Hollywood women - part 1: icons

How iconic images of women in Film have developed since the advent of sound by Anna-Louise Felstead


As a child, I always admired the beautiful, glamorous female stars in old black and white movies and have been eager to understand more about them ever since. Watching movies from all ages, from the 1930s to the present made me realise how drastically the portrayal of women in film has changed over the last century. Then as now, female stars were marketed as highly glamourous sexual creatures who enraptured their audiences and were treated as role models by their public. But appearances and attitudes have changed. For whom were female icons created and what made them so enormously popular? The perception of women by men, both within society and within the film-making process, holds the key.

The 1930s was a period when film had a great influence on the world of beauty and fashion. It was a highly glamorous era where the dance-led pictures of Ginger Rogers (left) and Fred Astaire were a dominant box-office force. Fashion consisted of sumptuous clothes and witty hats. On 6 October 1927, sound came to the movies.

Mae West was the queen of the box office in the early 1930s, a time where 75% of films at that time dealt with sex and crime. There were mounting protests leading to statutory censorship (the Hays Code) to be introduced before World War II. The arrival of a young Shirley Temple (right) underscored the clean-up act which was to follow.

In the 1940s, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall were icons. Film historian John Ellis wrote that 'mass entertainment cinema of the classic period was able to offer narrative images which could specify audiences in two principle ways: through genre and through the star'.

The idea of audiences being specified 'through the star' is of course partly true today but was much more acute then. The appearance of the star and how they were portrayed was at least as important as the storyline for the majority of studio pictures at the time. And this applied to the women as much as to the men. Films helped cement the new concept of a total image for a woman, and until the war, the sense of fashion was more feminine and standardised. But WWII did arrest the growing trend towards glamour. Economies were forced on the clothing industry by the war office, but the look was to return at the end of the next decade. This was because clothing factories were taken over by the government to be used as places to make fire arms and womens' stockings were in short supply as all available silk was used to manufacture parachutes.

Up until WWII, there had been a huge divide between the classes. The wealthy upper classes had been a part of the hedonistic and racy 1920s and had great interest in dancing and changes in fashion. The Wall Street crash of 1929 made the divide between the rich and poor even wider. It was only the outbreak of war which narrowed the divide. All classes of people were thrown together during the war as rationing of food, materials and other everyday goods put everyone in a similar situation. The war was responsible for huge and radical changes in society's values. Women were expected to contribute to the war effort. They had only been given the vote in 1918 and had been seen as housewives or 'domestic servants' before the war who were bred to wash, cook and breed again. However, when men suddenly had to go out and fight, they left women to take over their jobs: there were women farm workers, factory workers, convoy drivers, riveters, muckrakers and so on. This sudden visible surge in the importance of women in helping to run the country gave them a large amount of independence. But when the war ended, men went back to their position of dominance and the status quo was restored.During WWII women learned more trades and skills and were, for the first time in their lives, truly stimulated. They became a more visible part of the nation's political body. Writer Antonia Lant observed that 'wartime demands-of rationing, conscription, and patriotism-required a new version of femininity, with which the glamorised Hollywood image of woman was incompatible.'

This new female independence was not accepted graciously by the majority of men. It led to anxiety over women's new place in society. Lant refers to remarks from the film Great Day (1945) such as: "No wonder the country's going to the dogs, with a pack of women running it." and "it's not like old times with all these flibbertigibbets about." Women had previously been known as the gentle sex and suddenly to be seen in jobs such as truck drivers caused confusion. But it should be noted that it wasn't just menial tasks that women performed. In Britain alone, several women made it up the ranks, with four being made generals. Not only had female appearances changed but changes in female experience challenged men's understanding of themselves, and their country.

Having been used for distributing propaganda during the war, films were also a wonderful source of escapism after the war. Between 1945 and 1950, 20 million people were going to the cinema in Britain a week. Formidable actresses such as Bette Davis (left) and Joan Crawford (right) starred in so-called 'woman's films' which were created for women showing them to have important roles which boosted the female morale.

Much of the passion in these films simmered under the surface of normal lives, but the middle and upper-class settings still gave the stars ample opportunity to be seen wearing high fashion clothes. The glamour in these films was important to the public in that it raised morale in times where so much was unavailable. A striking example of a film which traded heavily on glamour is Gilda (1946) starring the divine Rita Hayworth [second wife of Orson Welles - Ed].

In the 1950s, television became a lot more popular because it was free. By 1953, when nearly half of all American households had a TV set and the US attendance levels for the movies had sunk to half the 1946 figures. Rather like the British scene in the 1980s, small neighbourhood theatres closed and became supermarkets and bowling alleys.It was the creation of actresses like Marilyn Monroe that put glamour and interest back into the movies in the 1950s. These glitzy images sold. 'Representations of women became the commodities that film producers were able to exchange in return for money' (Annette Kuhn).

Contrary to some expectations, women in film did not graduate from 'dumb blondes' into Ellen Ripley. Mae West (right) was far from a passive 'dumb blonde'. She had a huge personality and revolutionized public acceptance of sexual matters with a constant stream of witty dialogue, innuendo and single-entendres, most of which she wrote herself.

West's screen work brought about an unparalleled transformation in the motion picture industry in terms of styles, sexuality and views of women in general. She regarded overt sexuality as completely healthy and natural and she exploited the vanities and hypocrisies surrounding the notoriety of sexuality. It has been said that Mae West was reminiscent of Aphrodite.

The fashion in the 1930s was big, buxom and blonde and that is exactly what West was. Her mature figure reassuringly suggested old-fashioned times when sex in women was a simpler proposition, less of a moral problem, more of a known quantity. In her own words: 'I'm my own original creation...I concentrate on myself most of the time; that's the only way a person can become a star in the true sense. I never wanted a love that meant surrender of my self-possession. I saw what it did to other people when they loved another person the way I loved myself, and I didn't want that problem. I had to stay in command of my career'. Not the words of a woman who feels exploited by the media.

Marilyn Monroe (left) was Mae West's successor in terms of iconic impact, but her style and public persona were almost the exact opposite of West's. Monroe began her career as a pin-up, selling herself as a sexual object from the very beginning of her career. But rather than the 'sassy blonde,' she was softer and sweeter which was very attractive to the men of this era who had recently returned from the war and who had, on return, been confronted with stronger minded, more independent women. Monroe was the ultimate American fluffy busty blonde who giggled and wiggled a lot which was just what men seemed to like. She was almost always portrayed as having very few brains and as being unable to make her own decisions in many of her films because her recurring role was to be looked at by a male audience. She was not seen as a threat to men as she was marketed as a sweet, gentle (though latently sexual) young woman. In some of her films such as Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! (1948), Love Happy (1950) and her iconic vehicle The Seven Year Itch (1955) she didn't even have a name and was referred to just as 'the Girl' in the credits. Monroe was often filmed in silhouette within the camera frame showing her curvaceous body side-on with both her breasts and bottom protruding from a clingy outfit. Her final role as an attractive divorcee woman (but not much else) in The Misfits (1961) (written for her by her then husband, Arthur Miller) was just another example of how she was cast as just something 'pretty' to be looked at. Women who wanted to be gazed upon approvingly by men had a role model in Monroe.

Iconoclastic American writer Norman Mailer captured her appeal: "Marilyn suggested sex might be difficult and dangerous with others, but ice cream with her." She was '...so curvaceous and yet without menace.' Monroe epitomised the objectification of women in post-war Hollywood output - whilst the woman inspires and provokes, the male character dominates.

Incidentally, Jayne Mansfield (right), a star created from and possessing of a similar appeal to Monroe was, like her predecessor, unnaturally blonde. She began dying her hair for it was her 'dumb blonde' image that made her a star. But Mansfield was in fact incredibly bright. She spoke five different languages and was a concert pianist and violinist. She knew, however that this would not make her famous. Mansfield knew exactly what men wanted and is quoted as saying 'Men want women pink, helpless and to do a lot of deep breathing.'

Inspired by the appearance of Sigourney Weaver (below right) in Alien (1979) and Aliens (1986) (bottom right), by the beginning of the 1990s a range of images of active heroines had begun to emerge, figures such as Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis in Ridley Scott's Thelma and Louise (1991)(below right), Linda Hamilton in a muscular reprise of her role as Sarah Conner in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1992) and Jodie Foster as aspiring FBI agent Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). These characters began to sketch out a different set of roles and new narrative possibilities for women in the Hollywood action cinema so that 'heroine' no longer necessarily signifies passivity. These female action heroes were, as Yvonne Tasker put it, 'defined by a quality of "musculinity" and enactment of a muscular masculinity involving a display of power and strength over the body of the female performer.'

Ridley Scott's Thelma and Louise was compared with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) in that they are both 'buddy-romance adventure stories of outlaws on the run, and both end with the fugatives' deaths,' the difference being that the fugitives in Thelma and Louise are female, something that had not been seen before.

Thelma and Louise is also a fine illustration of the concept of the 'innocent versus the knowing', which is of particular significance to the treatment of women in film. Geena Davis is the innocent woman who is very nearly raped by a man she meets at a bar. Susan Sarandon is the knowing woman whom we know has had such an intrusion in her life, for as the film progresses we learn that she was once a rape victim in Texas.

Thelma & Louise's director Ridley Scott seems to have something of a fascination for portraying strong female characters in his films. GI Jane and Blade Runner contain obvious examples but it was Scott's Alien (1979) which went the furthest in that it usurped the last bastion of screen machismo, making its female lead the action star.

The character of Ripley counters her innate vulnerability by going on the offensive and emerges victorious. The importance of Alien to the way women are portrayed in film today cannot be overstated. Whilst women may not always want to be shown doing a man's job, post-Ripley there was nothing Hollywood women couldn't do.

©Anna-Louise Felstead 2004


Recommended Reading: John Ellis - Visible Fictions: Cinema, Television, Video; Richard Dyer - Heavenly Bodies; Anette Kuhn - The Power of the Image, Living dolls and 'Real Women'; Yvonne Tasker - Spectacular Bodies, Working Girls, Women Warriors, Women and Film; E Ann Kaplan - Is The Gaze Male?; Laura Mulvey - Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.      Photo of Sigourney Weaver ©Annie Liebovitz      Now read Part 2: The Male Gaze