Everyone knows that size equals power. Raw, unhinged power. The type of power to destroy or control, just because you physically can. Attack of the 50ft Woman (Nathan Juran, 1958), and all it entails, definitely stimulates some sort of dialogue about power dynamics between men and women – and not just because of the size of the protagonist.
For a B movie made in 50s, marketed at the pulp-sci-fi crowd, Attack of the 50ft Woman is not the most obvious place to spot feminism. And reasonably, it’s not what we would call a feminist film by today’s standards. However, it does do a very interesting job of reflecting attitudes about hysteria, power, sexism and marriage in the 1950s. It’s also unique in that (due to its narrative) actually visually depicts the power struggle between men and women.
In the midst of ‘satellites’ (alien spacecraft) sightings across the world, Nancy (Allison Hughes) and Harry’s (William Hudson) marriage is falling apart. After a short spell in a rehabilitation centre, Nancy has returned to town determined that her marriage to Harry will succeed. Harry has other ideas – namely getting his wife committed so that he can make off with her fortune (Nancy is pretty damn wealthy) with his new squeeze Honey (Yvette Vickers). Nancy knows Harry is a no good two-timing bastard, but her fatal flaw is that she loves him anyway.
Harry’s plan comes close to fruition as he plots to inject Nancy with a lethal dose of medicine, but is caught red handed. Just as he plans his escape from town with Honey, he is stopped by the town’s Sheriff and warned not to leave town. We then learn that, after a bizarre encounter with one of the satellites, Nancy has been transformed from a regular sized human to (you guessed it) 50ft tall.
With her new physical power, she seeks out Harry at the local bar where he’s cavorting around. Angry and upset by Harry’s infidelity, Nancy destroys the bar (and a couple of other buildings along with it) and ends up with Harry (quite literally) in the palm of her hand. Unfortunately, she is then shot down by the Sheriff, killing both Nancy and and Harry.
Yes, it’s zaney, and there some very questionable ideas about women but there’s also some vein running through Attack of the 50ft Woman that I could get on board with.
Nancy is an incredibly wealthy woman, who is also treated terribly by both the townspeople and Harry. Her mental health is alluded to by the Sheriff, but only insofar as to say that she is basically crazy. She is written off as a wealthy but ‘troubled’ woman who has a drinking problem – one of the Sheriff’s department even saying that she is crazy, but she pays all of their bills so he does what she tells him to. Nancy is described to us in this way before we are properly introduced to her – and when we are it’s quite clear that Nancy isn’t a ‘mad woman’ at all.
Nancy’s main frustration stems from Harry’s inability to stay faithful to her. She is heartbroken, but this is read as hysterical by the men in the town. Attack of the 50ft Woman actually introduces the idea of gaslighting – Harry purposefully makes Nancy think that she is crazy, in order to have her sectioned and take her money. Knowing Harry’s plan, we can empathise much more with Nancy’s apparent paranoia, because she is right! Harry is having an affair, and she shouldn’t trust him at all! Gaslighting is a useful term – generally applied within relationships when one partner attempts to undermine the opinions or ideas of the other. Harry tells Nancy that she is paranoid (both about the alien satellite and his cheating), convincing her that she saw neither event and is simply imagining it. We know, and Nancy does too, that this is simply not true.
So how can Nancy rectify her anger, broken heart and lack of power in a man’s world? How can Nancy escape and get even with her gas lighting toad of a husband? Well, physically she overpowers him. She gets really, really big. One the one hand, Attack of the 50ft Woman is a pulpy sci-fi which features a giant woman in her lingerie, but in another very different reading it’s actually about how little power women can have within society.
Nancy is a white woman with a lot of money. A lot. Her diamonds are almost constantly talked about by herself, Harry, the Sheriff – pretty much everyone. When she is “attacked” by the alien, she tells Harry that it seemed to reach for her diamond necklace. It seems unlikely that an alien would have any interest in jewellery, but Nancy’s paranoia of losing her jewellery underlines her fragile position within society. She has very little power, but what she does have is solely down to her financial status. If she loses that, then there is nothing else she can lean on to be respected or treated as a human (even if this respect is fake anyway).
Of course, this analysis and identification with Nancy requires the film to read in a certain way. We, as a modern audience, recognise the sexism directed at Nancy straightaway. She’s considered hysterical (because she’s a woman), she isn’t taken seriously (because she’s a woman) and the men in the town are all top happy to cover for Harry when he is lying to her. I get the distinct impression that when Attack of the 50ft Woman came out, audiences would not have identified with Nancy at all. Now, though, we can see this film for what it is. A woman being gas lighted, lied to and emotionally abused whose only glimmer of hope to regain some of the power in her relationship is to quite literally overpower him.