Elizabeth Taylor was many things: a talented actress whose first star turn came at age 12 in National Velvet; an international celebrity whose eight husbands included her Cleopatra co-star Richard Burton twice; an AIDS activist long before it became fashionable; a recovering addict, diet book author and friend of Michael Jackson; and a voluptuous, violet-eyed, raven-haired beauty for the ages. But was she a feminist?
In a new book, The Accidental Feminist, published almost a year after Taylor's death, the cultural critic M.G. Lord maintains that Taylor was indeed that, notwithstanding her well-known affection for fabulous jewels, clothing and accessories not normally associated with the women's rights movement.
Taylor's stepdaughter Kate Burton, with whom the actress maintained a close relationship after Richard Burton's death, disagrees with the premise, although she acknowledged in an interview that she sees "the thread of feminism" in some of her stepmother's movies. "I don't see her thinking of herself as a feminist," she says. "I think she just does what she does."
Burton may be right, but Lord makes a fairly persuasive case that Taylor, even if she didn't identify herself as a feminist, was such a commanding and original presence in both her personal and professional life that she instinctively communicated empowering messages to women. Thus the title of the book, "The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice."
In the 1994 book "Forever Barbie," Lord argues that the plastic doll with impossible curves was actually a positive role model for women. In "Accidental Feminist," she discovers latent feminist content in nearly a dozen Taylor vehicles, beginning with 1944's National Velvet, when Taylor's character dresses as a boy to ride her beloved horse in a national championship race.
She goes on to consider Taylor's roles in A Place in the Sun, Giant, Suddenly, Last Summer, BUtterfield 8, Cleopatra, The Sandpiper and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as well as her stage portrayal of a Southern matriarch in the 1981 revival of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes.
Like Kate Burton, you may not be entirely persuaded that "the subversive drumbeats of feminism ... swelled in the star's important movies over decades from a delicate pitty-pat to a resounding roar." But this provocative feminist appreciation will surely tempt you to rent or download her best movies, to acquaint or reacquaint yourself with this marvelous force of nature.