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 flapper’s millionaire employer. One value the flapper surely symbolized was social mobility; she might finally respect moral boundaries, but she was undaunted by the boundaries of class.
The relative emancipation of the 1940’s arose largely out of the necessities of wartime. Women were required to step out of their stereotypical roles and to assume responsibilities long regarded as masculine. While this period saw the emergence of the pinup girl (Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth) and the bobby soxer, it also paid significant attention to the theme of women living without men. Love might remain the central point of conflict, but the films of stars such as Rosalind Russell and Katharine Hepburn, especially when Hepburn teamed with Spencer Tracy, suggest that self-awareness and professional elan may exist side by side with romance.
The 1930’s and 1950’s, however, were periods of relative regression and repression. Women suffered disproportionately from the effects of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, but neither the reality of their lives nor the generosity of their aspirations found more than intermittent expression on the screen. The period had its share of powerful female stars. Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich found new complexity and depth in the figure of the mysterious woman, and Jean Harlow and Mae West embodied in their different ways the woman as subject, rather than object, of desire. Too often, however, the women of Depression-era films appear as sacrificial lambs, willingly denying their own needs for the sake of their men, or as profligate socialites in the social fantasies that were among Hollywood’s favorite strategies of denial.
By the 1950’s, women had become the numerical majority in American society, but the films of the era reveal a shift away from the relatively autonomous heroine of the 1940’s. Whereas in the real world the national divorce rate was climbing precipitately, films were asserting the value of marriage over a career. The woes of the “woman alone” became a common subject, and not even Katharine Hepburn, in such “spinster films” as The African Queen and Summertime , managed to depart from the...
(The entire section is 1,465 words.)