Today we'll be discussing the "New Women" as they were shown in the cinema and related publications. I'm taking my facts from the in-depth examination of the pin-up by Maria Elena Buszek's book Pin-Up Grrrls: Feminism, Sexuality, and Popular Culture, so all the quotes are from her book.
Actresses & Pin-ups During the Roaring 20's
Cinema became popular as the New Woman was rearing her head in American society, and the two new cultural influences grew to support the other. By the end of the 1920s, women made up approximately 80% of the cinema audience, and so films catered to them, creating positive images of the New Woman through many characters.
The popularity of pin-ups was something Hollywood was happy to use to their advantage, and by "1915, Paramount Studios' publicity department was boasting to exhibitors that pin-ups extended advertising dollars ordinarily spent on newspaper ads." Pin-ups of actresses could be found on everything from pillows to make-up containers and helped to create a fan culture.
Much like the carte-de-viste pin-up in the early years of burlesque, most popular imagery of these early cinema actresses drew upon the novelty and desirability of their performing nontraditional sexual roles both on- and offscreen. While these increasily diverse representations of the period's transgressive new female ideals were compiled, compared, ad contrasted side-by-side in the albums and scrapbooks of fans who collected them in the manner of theatrical photos before them, cinematic pin-ups would be additionally used and admired in -- and, for many fans, even derived from -- the new, prepackaged "albums" that would soon replace them: film fan magazines.One of the first film fan magazines, published in 1912, was Photoplay. It included a pin-up gallery in each issue. "By the end of its first year in print, Photoplay's pin-ups began replacing stills as illustrations for feature articles," and soon the articles became far less important than the images, which were incorporated further into the content and magazine cover.
[F]anzines sold an image of womanhood that was at once subversive and status quo, constructing and glamorizing the upside-down world of both movies and the studios that made them ... Photoplay built on this message of film culture in general by constructing Hollywood in particular as a sort of transgressive alternative society to established urban centers of the eastern and central United States -- a "wild west" full of new opportunities for intelligent, enterprising women.
This sense of California's unique possibilities for women celebrated by Photoplay was surely aided by the fact that, just before the magazine's launch, the state had joined its western neighbors Wyoming and Washington in allowing women the vote -- the first three states to grant universal suffrage to its citizens... California's voting female population surely lent to the glow of a woman-friendly aura around Hollywood.
Alas, in the same way that the success of suffrage with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment led to the dissipation of its supporters and a subsequent decline in the momentum of feminist activism throughout the 1920s, so too would the cinema lose an important and politically charged point through which to address and flatter its female subjects in these years.The darkest and supposedly most sexually potent of the cinema New Women came to be expressed through the "vamp" archetype, which was "symbolic of not just feminism's potential power to destroy the family and society, but also the ways in which it might positively introduce new ideas about both women's passion and men's frailty as gender roles fluctuated not independently, but in relation to one another." The vamp was also one of the only opportunities for actresses of color to be represented as desirable in film and pin-ups in this era. "Vamps...would ultimately be victims to the very sexual openness that they helped usher into cultural history, particularly as sexual expression itself came to be presented in fan culture as nothing less than the inevitable next frontier..."
The vamp evolved into the "vampette," a type of gal we know by the term, "flapper." Contemporary journalist H. L. Mencken described the flapper this way:
This Flapper, to tell the truth, is far, far, far from a simpleton . . . The Age she lives in is one knowledge. She herself is educated. She is privy to dark secrets. The world bears to her no aspect of mystery. She has been taught how to take care of herself. . . She has read Christobel Pankhurst and Ellen Key, and is inclined to think that there must be something in this new doctrine of free motherhood. She is opposed to the double standard of morality, and even favors a law prohibiting it. . . She plans to read Havelock Ellis during this coming summer. . . She is youth, she is hope, she is romance -- she is wisdom!
Clara Bow was one of the most popular actress/flappers. She played characters that moved easily "through scenes, across classes, and up ladders both professional and social." Her personal life was shown as equally dynamic. The many pin-ups she posed for (some of which I posted previously in this series) were meant to show "her ability to 'have it all' but [did] so by consciously constructing ironic pin-ups [to] underscore the fact that 'having it all' means 'doing it all' -- and, whether these actions are performed for the camera or in the workaday world, that such a woman's self-awareness and strategic agency is the key to both her success and her appeal."
Photoplay and other magazines encouraged their readers to emulate and admired Hollywood women in their boldness and healthy activity. Strong women would continue to be admired through the Great Depression and during World War II, when the term "pin-up" was coined... so for more about that, stop by on Friday!
Erotic Power & the Pin-Up - Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6
Racism in the Kansas City Area: 1900s - Present
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