie teaches responsibility and thoughtfulness for others, and life lessons that Alexandra wouldn’t otherwise have. Alexandra is the most complex character in the film, because of all of the other female influences she has in her life add up to her total character.
Watching this film, audiences may be conflicted by the admiration of strong female characters, which were very rare in the time period, while also feeling instincts to condemn Regina for her greed and cruelty. I think from a feminist perspective, the film ends in an extremely satisfying way because Alexandra gains power. This way, audiences have a strong female character they can root for without feeling guilty, as even after Alexandra “grows up” and gains power at the end, she keeps her purity and kindness. The movie eventually gives audiences an empowered female they can actually support.