When ‘No Good’ is Just Right: Barbara Loden’s ‘Wanda’ (1970) as a Balm for The Pandemic Pessimist

Time drips by, inch by aching inch, thick and slovenly. Apathy and aimlessness reign, and are cut by moments of anxiety and fear that oh so momentarily break the haze. Things seem drained of colour; walking takes longer; the home is a mussed, uninviting place; and tasks are lingered upon for no reason other than to have something to do.

I could be describing quarantine, and I am, but I’m also talking about Wanda – Barbara Loden’s 1970 masterpiece of malaise. Loden plays the titular Wanda, who is beset by the kind of apathy brought about by unhappy routine. The film’s opening scene crystallises a feeling of homebound irritation; an older woman stares out a window, a baby cries, a mother holds a toddler and wanders around her small house, opening the fridge, saying goodbye to her husband as he leaves for work. It’s a bleak, but functional, depiction of domesticity. Then, there is Wanda. The camera pans over to her, as she emerges from a pile of sheets and blankets on the couch. We see the mussed back of her head, which falls into her hands. She is clearly not a part of this family – she appears to almost haunt them, existing alongside their goings on. She is, from this early introduction, a woman on the edge, out of place and out of time. When she leaves the house, she is a small, white-clad figure traversing a path through the grey expanse and dirt mounds of a coal mine. The shot spans an arduous two minutes. It’s the kind of pace you keep when you have time to kill, when you have nowhere to be, or somewhere you don’t want to go. In Wanda’s case, its divorce court. She arrives late. She doesn’t care.

What Wanda does care about is brief validation from men, and the film charts her attempts at grasping purpose through tying herself to them. She entangles herself with a would-be bank robber, Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins), and their eventual failed heist is just another setback in a lifetime of thwarted lunges at freedom. Wanda’s survival despite her misery, her ability to ride out even the most crushing of failures and disappointments make her a blueprint for those of us suffering through our own version of a sexist coal mining town. Wanda’s choice to forgo belonging to things that won’t serve her is extreme but a lesson, nonetheless. When Mr. Dennis asks her what she wants, she says she wants nothing. He cannot understand her apathy: “you’re nothing” then, he says, not even a “citizen of the United States”. She tells Mr. Dennis, “I guess I’m dead, then”. She carves herself a space outside of what Mr. Dennis can imagine, a liminal world where she is dead to those who would control her yet living despite them. Her pessimism grants her access to a way of thinking about life that she hopes will protect her from further hurt. The events of 2020 so far have been enough to turn the relatively happy-go-lucky among us toward despair, searching for similar coping mechanisms. The gravity of the global situation begs sober contemplation of the ways in which life has altered and has brought pre-existing inequalities into even sharper relief. Wanda’s story provides a panacea for the pessimist: it assures us we aren’t alone. While Wanda’s decision to exist in the margins rather than struggle toward the centre is not advice anyone should follow, her choices are perversely satisfying, particularly in 2020. Wanda has time on her hands, but little else. The misery-loves-company appeal of watching Wanda in 2020 is finding a compatriot in aimlessness. Often, art tells us to find hope or meaning in painful situations; Wanda allows us to wallow in our lack of hope that things will improve soon or even at all.

Wanda’s name evokes the meandering wander through life she represents, but she is a trapped explorer, and thus reveals the paradox from which her tragedy stems. When Wanda stops to look at a store window filled with mannequins, posed in joyful postures and dressed in feminine fashion, she appears as a caged animal, looked down upon by the mannequins and the patriarchal expectations they represent. Her face, as it is often through-out the film, is hard to read. She looks a fur-clad mannequin up and down, unsmiling; we can only guess at her desires. Does she covet the clothes, or the easy perfection they represent? The comfort of having enough? Or does she pity them, frozen into the shape of an ideal woman? Shots of Wanda from within the window show how Wanda she is constrained all the same, her self-perception keeps her outside the comforting glow of the shop. But Wanda is freer for her lack of these ideals: she can, and does, walk away from the window, leaving the mannequins to their gilded cage.

Wanda’s conversation with her boss at a dressmaking factory is remains as poignant amidst current discussions around insecure work as it surely was in 1970. Wanda enquires about her pay; she worked two days, and made twelve dollars a day, so why didn’t she get 24 dollars? Her boss tells her that after taxes she only gets nine – “that’s the score”, he says. She asks if he’s hiring, and he tells her they are, but she’s just too slow. She smiles and thanks him. In this action, or lack thereof, Loden creates the paradox that is Wanda as feminist icon. She acquiesces to men too swiftly; she doesn’t fight their decisions. But then, how can she? With what weapon, other than her body, can she seek to control the men around her? Is she clever for sleeping with these men, or too malleable, too easily influenced? That she inspires these questions make Wanda a feminist figure, beyond any actions she takes in the film. Her flighty lifestyle can be read as a clever defence against entrapment. Her life is unhappy, but it’s unhappily hers. Her assertion to Mr. Dennis that she is “no good” is laden with baggage, revealing her low self-worth but also her self-awareness. Wanda is not the ideal woman and she knows it. She has the air of someone who knows the game is rigged against her, that her worth will be undercut by the men around her no matter what choices she makes. Wanda’s refusal to walk a pre-defined path, despite the misery it brings, forces a contemplation of the potentially worse situations in which compliance could embroil her. Loden’s response to comparisons with Bonnie and Clyde solidifies her intention to paint Wanda starkly and truthfully – she called the leads “too beautiful” to get into that kind of trouble, and pitched Wanda as the “anti-Bonnie and Clyde”. Wanda’s decision to aid Mr. Dennis in a bank robbery is not for fame or glamour. It’s an act of survival, unimpressive and ultimately a failure. Her role of accomplice is an allegory for how women are too often dragged through life by men undeserving of the power and influence they wield.

The film’s divorce court scene reveals a world tilted against women like Wanda – her husband (Jerome Their) controls the narrative, decrying that he had to make his own breakfast and dress his own children. Wanda doesn’t display any care for her family, her husband or children. She is anti-maternal, unsweet and gruff. She leaves the court, back to her meandering ways. Still, it’s Wanda’s film – her husband, despite his privileged position in life, is nameless and unimportant. As Amy Taubin describes, Wanda is “no man’s fantasy”, but she is not the traditional ‘girl power’ heroine women aspire to emulate either – unlike feminist films of the 1970’s like Wonder Woman and The Stepford Wives, which used the beauty of women and the pleasure of looking to present feminine power, Loden leaves Wanda grubby and unlikeable, challenging traditional depictions of women in both form and content.

A close-up of Barbara Loden
Image courtesy of WikiCommons

Loden has become as much a discussion piece in feminist cinema as her protagonist, and while the film’s narrative is pessimistic, the story of the film as object is rather more hopeful. The film’s 2019 addition to the hallowed Criterion Collection after languishing in relative obscurity for so many years also says something about reflection, and our ability to retroactively elevate something previously undervalued. More than that, there is a sense of connection to be had between Wanda and any woman, any person who has been held down by circumstance. The pandemic has further marginalized the already vulnerable – women are more likely to be in insecure work, and insecure work is the first to go in a financial crisis. This cycle of fighting for a chance, only to be the first to fall in times of hardship, is exhausting. The film tells us little about Wanda’s life before the film, but it’s easy to imagine Wanda as a sufferer of the hope fatigue that comes from constant disappointment, dashed expectations and constant rhetoric telling us to fall nine times and get up ten.

Wanda reminds its viewer that hopelessness is built from the outside in – we are not weak because we can read the signs of impending, or continuing, doom. Wanda’s life is filled with bad choices that aren’t really choices, her loss of faith in the future clear in her lack of care for the consequences of her actions. What is refreshing about this is how the film allows its central figure her marginalisation – she is not required to redeem herself, to become a hero, to rise up and over her struggles. It’s a film that sits down next to you and lets you vent about how life sucks, rather than trying to fix everything. Right now, when blind hope can feel insensitive, films that relish discomfort are profoundly necessary. There are other movies that inspire an equally necessary positive outlook, which we are sure to turn to in the months and years to come as we process the devastating effects of COVID-19. For now, Wanda is a balm for the pessimist that’s starting to think they’re a realist. Loden made a film for the moments when we need to look our bleak situation in the eye and sit with it, acknowledge it. The film knows nothing really changes, and yet, thanks to Wanda, something has shifted.