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...

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Marjorie Rosen’s subject in Popcorn Venus is the portrayal of women in motion pictures from the beginnings to early in the 1970’s. The subject had not received extended consideration before 1973. Ironically, in that same year, Molly Haskell’s From Revernece to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, which covered much of the same material, also appeared.

It is not surprising—although it must have surprised both authors—that these two books appeared in 1973. The women’s liberation movement, which had emerged in the 1960’s, had reached by 1973 a point of maturity and influence that made it inevitable that attention would turn to the treatment of women in popular culture and in art, and films belong to both categories.

In its exploration of images of women, including such topics as film characters as role models for women in society, Popcorn Venus represents a relatively early stage of feminist criticism. Some later feminist critics would look more closely at how masculine values are embedded in basic film structures and strategies. The emergence of a number of woman directors in the years following the publication of Popcorn Venus has provided others with their subject, leading to attempts to define what a woman’s cinema might be. In addition, some feminist critics have found in the very films Rosen considers more liberating qualities than she acknowledges. Rosen herself has been criticized by some feminists for letting ideological categories narrow her perceptions.

Yet Rosen’s belief that life imitates art remains justified. As long as films continue to affect how people perceive reality and how they process their perceptions, what Marjorie Rosen has to say will remain relevant.


Basinger, Jeanine. A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, 1930-1960. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993. In the “woman’s film” the author locates a dialectic of repressions and hidden liberations. Basinger places in a later perspective many of the materials examined by Rosen.

Byars, Jackie. All That Hollywood Allows: Reading Gender in 1950s Melodrama. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. Byars, like Brandon French, finds in the American films of the 1950’s more complexity than Rosen does; many films of the period, Byars argues, challenged sacrosanct gender roles.

Doane, Mary Ann. The Desire to Desire: The Woman’s Film of the 1940s. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. Focusing on one of the three decades covered by Basinger, this is an academic, theory-driven, difficult book. It may provide a useful and suggestive alternative to the more empirical approaches of Basinger and Rosen.

French, Brandon. On the Verge of Revolt: Women in American Films of the Fifties. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978. Examining the films of a decade that was, for Rosen, especially depressing from a feminist point of view, French sees things differently: Many films of the decade explore critically the malaise of domesticity and the untenably narrow boundaries of the female role,...

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