Getting divorced was the greatest thing that ever happened to Julia Roberts’ character in Eat Pray Love: The aftermath involves getting down with James Franco and Javier Bardem, not to mention copious amounts of gelato and pizza, and, if the trailer is to be believed, finding “your truth” at the “center” of your life. The movie is based on the book of the same name by Elizabeth Gilbert (which has been criticized for glossing over the messier parts of divorce). But who wants mess when you can revive the great ’70s film trope: the woman liberated by ditching her husband.
Hollywood has been grappling with divorce since before there were talkies, says film critic David Thomson. Cecil B. Demille, he points out, made a number of films with Gloria Swanson that were flirting with the idea. But those films, like Don’t Change Your Husband(1919), and Why Change Your Wife? (1920) can’t quite let the women revel in their newfound freedom and truly move on. In Why Change Your Wife?, Swanson plays Beth Gordon, a nerdy woman whose husband leaves her for a glitzier babe. Rather than move on with her life, Gordon decides to get a makeover and wins her husband back.
In the ’30s and ’40s, comedies of remarriage like The Philadelphia Story were in fashion. As Willa Paskin described the genre in a Double X article from last year, these rom-coms “dissect the institution and then build it back up again.” The films often begin with a divorce, and then the divided pair ends up back together. Although the female characters in these films are often independent, sassy dames, the genre is an affirmation that happiness comes from the institution.
The trope of the woman emancipated by divorce didn’t really take hold until the ’70s—this isn’t surprising, as divorce rates increased exponentially during that decade, as part of a wave of “self-actualization.” An Unmarried Woman, starring Jill Clayburgh as Erica, a jilted Upper East Side wife, is the epitome of the ’70s divorce-liberation flick: The film turns “the heroine’s unwedded status into a positive growth experience,” according to the New York Times. She even shacks up with the requisite ’70s “sensitive bearded artist.”
In the intervening 30 years, many movies have portrayed women in the throes of post-divorce self-discovery. The process has some familiar steps, including dancing in various flattering, decade-appropriate outfits (An Unmarried Woman, Living Out Loud), destroying your ex-husband’s possessions (Waiting To Exhale, The First Wives Club), doing recreational drugs (Living Out Loud, It’s Complicated) and traveling to foreign lands to meet hunky dudes (How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Under the Tuscan Sun, and of course, Eat Pray Love). Herewith, a slide show of ladies who are loving life, sans husband.