From the ’80s: The shrinking woman as allegory

by Brian Clarey

Because I’m always trying to superimpose my own childhood over the one my children are living, I DVRed the film The Incredible Shrinking Woman when it aired in the middle of the night a few weeks ago. I remember really enjoying the movie when it came out in 1981 — I was 11 years old — and I thought that my boys might get a kick out of the clothes and hairstyles. If you’re an old fart like me, you probably remember the movie: Lily Tomlin plays Pat Kramer, a housewife who ingests a strange cocktail of household chemicals and begins to shrink. She’s under pressure from her husband, played by Charles Grodin, and the companies that made the products as a secret government agency hunts her down — their plan is to shrink the entire world and she gets tinier by the day. I remembered that at some point near the end, a gorilla gives a guy the finger.

On this screening, I got a lot more out of it. I loved the cheery color scheme: Tomlin’s hot-pink kitchen and Grodin’s sea-foam green suit. I loved Mike Douglas’ cameo, in which he sang “Little Things Mean a Lot” on his show. Remember when talk-show hosts used to sing songs? I also believe that Grodin and Ned Beatty, who played Grodin’s scheming boss, are much funnier now. But overall, the film holds up remarkably well after 28 years. The special effects are a bit dated, of course, but that’s one of the things that makes it interesting: In the CGI age, a director would be looking for excuses to visually exploit the tiny-lady gimmick, but in 1981 people had to be pretty creative. Tomlin’s diminishment is accomplished through oversize sets and props, optical illusions and camera tricks. Tomlin, Grodin and Ned Beatty, who takes a turn as Grodin’s boss, were all huge stars at the time. (Well, maybe not Grodin). The film was directed by Joel Schumacher, his first feature. Later that decade he would go on to direct St. Elmo’s Fire and The Lost Boys. In the ’90s he was, among other things, attached to a couple movies based on John Grisham novels — The Client and A Time to Kill — and widely charged with gaying up the Batman franchise with 1997’s Batman and Robin. Special-effects specialist Rick Baker created Sydney, the gorilla who gives the finger and — 28-year-old spoiler alert — saves Tomlin from the secret government lab. He also played the role. Baker’s breakthrough film, An American Werewolf in London, came out later that year. Also noteworthy is that Jane Wagner, Lily Tomlin’s domestic partner, wrote the screenplay in their ongoing collaboration of comedic and dramatic works that challenged women’s traditional roles. I was unaware of this the first time I saw the film — at 11, my understanding of lesbianism was… limited.

Back in 1981, the film’s message was anti-consumerist in nature — it was the confluence of all these “miracle” products that caused Tomlin’s character to shrink in the first place. The film opens at a suburban grocery store, and the first few scenes depict a bombardment of commercial products, each more ridiculous than the next. Neighbor Judith Beasley, also played by Tomlin, sells a feminine hygiene spray called “Breathe Easy”; Grodin pitches a perfume called “Sexpot”; and one of the film’s running gags, a super glue called “Galaxy Glue,” has a jingle that may be this movie’s most lasting legacy. Tomlin and Wagner, always subversive, managed to strike a blow for feminism as well. Things were changing in 1981 as the malaise of the 1970s gave way to the years of consumption-based optimism ushered in by Ronald Reagan, who had been in office just 10 days when this film premiered. Tomlin’s character was a stay-at-home mom (with domestic help!) who insisted on doing the shopping, cooking and cleaning herself, even after she had to move into a dollhouse. The essence of the message seemed to be that, with all the wonders of modern science — easy oven cleaners, no-scrub detergents, wrinkle-removing night creams — the role of the American housewife was not so slowly disappearing. “Did she shrink because no one noticed?” a be-winged TV anchorwoman in a powder-blue pantsuit asks. In some ways it was remarkably prescient. Of course, it wasn’t just the inundation of labor-saving household products but also a flagging economy that brought women out of the kitchen and into the workforce — my own mother, for example, went back to work in 1983. And the consumer culture that Tomlin and Wagner lampooned has become not just a reality, but a contributing factor in the dire economic straits in which the country now finds itself. And in the years since 1981, science has discovered that many of these miraculous new chemicals that mop up the grease and keep colors bright also contain additives that cause cancer, respiratory disease, nervous-system disorders and other chronic, degenerative maladies that almost make shrinking seem like a preferable alternative. All of this nuance was, of course, totally lost on my sons, who were more impressed by the toys in the movie, like that plastic faucet with the suction cup the kid had stuck to his forehead or the giant sunglasses he wore. They also got a charge out of the part when the gorilla gives the finger. Even all these years later, so did I.