The (un)Changing Roles of Women and Romance in Early Narrative Cinema

November 17th, 2020

Though women have been present both in front of and behind the camera since the inception of filmmaking, it’s as actresses most are acknowledged in the mainstream history books, and only a few of the earliest of their ilk—such as Lillian Gish, Theda Bara and Mary Pickford—are generally remembered by name.

Perhaps the reason so many of their peers have gone unrecognized is that in the earliest narrative films women’s roles were so limited in scope it must have been difficult to tell them apart, each one embodying the patriarchally accepted standard of the Victorian heroine, which authors Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffith in their excellent book AMERICA ON FILM, describe as:

“…usually virginal daughters, who, if they work at all, do ‘women’s work; such as sewing and cooking. They are rarely active participants in the narrative, except as victims or prizes. They sit and wait patiently for their husbands to return home to them. Frequently, they are associated with childlike behavior and small animals such as birds and squirrels, an editing trope that seems to suggest women are naturally cute and defenseless. They need fathers and husbands to protect them from the sexual advances of other men. (If a man does manage to seduce a good woman, she often chooses her own death over such a disgrace.)”

The few female roles falling outside this mold tended to be some version of the “fallen woman,” usually sexualized in appearance and behavior and who, inevitably, met with an undesirable fate in the vein of a cautionary tale.

Even with the advent of the industrial age in America when more women joined the workforce (affording them some small modicum of independence), cinematic depictions worked to suppress any ideas of exercising their freedom too liberally with a slew of White Slave Films that “warned female moviegoers that their newfound urban independence could easily lead to kidnapping and forced prostitution” (Benshoff/Griffin). Adding to this hateful trend, the female victims in these films were often enslaved by non-White men, thereby also reinforcing racial oppression because such is life in the patriarchy.

Even those seemingly footloose and fancy-free cinematic flappers, such as Clara Bow and Louise Brooks, were repeatedly cast in roles that, by movie’s end, suggested the more daring, sexually open party girls of the roaring 20s would inevitably meet their doom. Sadly, this trend was not confined to on-screen flappers as both Bow and Brooks, badly mistreated and socially maligned by the film industry, came to loathe it, consequently suffering residual mental anguish until the end of their lives.

Then came the 1930s, however, introducing the feisty heroines of the screwball comedies who defy previously held conventions by having careers, vocal opinions and some semblance of power not only over themselves but over the men in their lives. As such, we might be tempted to think, “Hurray! Progress at last.” But progress is relative, and as we’ll see in the coming months, what trends we see in films during any given era weigh far less significantly than why those trends occur. Because it’s the intention not the result that shapes our future. And that future is now—so the question remains: are we really so much happier with cinematic depictions of women than we were 90 years ago?

I for one am not. So, to that end, next time we’ll take a look at the good, the bad and the ugly in screwball comedies and the role they play in the evolution of the contemporary rom-com.




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