March 20, 2000
Volume 52, No. 25
Sturtevant stars in course on Hollywood women
By Cathy Byrd
Think low-cut dresses, smoldering eyes and cinched waistsor, more explicitly, Joan Crawford, Marilyn Monroe and Mae West. Starlets and divas are the topic of discussion in Victoria Sturtevant's "Women and Film: Women in American Cinema," a new course that investigates ways in which Hollywood has represented women from the silent era to the present.
"Women and Film" is cross-listed as a film studies and women's studies course. Beyond examining the female stars' function in cinema, scholarship and society, the class will review how changing patterns of censorship have affected presentations of the female body on-screen. They will consider how popular film operates within popular culture. Finally, students will look at how issues of race, class and sexuality interact with operations of gender in popular cinema.
Discussions revolve around readings, student research journals and informal presentations as well as in-class screenings of iconic films. Watching Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face and Mae West's She Done Him Wrong from 1933, class participants will get an idea of early screen representations of women.
Two screenings are devoted to films that deal explicitly with race: Imitation of Life (1958) and The Color Purple (1985). Students will talk about the controversies that arose when each of those films came out. They will also focus on gender-bending comedy (Some Like It Hot (1959) and Tootsie (1982)) and look at the horror/slasher genre represented by films like Carrie (1976).
Sturtevant, a fifth-year graduate student in women's studies, is writing her dissertation on the autobiographies of female performers who worked under the Hollywood studio system from 1927 to 1955 and how those texts describe the labor practices of American film production.
One of the hottest topics in Sturtevant's course may be censorship. American films were not subject to First Amendment protection from 1915 to 1952, she explained.
"There were state censor boards that would cut films or block films entirely from being shown in their states," she said. "Hollywood producers, who saw the boards' effects on profit, developed internal controls to keep potentially 'censorable' material from being filmed. The majority of the debates on what should or should not be cut centered around the female body and female sexuality."
According to Sturtevant, censors would allow films that showed "fallen women" as long as the sin itself was more implied than stated, and as long as the woman was punished for her transgression. The logic behind these decisions indicates a genuine fear of the power of cinema to lead women astray. Reformers were afraid, especially during the Depression, that women in the audience would see the opulent lifestyles of the cinema heroines and look to sexuality as a means of financial gain.
"What I'm trying to do in this course is to teach students how to understand films in a historical context and how to treat them as part of an ongoing public debate about proper female behavior and sexuality," Sturtevant said. "What we choose to censor as a culture and a society really gets at the heart of what is taboo, what we fear and wish to contain."
Sturtevant believes that the female body is still the most prominent issue in public debates about nudity in cinema. "As the films we watch approach the modern era, we're going to discuss how these rules and laws change, and how movies retain some of this logic of 'punishment,' even without legal coercion," she said.