This week on Feminist Flashback Friday, we detour to a different kind of femme who perfectly embodies the freedom, spirit and joy of womanhood and comes in the form of Maude Chardin, played by the fabulous Ruth Gordon, in Hal Ashby’s 1971’s cult hit Harold and Maude.
Who Is She?
Dame Marjorie Chardin (but you can call her Maude) is a 79-year-old quirk-fest who makes the acquaintance of sober, death-obsessed twenty-something, Harold Chasen (Bud Cort). Maude is the polar opposite of Harold; where Harold resents his youth and his life ahead of him, Maude cannot get enough of life and constantly emphasizes its fragility.
This odd pair meet at a funeral, which they both love to attend (though for totally different reasons) and soon a friendship is formed between these two kindred spirits. Maude teaches Harold about the beauty of learning; of art, music and fun; of seeing the world in a way that never occurred to Harold. She plants into his head the idea that life is cyclical and that death is never the end.
To Harold, who has always seen and romanticized death as an end, Maude is a breath of fresh air. She attends to him and talks to him rather than at him (like his well-meaning but unhelpful mother).
What Makes Her a Badass?
Maude is who we all wish we had the guts to be. We may work at obtaining some level of Maude in our lives, but we will likely never achieve the height of spectacularity that is Maude Chardin. Despite being almost 80, Maude poses nude for painters, steals cars as she pleases (because she believes that it teaches people to not become so attached to material objects), sees beauty in everything, is constantly eager to experience everything, is an activist and had been arrested for this political activism in her youth, and — surprisingly — is a Holocaust survivor.
The latter fact is discovered by Harold on accident when he spots a concentration camp number tattooed on her arm and suddenly the viewer is jolted into a somber reality in which a woman like Maude, who hasn’t a negative word to utter for the world, lived through one of history’s most terrifying and horrific ordeals.
That Maude is able to see the wonders of the world and still preach her political beliefs in a non-confrontational way while dedicating more time to living and enjoying life is admirable and something I’m sure a lot of us wish we were able to do. More than that, though, Maude refuses to be anything but her own boss. She’s not out to rule others nor does she invite being dominated by the world. She chooses how she lives, where she lives and when she lives. She has a stronghold on her own life in a way that many of us likely envy.
Why Does She Still Matter Today?
To be totally honest, I’m not sure why Maude matters today. Or rather, I’m not sure that she (and people like her) ever didn’t matter. We need to be reminded by the Maudes of the world that despite all the shit that we see day in and day out, despite all the heartache and unfairness we fall victim to, despite all the bad in the world, there is always a way to find a little corner of joy.
Be it attending funerals to remind you how awesome the circle of life is, or doing cartwheels in a meadow without caring how much of an ass you look like, everyone has something that they turn to to bring a smile to their face. Maybe Maude matters because she’s a hyperbolic reminder that there is lots of good in the world, hidden under the dirt and debris of humanity. It’s a reminder that is always welcome and often necessary.