The absence of the physical body of the actor, and indeed, the relative unimportance of the spectator's own body, in the experience of film viewing should make cinema the perfect medium for the performance of diverse and free-floating gender identities, but the converse is more generally the case: the extent to which images of men and women are conventionalized in the cinema demonstrates the power of gender norms. Nevertheless, the history of cinematic representations of gender is characterized by tensions, contradictions, and change.
Between its invention in 1895 and the imposition of the Production Code in the early 1930s, American cinema was torn between the modern idea of the New Woman and the antimodern Cult of True Womanhood—a Victorian ideology that prescribed for women the four cardinal virtues of purity, piety, domesticity, and submission. In early cinema, before the stabilization of industry standards and norms and while cinema still lacked respectability, women on the screen were often active, sexual, and even feminist. Three types of movies were especially popular with women in the 1910s: serials such as The Perils of Pauline (1914), white slave films, and suffragist films. The possibility that these genres encouraged active, curious, militant female spec-tatorship was the cause of some social concern at the time, especially in the case of the white slave films. There was also concern that the movie theaters were drawing women into new and unsafe public spaces. Early cinema formed part of a modern urban cultural scene in which women's increased mobility was both cause and effect of changes in their social roles.
In later silent cinema, the dialectical tension between old and new model femininities can be most clearly seen in the contrasting stereotypes of the virgin, personified by stars like Mary Pickford (1893-1979) and Lillian Gish (1893-1993), and the vamp, most notoriously embodied by Theda Bara (1885-1955) and Clara Bow (19051965). D. W. Griffith (1875-1948), the director most prominently associated with the development of longer narrative films and with the effort to establish the cultural respectability of cinema, consciously drew on the theatrical and literary melodrama of the nineteenth century, in which heroines were virtuous, passive, and long-suffering. However, flapper films of the 1920s, such as The Dancing Mothers (1926) and It (1927), depicted and addressed the modern, active, independent women of the decade that began with their enfranchisement. The Hollywood liber-tarianism that made stars of Greta Garbo (1905-1990), Marlene Dietrich (1901-1992), and Mae West (18931980) and that created the new and violent masculinity of the gangster film seemed to have carried the day when, in the early 1930s, under pressure from the Legion of Decency, the Production Code came into force, installing sublimation and double standards at the heart of the Hollywood aesthetic.
The impact of historical events on gender roles often appears in indirect and mediated ways in Hollywood cinema. The Depression and the New Deal generated an ethos of selflessness that arguably informed maternal melodramas such as Stella Dallas (1937), although the film makes no explicit reference to the economics or ideology of the times. Many critics have noted the influence of World War II on gender roles in the woman's film and film noir, genres that have been said to participate
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