blogopener copyThis month, TCM spotlights “Trailblazing Women–Actresses Who Made a Difference,” a series of movies featuring female stars who contributed to the industry, culture, and society. The series covers all eras of movie history, from Mary Pickford, who was an industry powerhouse in the silent days, to Jane Fonda and Cicely Tyson, who were activists off the screen in 1970s and 1980s. The program is the second part of a three-year effort in partnership with Women in Film (WIF) in which TCM devotes October to championing the achievements of women in Hollywood

TCM viewers who are enjoying “Trailblazing Women” should check out the new, third edition of From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies by film historian Molly Haskell. Haskell, who sometimes cohosts on TCM, covers the silent era to the late 20th century, the same time frame as “Trailblazing Women.” While there is some overlap between the series and the book, Haskell’s focus is on the image of women in the movies, the stars who embodied these images, and the relationship of these images to women in society.



Long ago, when I was in film school, I was introduced to feminist film theory, particularly the work of Laura Mulvey, who innovated the concept of the male gaze, or the visual objectification of women in the eye of the male beholder. I was conflicted by the work of Mulvey, and the first generation of feminist film critics who followed her lead, because they didn’t seem to like the movies. In class, we were required to look critically at classic Hollywood movies for their conservative ideology and patriarchal perspective, with the unspoken assumption that we would ultimately reject the films from the Golden Age. The problem was that the grad students in my circle were all diehard movie-lovers. We spent endless evenings at the Varsity repertory theater watching double features of old movies. We regularly attended the college film series on the weekends and went to contemporary films at least once a week. As a young woman, I felt I should embrace a feminist perspective on films, but I was a cinephile first. Movies came before politics, religion, or boyfriends–always.



When I first read  From Reverence to Rape, I was relieved that Molly Haskell also admitted movies were her “first allegiance,” and that the theory of the male gaze “seemed too monolithic, a narrow one-way street, allowing no room for the pleasure women take in looking and being seen.” Without discrediting earlier feminist writings, Haskell expanded perspectives and enlightened readers not only because she loved the movies but also because she knew cinema history. In discussing Rosalind Russell’s complex star image as a professional woman, she compliments the actress on her perfect comic timing; in evaluating Gloria Swanson, she dispels the star’s image from Sunset Boulevard by reminding readers of Swanson’s silent-era comedies in which she played “goofy” and “dippy” characters. She details a Swanson silent called Stage Struck that I was lucky enough to see, even though the comedy is rarely mentioned by historians or scholars. She freely uses terms such as “sexpots” and “nice girls,” which reveals her down-to-earth writing style. Somehow, I can’t imagine Laura Mulvey discussing comic timing, or using the word “sexpot.”



With her approach, Haskell reclaims classic films and female stars, explaining their meaning and appeal for women. But, she is no apologist for an industry that has excluded women from behind the camera, tried to pigeon-hole women characters as wives and mothers, shaped female archetypes that reflect male fears and desires, and turned on actresses who defied male standards of beauty and femaleness. After the female-friendly silent era, in which many women were able to produce, write, and even direct films, Hollywood yanked women from behind the camera during the 1930s. Haskell explains that despite this, female stars such as Mae West, Katharine Hepburn, Barbara Stanwyck, and Marlene Dietrich offered more than just glamour and fashion to women viewers. The confidence, grit, and powerful screen presence of these stars went beyond the limitations of their characters, creating subtext in their roles not found in the pages of the scripts.



Haskell’s analysis of  West,  Hepburn, Stanwyck, and Dietrich not only clarifies their appeal but also amplifies how significant the star system was during the Golden Age. Beyond the feminist perspective of From Reverence to Rape the description and elucidation of the star system, particularly the way star image served as a storytelling system for defining character, is very enlightening. The star system has disintegrated in contemporary Hollywood, because the studios are run by corporate hacks, and young actors dismiss or misunderstand the idea behind star image. It is important that film historians and critics chronicle the Hollywood star system of the silent era and the Golden Age so that younger viewers can appreciate and understand why the legendary stars of those periods remain so potent in meaning.

The most sobering part of Haskell’s original text, first published in 1974, is the way that it chronicled the beginning of the marginalization of female characters in Hollywood films. The gender divide began with the breakdown of the studio system and star system in the early 1960s. By the early 1970s, the Film School Generation’s preference for anti-heroes and unheroic protagonists led to a “separation of the sexes more radical than at any previous point in our history.” In the 1987 edition of the book, Haskell expands on her perspective, describing the depiction of women as fragmented and schizoid. As critic Manohla Dargis observes in her astute foreward to this edition, the separation of sexes is now complete. The vast majority of Hollywood films, which are aimed primarily at male youths, are divided into comic book adventures, cop or crime stories, and comedy bro-mances for male audiences, while female viewers are treated to “chick flicks,” a term that belittles female-centric movies and positions them outside the mainstream.

I know the third edition of From Reverence to Rape, which was published this month, will appeal to Morlocks readers, who are among the most articulate and informed cinephiles I know. It has always been an inspiration and pleasure to engage in discussion and debate with my readers.


Posted By Lyndell : October 17, 2016 4:07 pm

So looking forward to reading this book. I have not seen the earlier editions. In more lay language than that you use to describe women in film, I have been collecting what I call “strong women” films for years. I’m always pointing out to anyone who will listen that some of the strongest women in the world were/are what we traditionally called housewives or their surrogates (“Emma”). And then there are the aviators, etc. How I wish I could take some of your classes in Florida. I long for these discussions. Thank you for bringing this topic and book to our attention.

Posted By Geedubya : October 17, 2016 5:22 pm

Great post. If only every blogger on this site delivered quality work like this.

Posted By Suzi : October 17, 2016 6:17 pm

Geedubya and Lyndell: Thank you so much for your kind words. You made my week.

Posted By swac44 : October 17, 2016 6:33 pm

Weird, in my email I got a link to this post, but it was on a different blog, and without the above comments. Must be some bugs getting worked out.

I’ll repost what I posted there:

I’d be very interested to read Haskell’s book, and see how we went from a 1930s film universe where Glenda Farrell and Joan Blondell could go toe-to-toe with James Cagney and Lee Tracy, to the ’70s, where even progressive films sidelined women to marginal roles (thank heaven for a handful of major films like Network and Nashville).

Posted By EricJ : October 17, 2016 7:45 pm

“while female viewers are treated to “chick flicks,” a term that belittles female-centric movies and positions them outside the mainstream”

I’m sorry, is Haskell suggesting that -male- studio execs are “forcing” chick-flicks upon their audience, as the opiate of the demographic?
As if somewhere there was a producer who had Nora Ephron chained up and whipping her, saying “You’ll finish ‘You’ve Got Mail’ by next Friday or else!”?

This is the reason Women in Hollywood keep ASKING why there aren’t more female directors, like they honestly don’t know.

Posted By Emgee : October 17, 2016 8:13 pm


Hollywood was more concerned about the fact that a lot of her movies in the 30′s lost money. She more than made up for that after The Philadelphia Story, and Hollywood was more than happy with Hepburn.

Posted By George : October 17, 2016 9:32 pm

I read the ’74 edition when I was in college. As a young guy of about 20, I’d never given much thought to Hollywood’s treatment of women. It opened my eyes.

Another eye-opener: Seeing the feisty heroines of the silent era and the ’30s, and wondering why we don’t see women like that in movies anymore. And wondering what happened to all those female directors of the ’20s. Why did their careers end when sound came in? Why is a female protagonist in a superhero movie considered a huge financial risk, when silent serials routinely featured women in action roles?

A lot is riding on next year’s Wonder Woman movie. If it flops, that will probably be it for super women in movies for another decade. Whereas when a male-centered superhero movie is a box-office disappointment (Amazing Spider-Man 2), the franchise is just rebooted with a new cast (next year’s Spider-Man movie).

Posted By hashiell dimmitt : October 17, 2016 10:25 pm

I have to agree with Haskell that the current era is in many ways the worst of all … Nothing astounds me more than people who praise films like “Bridesmaids” & “Trainwreck” on the premise that there’s something admirable about women being “equally” nasty and vulgar …

Geedubya, I’ve long admired suzidoll’s work here — but I certainly haven’t noticed any problems with the posts of any of the other morlocks — so I’m not quite sure what it is that you’re attempting to imply …

Posted By George : October 17, 2016 10:36 pm

From the misogynist crud they post online, I guess today’s fanboys would object to a woman rescuing a man in a movie. Nobody seemed to object in 1917.

Posted By Doug : October 17, 2016 11:12 pm

Emgee writ:” She more than made up for that after The Philadelphia Story, and Hollywood was more than happy with Hepburn.”
This sparked a question for me-in all of the history of cinema…who has sold more tickets?
Men or Women?
Who has put more posteriors in seats?
I would think that in general, women have sold more tickets than men. Why?
Because men AND women appreciate beauty, while only women (speaking in general terms) appreciate handsome men. Movies are a visual art, so physical attractiveness counts for quite a bit.
BUT…for me, the most attractive women in film, IF THEY CANNOT ACT, will cause me to pass on watching their films.
From the stars mentioned above, two of my favorites are Katharine Hepburn and Rosalind Russell. They are pretty, attractive…but what attracts me is their skill, their acting ability.
Right now, one of the current stars is Amy Adams. She’s somewhat pretty, but after seeing her in “Doubt” and “American Hustle” what draws me to watch more of her movies is her acting ability.

Posted By George : October 18, 2016 2:29 am

The nadir for women’s roles may have been in one of Hollywood’s best eras, the early to mid 1970s. During the “buddy movie” era, it seemed the only roles for women were as hookers or one-night stands, easily discarded by the male heroes. Of course, it wasn’t as simple as that … but that sure was how it seemed at the time.

Doug, there’s a general consensus that most of the big stars were female from the silent era until the 1960s. Hollywood stopped making “women’s movies” (which were usually romantic melodramas with divas such as Turner, Stanwyck or Davis) as women began going into the work force in large numbers. They were no longer free to attend matinees of those movies.

From the early ’70s on, the list of top 10 box-office stars (which theater owners put together each year) has usually had eight or nine men, and one or two women.

Posted By George : October 18, 2016 2:52 am

Here are the top 10 box office stars for each year from 1932 to 2013 (the Quigley poll of exhibitors). They apparently stopped doing it after 2013.

In 1932, five of the 10 were female, and the top three (Dressler, Gaynor and Crawford) were women. In 1933, six were women.

The 2013 poll had three women: Jennifer Lawrence (No. 1), Sandra Bullock (No. 2), and Melissa McCarthy (No. 10).

The top female star of all time — based on the number of times she made the list — is Barbra Streisand. But 13 men made the list more times than she did.

Posted By Susan Doll : October 18, 2016 3:35 am

George: You are always a font of information and a terrific addition to any conversation.

Posted By EricJ : October 18, 2016 4:39 am

“Why is a female protagonist in a superhero movie considered a huge financial risk, when silent serials routinely featured women in action roles?”

Because of the general fear of a floating sense of obnoxiousness–
Females tend to see things more in symbolic terms: If a male hero saves the day, he may swagger a bit, but he doesn’t say “Yes! Another victory for the MALE SPECIES!” He just saved whatever needs saving because somebody had to.
(It’s the same reason that Hillary Clinton seems to be getting such grudging votes even from her own male democrats, who are frustrated in they can’t seem to get the message across that they would rather vote for A president than “a female president”, and prefer to discuss the issues over some symbolic stunt of “making history”.)

Now me, I’d always liked Wonder Woman because she was one of the few non-messed-up DC heroes (those who sat through Batman v. Superman will know painfully what I mean), and Captain Marvel (the upcoming Marvel heroine) because she was smart and competent.
But then, that’s probably because I’m a guy, and naturally brain-wired to look at the cold whats and whys of a situation rather than tend to try and attach it to some larger symbolism I can hide my own identity behind.

Posted By Emgee : October 18, 2016 8:51 am

Barbra Streisand top female star of all time? My guess is they included the money she made from her records and concerts. I can’t remember people queuing up for a Streisand movie.

If enough people want to see movies with strong, independent female protagonists, they will get made. It´s all about the bottom line.

Posted By swac44 : October 18, 2016 12:12 pm

My memory of Streisand as a kid was that she was huge at the box office in the 1970s. Funny Girl/Lady, What’s Up Doc, The Way We Were, A Star Is Born, The Main Event, all seemed to be a pretty big deal. Yentl, which she also directed and co-wrote was also a big international hit, and I’m hard pressed to think of a female actor of the decade with the same track record (despite a few duds like On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and Up the Sandbox). Jane Fonda is probably the only one who comes close.

Posted By Emgee : October 18, 2016 1:30 pm

Guess i spoke too soon; i must have based my opinion on the movies she made after Yentl. I had the impression they didn’t do so well but i might even be wrong about that. It happens.

Looking a that list it’s remarkable, to say the least how few women are on it. Assuming women went as often, if not more, to the cinema as men, what does that say about their preferences?
Did they rather go to see John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, to name the top 2 earners, than any actress? Davis and Crawford, often seen as making typical “women’s movies” are not even on the list.

Posted By swac44 : October 18, 2016 2:19 pm

Yeah, Yentl is pretty much the turning point for Streisand’s career, after which movies became less important.

Looking at the list of Academy Award best actress nominees from the 1970s, you see a lot of solid work from people like Glenda Jackson, Marsha Mason, Ellen Burstyn, Louise Fletcher, Gena Rowlands, Liv Ullmann, Jane Fonda and Faye Dunaway, but (perhaps aside from those last three) it feels like four decades later they rarely get accorded with the same kind of “iconic” status as their male counterparts.

Posted By Flora : October 18, 2016 5:00 pm

I was sent a link to this blog, but it was not said to be from Movie Morlocks. It was said to be from Streamline.

Thanks for the indepth look into the book.

Posted By swac44 : October 18, 2016 5:55 pm

Flora: I hear there are a bunch of new changes coming to TCM’s online presence in November, FilmStruck/Streamline (involving their new streaming service) is part of that. Curious to see what transpires!

Posted By kingrat : October 18, 2016 11:01 pm

Susan, thank you for another fine article. I’ve always been deeply suspicious of theorizers who don’t seem to understand or appreciate the genre of art they are theorizing about.

About that “male gaze”: what would we think of someone who wrote about “the Asian gaze,” or what if a 1950s segregationist had written about “the Negro gaze”? Degas is one of the painters attacked by the “male gaze” crowd, and his magnificent painting of a woman ironing is one of the few paintings which empathizes with a woman doing hard physical labor.

Although there isn’t much in it about film, a wonderful book which discusses theoretical matters about various art forms is Susanne Langer’s FEELING AND FORM, which proceeds from a deep appreciation of the particular art form to broader theoretical considerations. Langer is especially great about music and dance, but she understands art and literature as well.

Molly Haskell’s deep love of movies comes through in all of her writing.

Posted By “La Otra” : October 19, 2016 6:35 pm

I have always had a copy of Molly Haskell’s book in my library, since 1975! I consider it a core text for those of us who cherish film and never tire of learning about its history. Glad to know there’s a new edition. Always have enjoyed Ms. Haskell’s comments on TCM.
I especially appreciate her comments on silent films. I saw a Dick Cavett show rerun with Gloria Swanson recently.She was supremely witty, beautiful and enthrallingly glamorous. She outshone Margot Kidder and even Janis Joplin, the other female guests.

Posted By George : October 20, 2016 8:01 pm

Barbra Streisand was a HUGE movie star from the late ’60s to the early ’80s, i.e. from Funny Girl to Yentl. She and Jane Fonda were virtually the only actresses considered box-office draws in the ’70s. (There was a brief vogue for Jill Clayburgh in the late ’70s.)

After Yentl (a passion project), Streisand has focused more on recordings and concerts and political activism, and made only occasional films.

Posted By George : October 20, 2016 8:03 pm

“I hear there are a bunch of new changes coming to TCM’s online presence in November”

I posted a link to a Vox article at another thread (“The Scary Thought of Being Movied Out”) which mentions that TCM is beginning a transition from “a TV channel to a lifestyle brand.”

Posted By George : October 20, 2016 8:31 pm

“Did they rather go to see John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, to name the top 2 earners, than any actress? Davis and Crawford, often seen as making typical “women’s movies” are not even on the list.”

This may be due to the fact that women tend to have shorter careers as stars than men. Eastwood and Wayne could go on playing their basic characters into old age, but actresses are expected to recede into the background and play mothers (after 30) and grandmothers (after 40).

See Rosanna Arquette’s documentary, Searching for Debra Winger, for more on this.

The actresses who remain stars for more than a couple of decades — the Crawfords, Stanwycks, Streeps and Kate Hepburns — become legends. Because there are so few of them.

Posted By Sue Sue Applegate : October 20, 2016 9:58 pm

Great, Suzi! I’m sharing this article. Thanks for highlighting Molly’s book during our October of Trailblazing Women.
Sue Sue

Posted By Emgee : October 21, 2016 9:32 am

“women tend to have shorter careers as stars than men.”That is certainly true in Hollywood, but doens’t quite xplain why there are so few women as top box office star of any given year. Even when they were at their career peak famous actresses were rarely number one, if the list is accurate.

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