‘Alfie’ (1966) deals with issues of 1960’s London both subtly and cleverly entwined within the protagonist’s life and daily events. ‘Alfie’ does not represents the usual stereotypical view of ‘The Swinging Sixties’ but instead creates a more realistic, gritty and sometimes dark view of the other side of London during the time.
The film deals with current political issues of abortion. It also looks at the role of the female under male submission. In looking at these issues it creates an overview of the attitudes to sex, sexism and gender roles of the period, which caused the beginning of revolution and built vital foundations for many decades to come.
Due to the great period of financial increase in Britain at the end of the 1950’s London and the rest of the country began to radically change, socially and physically. The physical landscape of the city changed due to large parts of London being destroyed in the war resulting in the replacement of the large concrete towers which shadow London even to this day. During this time cultural and artists’ progressions helped shape and promote the image of ‘Swinging’ London which the protagonist of the film ‘Alfie’ is represented in and being at the heart of this cultural change. A new lifestyle of permissiveness and liberation was created and then first documented to the world in 1966 in the Time’s Magazine article ‘London: The Swinging City’ by Piri Halasz. The article outlined the ‘cool’ and ‘trendy’ places to be in London such as Kings Road and Carnaby Street. The article stated that emancipation from old London was caused by affluence, “Offering both material and sexual opportunity” The emergence of new youth subcultures formed a revolt against the older generation. But this image of ‘swinging’ London under the surface of the “new youth orientated culture of the 1960’s helped mask the wider social inequalities and economic problems”. This is shown throughout the film ‘Alfie’, London may have seemed a place of freedom and sexual revolution for all but ‘swinging’ London mostly remained a myth and for many people especially women this exaggerated image was more of a fairy tale.
The films most gripping and horrific scene is where the protagonist and a married woman (whom he had an affair with) go ahead with an illegal abortion in a shabby flat carried out by an unqualified doctor. The year after the film ‘Alfie’ was made, 1967, was the year The Abortion Act was introduced by Liberal MP David Steel, in support by the government and numerous conservatives. Before the act was introduced “The law forbade all ‘unlawful attempts to procure a miscarriage’, except where it is necessary to preserve the life of the mother.”(Wheen.F, The Sixties, 1982, P112). Leading up to the end of the 60’s many people started to question and dispute the restrictions of this law. This lead to Steel’s Act legalising abortions on the conditions that two doctors agreed that the birth of the child was dangerous to the women’s mental and physical health or that the child may be born disabled. For affluent women private clinics offered safer but still illegal abortions, but for normal working class women of Britain safe legal abortion was not an option. Women either had no choice and go through with the pregnancy or use unorthodox methods of physical abuses such as cases of women throwing them selves down the stairs, substance abuse and back street abortions which were extremely dangerous and illegal (as shown in ‘Alfie’).
This scene of the film effectively shows the trauma’s of women in1960’s who had no other option but to opt for an illegal and hazardous abortion. The pill had been introduced in the late 1950’s but did not become widely used until the late 1960s when it was finally introduced to the NHS in 1967. However the Pill was not given to unmarried women and the women had to rely on a doctor with a liberal attitude to the new conception as the pill was only available at local doctor’s practices. This created an obstacle for many women who did not dare to ask there doctor for the new conceptive pill. The 1960s went on to produce a third more illegitimate babies than the previous generation and in 1967 70,000 illegitimate babies were born resulting in women being forced into marriage with the father of the child, pushing up the number of ‘shotgun marriages’ in Britain to 1 in 6 of all weddings.
“Had ‘Alfie’ come out in the 1970s, when Women’s Lib was digging its spurs into male flanks, it would have been dubbed a crude propaganda tract for chauvinist male pigs.”(Walker.A, Hollywood, England, Harrap, London, P307). Throughout the film the protagonist treats women as mere objects rather than human beings. He refers to women as “Bird” or “It”. The film shows clear signs of male domination over women and the protagonist’s main method of supremacy is the degradation of the female as a lust-object.
During the 1960’s women’s independence from men was very limited. In 1968 thirty eight percent of Britain’s workers were female. Women in administrative and clerical jobs earned around £12 a week whereas men in the same industry earned more than double the amount with £28. As is the same with Manual work, the women earning just £10 and the man wages double with £20 per week. This limits the women’s independence since for survival she can not live with her wage alone but becomes reliant on the Males higher earnings, especially to support a family. This is shown in ‘Alfie’ where the character, Gilda, needs financial security to look after her baby as her wages, even working long hours in a brewery, can not support her and the baby easily.
There is some female independence in the film however. The character Ruby is rich American older women. She is the only women in the film to reject the protagonist just like he has with numerous other women throughout. It is essential that the independence of this woman relies on the fact that is very affluent and the fact that she is American not British suggesting that women in America are far more liberated than British women at the time. This was true in a sense. Women’s liberation was politically visible in the 1960’s America but was hardly noticeable in Britain, this was due to the fact that in Britain there was still a certain acceptance between Men and Women “which softened the potential antagonisms which in America were already producing …violent and hysterical manifestations.” Not until the very end of the 1960’s were there any real developments which matched that of America. It came in the form of a book, ‘The Female Eunuch’ by Germaine Greer. As this book was published in 1970 the book can be seen a reaction from British female repression in the 1960s and before, which then went on to influence the feminist movements of the 1970’s.
Although as a stated the feminist movements in the 1960’s were scarcely visible, however the foundations of what were to come in the 1970s were being laid and the 1960’s feminist movement was seen as “it’s springtime; the full summer was yet to come.” First many women, mainly middle class became intrigued by a new subculture which started to come to the forefront in Britain at the time, ‘The Hippies’. This Hippy ideology promoted people to “take up the idea of personal politics, of ‘doing your own thing’”. In doing so women believed they would be emancipated from the role of ‘domestic wife’ and child bearer but then realising that the Hippie communities they join were no different and they too also wanted women to fulfil these same roles.
Secondly coming in to view was the experimentation with fashion. Mini skirts and hot pants dominated women’s fashion in the mid and late 1960s, rebelling against strict Victorian values to cover up. However this sort of liberation is seen by some feminists as actually “mainly making it a picnic for men”. But taking in to account this new style and behaviour was only a select group of women and was not a generalised code of conduct across the whole country. This new attitude and style caused the labelling as ‘permissiveness’ which then went on to let women feel more sexually liberated as well as a act of freedom from men. This new sexual charged image helped started a revolution in the way men and women acted in society.
In ‘Alfie’ the protagonist leads a life of sexual freedom. With numerous partners and little care, producing the view that London and Britain in the 1960s was going through a sexual revolution resulting in the name ‘The Swinging Sixties’. What the film does show is that the new ‘swinging’ London and the sexual revolution of the 1960’s was mainly only beneficial for the men whilst the women had to deal with the consequences while the males and the protagonist show little conscience for the impact of there actions and carrying on living there supposed sexual revolution. This is shown in ‘Alfie’ where the protagonist’s sexual freedom does get him finally into difficulty when he has an affair with his ill hospital friend’s wife, leading to pregnancy and abortion. This particular incident is one of the only times in the film that the protagonists shows some morality to his carefree sexual antics.However the protagonist of the film is classed as a one-off ‘player’ and in the reality and larger scale of things the permissive society was only a small group of individuals’ in1960’s British society.
“Considered in the larger context, this process is not as dreadful as it may seem. It is only the sudden change from a society with perhaps a hundred thousand makers of taste and players of the fashion game among a wilderness of millions who were too ignorant, poor and out of touch to care; to one in which there are five million players.”(Peter Laurie)
The idea of a care-free sexual revolution in Britain during the 1960s was more of a façade and only was apparent to groups of “Leisured elite…Bohemian fringe” or minorities which then became exaggerated and out of proportions. However the era did show an emergence of a sexual climate in the 1960s due to involvement of many numerous factors which contributed to the change. The conceptive pill was introduced in the late 1950’s but came more widely used years later, The Abortion Act, The Sexual Offences Act and the amendment of The Divorce Act in 1969. A clear sign at the very beginning of the 1960’s which showed a clear sign of sexual change, which would later become more evident throughout the decade was the trial against the publishers, Penguin , of the D.H Lawrence’s novel ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. The book previously banned in Britain when it was first introduced in 1920 for its lewd and sexual content was now under scrutiny again when Penguin took the decision to republish the book. The book created uproar with many people. However the prosecution presented a disastrous case for the banning of the book projecting an image of an outdated view of society being a strict and moralist Victorian era. Penguin were acquitted and the book became an instant phenomena in Britain, as the sales of the book went through the roof ( two million copies being sold in the first week after the trial) and helped lead the way for more sexual charged novels to hit British bookshop shelves.
Nevertheless even though this contributed to “a compulsion to be sexual” (Elizabeth Wilson) it did not create a casual care-free sexual behaviour shown in ‘Alfie’ by the protagonist, but instead “sexuality was both to expand and flower in liberated fashion and to be organised within marriage” (Elizabeth Wilson). In a survey carried out by Geoffrey Gorer, ‘Sex Marriage and Today’ (1969) it shows that “Twenty six percent of men and sixty three percent of women were virgins and the time of marriage”, this suggests that mostly the female population still regards their virginity to be a sacred part of marriage and that it must be kept specially for the person you love. In addition “Eighty-six per cent of women and 74 per cent of men considered that they had really been in love at the time of marriage.” Furthermore Gorer also found that women found sexual love to be very important part of marriage, sixty-seven per cent of women believed this to be true. This reinforced the views that virginity is scared to love (mainly females) and that the ‘sexual permissiveness’ was not a myth of the 1960s but that it was an act carried out in marriage which Elizabeth Wilson stated above.Looking at the survey (Gorer 1969) and other sources from the time suggests that marriage is till very important in the 1960’s. In the film marriage is seen as an answer to the character, Gilda’s problems. In marrying, the character would gain financial security for her family and have the perfect family unit.
The film ‘Alfie’ deal with a wide range of issues related to gender, sexuality and sex in 1960s Britain. Matters of sexuality and gender are not upfront or aggressively displayed but are represented in a more subtle and ‘read between the lines’ approach. The issues of feminism, discrimination and male repression are played in a comedic approach which results in the contents of its jokes, no matter how offensive, going unnoticed throughout the majority of the film. The film deals with very strong issues of abortion which is the films hardest hitting message. It successfully shows what women of the time had to go through and offers an effective interpretation.
The main protagonist may seem like a spokesperson of the sexual revolution of the 1960s but he only represents a small group of people who carry out this ‘player’ image, which is more a depiction of a male fantasy figure rather than reality. The truth behind this façade is the care-free love and sexual freedom was more a uniformed liberation carried out in matrimony rather than arbitrary sexual behaviour.
The film effectively offers a wide interpretation of the issues in Britain of gender, sexuality and sex in the 1960s. ‘Alfie’ is about an individual, which is very important as it can not be generalised to represent the whole of Britain and the era, nevertheless it does raise key issues successfully throughout the film.