Form and Content
Films came into existence in the closing years of the nineteenth century and were thus born in an atmosphere of Victorian morality, but Marjorie Rosen points out that their birth also coincided with, and hastened, the genesis of the modern woman. In Popcorn Venus: Women, Movies, and the American Dream, the question Rosen explores is: To what extent has the modern woman found adequate images of herself on the screen? The answer, Rosen suggests, is less than encouraging.
The first two decades of the century constitute the formative years of the cinema. Those years saw the rise of a new phenomenon: the film star. Women stars were not all cut from the same cloth. Theda Bara’s vamp figure was a grotesque variation on the venerable theme of the woman as temptress and destroyer. Mary Pickford, “America’s Sweetheart,” specialized in playing children and adolescent girls whose combination of pluck and innocence won the hearts of audiences. Bara’s vogue was shortlived, however, and audiences refused to let their sweetheart Mary grow up. She was still playing little girls well into her thirties. What both Bara and Pickford may represent, then, is the early cinema’s reluctance to deal honestly with the experience of women. Even the greatest filmmaker of that era, D. W. Griffith, saw women largely in terms of Victorian conventions of sentimentality and idealization.
The 1920’s and the 1940’s represent for Rosen periods of relative, though finally compromised, liberation. The flapper of the 1920’s, most eloquently captured in the performances of Clara Bow, spoke for a woman’s right to enjoy freedoms comparable to those taken for granted by men. Yet the films assured their audiences that the flapper would ultimately find fulfillment in marriage to the right man, who might turn out to be the...
(The entire section is 748 words.)